Posts Tagged 'review'

Review: The Map of True Places

Being a therapist would be a difficult job for anyone, but for Zee Finch, whose patient’s recent suicide eerily echoes that of her mother’s, it’s become haunting and nearly impossible. In Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places, Zee attempts to unravel the deeper truths about her patient, her mother, and herself.

It’s hard for me to categorize this novel: it’s a mystery, it’s literary fiction, it’s a thriller, it’s even a bit fantastical. I described the main plotline above, but there are sidelines dedicated to Zee’s parents’ relationship, her mother’s fairy tales, and Melville’s life. Unexpectedly, at least for me, was how much space in the book is dedicated to the hard realities of caring for an ailing parent. I think others in the same situation would appreciate the understanding portrait Barry paints here.

One of the parts I found most affirming was seeing Zee come into herself and discover what she really wants out of life. She’s a very well-realized character and I found myself identifying with her, even though my life has been happy and hers traumatic. She works to overcome the past and the present, and though it’s not all tied together with a neat little bow, it is realistic and kinda uplifting.

I also really liked how this book took place in the same version of Salem we were introduced to in The Lace Reader. Mentions of Towner and Rafferty, as well as appearances by Ann Chase, were delightful. By no means do you have to read The Lace Reader first, but it did enhance my enjoyment a bit (especially getting to know Ann better–she’s definitely one of my fave characters, and I hope Barry’s third book will be about her).

And it’s a good litmus test: if you liked The Lace Reader, it’s probably an indication that you’ll like The Map of True Places, too. It had a lot of the same themes: emotionally/mentally-scarred mothers, distant/absent fathers, a distinct New England feel, a family secret, even a kind of unreliable main character. While it’s true she does this really, really well, it would also be cool to see a major departure from this formula in her next novel.

I also noticed that Barry seems to delight in tricking you into thinking the male (romantic) leads may have done something “bad,” and then cooking up an explanation for it that lets them off the hook. I for one think it would make her books that much more complex and interesting if she let these guys actually DO what they were accused of, and still be accepted/loved by the female main characters. Otherwise, they seem a little too good to be true, honestly. That may be just me! (And her “gotcha!”-type endings may wear a little thin for some, though this one I saw coming.)

A strong sophomore offering from Ms. Barry!

I received this ARC from William Morrow through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. The Map of True Places comes out on May 4, 2010.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four out of five stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Mayhem in Salem (it almost rhymes…)

Review: The Bean Trees

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees has a lot of the same themes as her best known work, The Poisonwood Bible: family (and what makes one), culture shock, morality, and how outsiders are treated. Unlike PB, this is a quick read, less upsetting, but also a bit less impactful, at least to me.

Missy/Taylor Greer is brought up in rural Kentucky, and is determined to make her way out of it someday. She stays in school, avoids getting pregnant (apparently half of her female class ends up dropping out of school because of pregnancy), and even gets a job at a hospital. After buying a car and saying goodbye to her loving, fantastic mother (seriously, loved her!), she takes off for the mountains of the west. And along the way, picks up the one thing she told herself she never wanted: a child. Taylor and Turtle, the silent American Indian girl she’s now caring for, make their way to Tucson and make a family for themselves among a cast of eclectic, warm characters.

Almost despite myself, I really liked everyone in the book. Taylor is so naive as to be almost childlike, and like a child, she expresses wonder and acceptance of all the good she’s shown. Mattie, garage owner and an immigrants-rights advocate (well, more than advocate…) was straight-up awesome. Lou Ann had me laughing, and even reminded me a bit of my own mother. Again, Kingsolver proves that she just writes great, strong, funny, well-rounded female characters that you’d be happy to call your friends.

The one thing I couldn’t get over–and perhaps this is a limitation on my part, as a reader–was how differently I would have handled everything from Taylor. Her way made for much more interesting reading, I’m sure, but it stretched my suspension of disbelief that a) a woman tells you to take a baby and b) you DO, without demanding answers or checking over the baby to see if it’s injured or anything. It’s what the whole novel is built on, and it was pretty shaky ground for me.

Otherwise, though, I did love the characters themselves, and the themes that families can be made, not born. Taylor’s relationship with Turtle was really moving, as a mother and daughter who sort of fell into one anothers’ lives and ended up being exactly what the other needed. Estevan and Esperanza’s side story was also handled sensitively and interestingly, and gave the book an added dimension that I wasn’t expecting–immigration and morality.

