Posts Tagged ‘RATW’

Monique and the Mango Rains – Book Review

May 20, 2008

Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway

In 1989 Kris Halloway became a member of the Peace Corps and was sent to Mali in Africa. She went to help people, and immerse herself in another culture. She went and came back changed. Other than perhaps the fellow Peace Corps volunteer who would one day become her husband, the person who had the greatest impact on Kris’ time in Mali was Monique Dembele, Kris’ host and the village midwife. Monique had a love for life, good humor, and a friendly, comforting demeanor.

According to my contact at Literary Ventures Fund, Kris originally published her book through a textbook company that sold only directly to professors through a mail order catalog, a company that had no connection to major bookstores. Thank goodness that Literary Ventures Fund got involved! It would have been a shame if this book hadn’t been released to a wider audience.

This book is valuable for a number of reasons. First, it describes in a very straight-forward way the lives of these people in this small village in Mali. Although Kris occasionally pushes back against parts of the culture she disagrees with (female circumcision, for one), this is done in a decidedly un-paternalistic way. Second, the book is, quite simply, wonderfully written. The words flow beautifully, and the emotions are real and completely accessible to the reader.

I picked this book up Friday morning while I was on the train on my way to the airport. While I was reading nothing else existed for me but this village and these people: not the people on the train talking on their cell phones, not crying children at the airport, not airline announcements, nothing. Thank goodness I finished before my flight was announced! I will give this book the highest praise I can: even though I read it a mere 5 days ago, I’ve already bought another copy and given it as a gift.

Buy This Book on Amazon: Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali

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The Last Queen – Book Review

April 25, 2008

The Last Queen: A Novel
C.W. Gortner
Ballantine Books
ISBN 978-0-345-50184-4, $25.00, Tentative Release date July 29, 2008
Reviewed by Jen Cardwell for Reader Views 04/08

Juana La Loca
4.5 StarsThe Last Queen cover

C.W. Gortner’s “The Last Queen: A Novel” has all of the hallmarks of the typical historical fiction novel that is so popular today. Juana is a passionate woman who strongly desires her husband; she is a strong woman who is furious – and shows it – when her husband is unfaithful to her; she is a politically savvy woman; she is thwarted by the men around her at every turn; she is deeply maternal and, in opposition to the culture of the day and in the shock and dismay of all those around her, chooses to nurse at least some of her children herself. Change the name, “Anne, Mary, Catherine, etc.” and you could be talking about the main character in the vast majority of historical fiction about women written today, women written to appeal to the modern sensibilities of their readers.

Although Gortner follows all of the formulas, he managed to avoid making this book formulaic. The story of Juana of Castile is a very dramatic and tragic one: Juana is married against her will to the heir of the Hapsburg empire. She loves him dearly at the beginning of their marriage, but as political circumstances between her husband and her parents deteriorate, so does their relationship. Her husband is an ambitious man and is determined to be named heir to her parents’ Spanish empire. Gortner let the story stand on its own merit and did not attempt, as so many historical novelists do, to imbue an already dramatic story with melodrama.

Normally when reviewing historical fiction, I feel it is possible to give more of the plot without worrying about spoilers, so long as the plot follows historical events. However, Juana of Castile, also known as Juana la Loca is quite an under-studied historical figure, and her story will be unknown to many people. Suffice as to say that Gorton tells Juana’s story in such a riveting way that I could scarcely put the book down to eat, sleep, and work. The only reason it fell short of the 5 star mark is because he indulges in the love scenes so prevalent, and in my opinion so unnecessary, in current historical fiction. But for that this book would have been nearly perfect. I very strongly recommend “The Last Queen” to anyone with an interest in historical fiction, you will not be disappointed.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Last Queen: A Novel

Venetian Mask – Book Review

April 16, 2008

Venetian Mask cover LT Early Reviewer Badge The Venetian Mask was my March Early Reviewer book from LibraryThing. The book, originally published in the early 1990s, has been reprinted and rereleased by Three Rivers Press.

This is the story of Marietta and Elena, two orphaned girls who meet at the Ospedale della Pieta, essentially a Venetian orphanage/music school. Circumstance finds the girls in their 20s and married Venice’s version of the Montagues and the Capulets: the Ceranos and the Torrisis, between whom was vendetta.

Perhaps the best developed characters in the novel were the Pieta and late 18th-century Venice. The Pieta was strict and watchful, but also kind in offering its girls a home and a future. Venice was just the opposite: secretive and debauched, violent, corrupt, and ruthless. Yet Venice was also alluring, freeing, and very attractive to the girls shut away in the strictures of the Pieta.

Unfortunately, Marietta and Elena, not to mention their friends Adrianna and Bianca, were not nearly as well developed as the Pieta and Venice. They are relatively shallow characters with valid but not complex motives for their actions.

To me, the most enjoyable part of the story was not the oft-mindless plot, but the glimpses of life in 18th-century Venice. For example, I had never heard of the completely different sort of orphanage that was the Pieta, nor did I know about the placing of denunciations in the Lion’s Mouth. Also quite interesting was the culture of mask wearing and secrecy of Venice. Lastly I learned of the significance to Venice of the Napoleonic Wars, which I did not previous know.

The storyline of this book is not fantastic, but it does seem that Ms. Laker did her research into the life and culture of Venice and, for that, the book was enjoyable.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Venetian Mask: A Novel

The Zookeeper’s Wife – Book Review

March 31, 2008

Zookeeper's Wife coverTwo of my coworkers are reading Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife for their book club this week and they asked me if I had seen or read it before.  Since I had not, I looked it up and was fairly intrigued.  One of the ladies who was to read it for book club received her copy from the library earlier than she expected she would and let me take it for the weekend, as she was busy reading Three Cups of Tea.

The Zookeeper’s Wife takes place in Warsaw, Poland immediately before and during WWII.  This true story is told from the point of view of, if you could not guess, the wife of the keeper of the Warsaw zoo.  Her husband, Jan, is very involved in the Polish Underground, the resistance against the Nazis, and they hide Jews in their villa at the zoo to smuggle them out of the ghetto and to freedom.  People are hidden in rooms and closets in their house, as well as in some of the deserted animal cages (many animals were taken or killed by the Nazis, and some escaped when cages were damaged in bombings).

The narrative flow of this book strongly reminded me of Devil in the White City: Ackerman jutted off into quite a few side-stories about people, culture, and events surrounding the story just as Larson did.  However, while Larson’s occasionally diverted me from the actual story and had a tendency to get a bit dry, Ackerman used this technique more to explain some of the back story of what was going on in order to enrich the main story.

I felt that this book gave a very full picture of what was happening in and around Warsaw during the Nazi invasion and really helped the reader connect to the events by telling the story through a colorful and heroic family.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story

News of a Kidnapping – Book Review

March 30, 2008

News of a Kidnapping book coverNews of a Kidnapping is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s true account of the kidnapping of 10 people in 1990 during a standoff in Colombia between the government and the drug trader Pablo Escobar. Marquez wrote this book at the behest of one of the captives and her husband.

I had a very difficult time getting into this book and nearly gave it up half way through. I was not really intrigued until about page 130 or so of the 290 page book. My problem was twofold: first of all, the journalistic style made this story very dispassionate, which was difficult for a story of kidnappings. I never felt that I knew any of the people involved in the story, and I didn’t particularly care about or for them, not because they were bad people or unsympathetic, just because there was little to no emotion expressed in the writing. Secondly, this book was decidedly written for a South American, if not solely Colombian, audience. I say this because names of prominent Colombians and Colombian politicians are thrown about with the expectation that you will know exactly who they are. This isn’t necessarily a failing on the part of the author, it tells me that the book was written more to explain and heal? remember? the kidnappings within the country than to tell the story of the kidnappings to a wider audience. This book is for people who followed the kidnappings as they happened and want to know the details.

This is not a bad book by any means, but unless you followed or have studied the kidnappings in Colombia in 1990 or are familiar with Colombian politicians in 1990, this is probably not the Gabriel Garcia Marquez book for you.

Buy this book on Amazon: News of a Kidnapping (Vintage International)

Sacred History of Britain – Book Review

March 28, 2008

Sacred History of Britain CoverI found The Sacred History of Britain by Martin Palmer on the discount table at Half Price Books for $5. Sometimes there is a good reason that books are on the discount table, but I decided to give it a chance anyway. Religion? British history? A bargain? Count me in!

I am very glad that I gave this book a chance, as it was quite intriguing. In all seriousness, it was a very interesting book. As the title perhaps implies, Palmer traces the idea of the ‘sacred’ from British prehistory, by use of archeology through the advent of Christianity in the isles up to the present day panoply of religions in Britain (including the profusion of Christian sects).

I really appreciated Palmer’s evenhandedness on this subject. He is a Christian, I would guess an Anglican from the work, and he sets out that fact from the beginning of the book so that you can be aware of any possible bias. He was more than willing, however, to be candid about issues the church has had with corruption, etc. He seemed to try very hard to divorce his personal emotions regarding the church from this work. He was almost poetic about some of his experiences with sacred places in Britain, yet he de-romanticized everything from pre-historic religion to the Reformation.

Palmer is a great writer who kept the history interesting and kept the pace of the book moving. I would recommend this to anyone who has an interest either in the history of religion or in the history of Britain. Secular history buffs won’t feel preached at and should enjoy a different perspective on British history.

Buy this book on Amazon:The Sacred History of Britain: Landscape, Myth & Power:The Forces That Have Shaped Britain’s Spirituality

Memoirs of Cleopatra – Book Review

March 26, 2008

Memoirs of CleopatraMargaret George’s “Memoirs of Cleopatra” begins with the young princess Cleopatra‘s memory of General Pompey coming to Egypt and her role in charming him with her wit and personality in order to help her father keep his kingdom and of course tells her story up through her infamous death.

I feel like I did not give this book the attention it needed. Due to my large stack of TBR books (all still sitting in the bathroom, waiting for the bookshelves to go back, by the way), I just didn’t have patience for a 950 page book. I see that I had read 250 pages, and then be annoyed that it barely seemed like I had gotten anywhere.

That being said, I don’t think that the book seemed as if it were long just for the sake of being long, I don’t think that there was much in the story that was superfluous. George is a great author, and I felt that I could experience what the characters were experiencing. What I didn’t expect was the fact that I did not feel that I became Cleopatra’s partisan. I understood her motivations and didn’t think them ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ but I also understood the motivations of Octavian and others who were her ‘enemies’. Sure, I tended to think that Octavian was more ‘bad’ than Cleopatra, but I did not feel that he was really being vilified. Surely that is a gift, to write relatively sympathetically an historical character and yet not demonize her opponents. I really just got the impression that, for the most part, people were acting as they felt they needed to do for the good of their countries and their families.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me, though, was the afterward, explaining what in the book was historical and what was not. I wish more historical fiction did this. I found it fascinating how much of her story that most of us know as written by renowned Roman poets and writers was written by men who were indeed her enemies.

I will give this book the highest praise I can give historical fiction: it made me want to go and read more about all of the characters involved, including perhaps from some primary sources.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Memoirs of Cleopatra: A Novel

Queens of England – Book Review

March 14, 2008

Queens of England coverQueens of England by Norah Lofts is a comprehensive overview of every Queen of England beginning with the wife of William the Conqueror and going through Queen Elizabeth II. It was a remarkably easy read, considering it comprises about 900 years of English royal history. It was also a very engaging read, I learned about many queens I had never heard of, the wives of many kings I had never heard of.

The book, however, definitely had an agenda. While it didn’t ruin the book for me, it definitely dampened my enthusiasm for the the work a little. When I noticed the chapters on each queen start to get much longer shortly before the reign of Queen Victoria (as many pages on Caroline of Brunswick as Elizabeth Tudor? And as many on Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as Mary Tudor? Really?), I thought that I detected a 19th and 20th century bias. By the time I reached Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Queen Elizabeth II, I realized that a ‘recent history bias’ wasn’t quite what the issue was. The book actually seems to have been written as an apologetic for the modern institution of the monarchy, to establish the long history of English royalty and in doing so argue for its continuation in the person of Queen Elizabeth II.

Lofts directly addressed some specific criticisms against the Queen and in fact attacked what she referred to as the “Age of Criticism.” This aspect of the book made the last two chapters my two least favorite of the book. The book had some other issues as well.

First, Lofts definitely assumed a fair degree of prior knowledge with British history, she would make off-hand comments referring to other events or the fates of the princes and princesses who were the progeny of whatever queen was currently being discussed. As the book was clearly written for a British audience (to whom else would she need to defend the continuation of the monarchy?), perhaps that was actually a fairly safe assumption and, while I was often confused, the nonchalant references sometimes made me simply want to know more about the subjects.

Second, there seemed to be some significant editing errors. There were absolutely sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, of which I could not make heads or tails no matter how many times I tried. Often these sentences or paragraphs seemed to be flatly contradictory, so I would generally just skip them and read on.

Lastly, I simply wanted more information about many of these women! Some had as little as two pages, including a picture.
However, even with these problems, Queens of England is a book I would recommend to anyone with an interest in royalty, the history of England, or just of the lives of women throughout history.

Buy this book on Amazon: Queens of England

The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur – Book Review

March 12, 2008

The Translator coverI was lucky enough to receive a copy of The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur by Daoud Hari from someone who received it as an Early Reviewer and passed it along to me:

This was a very poignant memoir of a very important issue. Daoud is a Zaghawa tribesman from Darfur. After being educated, he leaves the country to find work and make money to send home to his family. Daoud returns home to Darfur in the midst of the genocide to check on his family. Shortly after he arrives, their village is attacked and everyone who survives is forced to flee for the border with Chad. It is in the refugee camps in Chad that Daoud finds his role in fighting the genocide: as a speaker of Zaghawa, Arabic, and English, Daoud is able to act as a translator first for UN and aid workers serving the refugees and later for reporters going into Sudan to report on the genocide first hand. While describing his experiences, Daoud is quite good about explaining the history of the conflict and of the region as a whole in a very understandable way.

Daoud Hari’s voice is supremely evident in this memoir. As I was reading I felt that I was sitting in front of him, listening to him tell me about what he had seen and experienced. I was actually glad only to be reading the account, not hearing it personally; there was so much pain and hardship in the words that I know I could never bear to hear those words with an emotional voice behind them. The story comes out both with a freshing straight-forwardness as well as with elegant use of foreshadowing and building the narrative, it is really beautifully told. This book should be purchased and then passed on to as many people as you can get to read it so that more people can actually feel what is happening in Darfur, instead of just hearing about it in a detached manner.

Buy this book on Amazon: The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur

Victoria Victorious – Book Review

March 11, 2008

Victoria Victorious cover“Victoria Victorious” is one of the the longer of the Jean Plaidy books I have read. Now, this makes some sense as Queen Victoria is still the English monarch with the longest reign. However, the length, composition, and flow of the novel reminded me greatly of “Queen of This Realm,” Plaidy’s novel of Queen Elizabeth.

Indeed, Victoria herself seems to be inviting a comparison between her life and reign and that of Queen Elizabeth I. There is a scene near the beginning of the novel where Victoria is young and is playing with her dolls. One of her dolls is a doll of Elizabeth I and Victoria shows a strong amount of disdain and dislike for her, calling her “that doll” or “that Queen.” The emotion seems to be one almost of fear, fear that Victoria cannot live up to Elizabeth, that she can never be as great as Elizabeth. I know very little about Queen Victoria other than what Plaidy presents, but as far as Plaidy’s writings on both queens, it seems Victoria’s fears came true.

There are two things that stand out about Queen Elizabeth, particularly in Plaidy’s “Queen of This Realm”: the first thing is that, above all, Elizabeth is determined to keep the love of her people; the second is that she shall be King as well as Queen and will be ruled by no man. These political determinations of Elizabeth’s serve her well and keep her crown relatively safe on her head. Victoria’s crown seems to be safe only because by that point in British history, the monarch has become largely a figurehead and few outside figures care to challenge her right.

By no means did Victoria keep the love of her people. She had, I believe, 7 assassination attempts, although evidently not all of them were in earnest. Nor did she seem to care to keep the people’s love. Whenever they turned against her, Victoria turned back against them, railing about their stupidity and willingness to be led. Actually, it seemed that it was Victoria who was willing to be led…

I had high hopes for the Queen when I was reading about the girl. When she was younger, Victoria seemed able to stand up for herself and what she thought right, most tellingly to her mother and her mother’s…whatever he was…John Conyer. Once she is Queen, however, Victoria seems to simply float merrily on behind whatever man has earned her trust, be it Lord Melbourne, Benjamin Disraeli, or Prince Consort Albert.

Honestly, this was probably my least favorite of all of Plaidy’s books I have read. However, I do not think that this was necessarily because of failings on her part. First of all, it may be possible that I simply prefer to read historical fiction with a greater historical distance from the present, I constantly found myself trying to figure out the lineage to the current British royals, and perhaps that simply is not as interesting to me. Second of all, the events in Victoria’s queenship seem to come out from nowhere and disappear back to nowhere; however, this seems to be more of a function of her not having a particularly good head for politics, nor being particularly interested in it, at least as Plaidy writes her. Third, I fairly disliked both Victoria and Albert, as well as many of the people around them. Unlike regular fiction, where it is not typically well received to write thoroughly unlikeable characters, historical fiction is trying to convey the lives of real people, many of whom are quite unlikeable. It may simply be that Plaidy found Victoria unlikeable and wrote her thus, without simply giving in to the rumors about her.

Overall, this book seemed a good introduction to the reign of Queen Victoria – no matter how obnoxious and smug I found her husband to be.

Buy this book on Amazon: Victoria Victorious: The Story of Queen Victoria