Overall it’s interesting to see how her writing and story-telling has matured, from The Bean Trees all the way to Prodigal Summer. I would recommend it to fans of Kingsolver and women’s lit, definitely.

This is my final fiction read for the Women Unbound Challenge. One nonfiction left to go before I reach the Bluestocking level! :)

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Taylor and Turtle make two!

Review: The Lonely Polygamist

The first thing that catches your eye is the title: The Lonely Polygamist? Talk about an oxymoron. But it’s actually a perfectly succinct way to describe one man’s rise and fall (or is it fall and rise?) within a small community of polygamist Mormons. And it’s a very powerful, literary read.

Brady Udall’s novel focuses on three characters (and thank goodness, since the cast encompasses nearly 30 people!): Golden, husband to four wives and the lonely polygamist of the title; Trish, Golden’s fourth and youngest wife; and Rusty, son #5 and the “weird kid” of the family. Chapters alternate between the three of them, and span from Golden’s and Trish’s dysfunctional childhoods to the present day. Each character also has their own arc, from Trish moving forward from past hurts and finding her place in the family to Golden fleeing his family through his attraction to another woman (and its unpredictable aftermath) to Rusty trying to find his place in the world through acting out. Though Golden’s is ostensibly the main story, and takes up the most pages, I thought Rusty’s was the most heart-wrenching.

Now, it would have been easy for Udall to simply villanize the polygamists–but it also would have made a boring and one-dimensional book. I think he instead paints a really nuanced and fair-handed picture of how the polygamist lifestyle affects different people. Trish, for example, craves the noise, the warmth, the constant presence of other people; throughout most of the book, Golden is trying to escape from those same exact things; and it’s the noise and stress that makes Wife #3, Rose-of-Sharon, break down. Most of the kids don’t seem troubled by having 12 brothers, but lack of attention and care makes an outcast and a troublemaker out of Rusty. Instead of sharp, black and white judgements, The Lonely Polygamist takes the harder, but ultimately more rewarding, tack of making us feel what Golden’s family feels about their lifestyle and draw our own conclusions. Udall treats everyone gently and with respect–even when you just want to shake Golden until he makes a decision, damnit.

The novel also goes in completely unexpected places–at least, I was surprised by what happens to Golden and Rusty by the story’s end. It’s a page-turner in the best sense. How will Golden handle his attraction to Huila? Will Trish leave the polygamist life behind? Does Rusty find a way to fit in without alienating everyone around him, or is he doomed by the limitations of the church?

The Lonely Polygamist is a perfect example of readable, moving literary fiction–well-crafted, thoughtful, funny, emotional–and I highly recommend it.

I received this book as an ARC from W.W. Norton, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program. The Lonely Polygamist comes out May 3, 2010.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four and a half out of five stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Four wives, 20+ kids, one husband, and a lot of family drama.

Review: One Amazing Thing

The “one amazing thing” in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s One Amazing Thing refers to important, defining moments in the lives of nine people, trapped by an earthquake in the Indian visa application office. To keep their minds off of the rising water level and decreasing oxygen, this group of strangers begins telling stories from their lives.

I think the author did a great job capturing the different voices of the characters, and of bringing such disparate people alive on the page. You could easily tell Lily, the punky Chinese teenager, from Mrs. Pritchett, the older Caucasian woman, and I liked getting a peek into everyone’s heads. Their stories ranged from difficult childhoods to thwarted dreams to hard decisions to betrayal–basically, the events that made them what they are today, and why they needed to go to India. Some of these were very poignant.

I think overall, though, One Amazing Thing could have been a much longer–and therefore, more in-depth–novel. I wanted more details about certain characters’ whose stories were the most compelling for me, like Cameron, Lily, Malathi, and Tariq. It must have been hard juggling nine different characters, and I do give Divakaruni credit for ambitiously telling each one’s story, but sone of them felt like “the Reader’s Digest version,” and left me with a lot of questions when they were done. (Were Tariq’s friends actually terrorists? What was wrong with Lily’s brother?) 

I also agree with Jill of Fizzy Thoughts that the ending was a bit lackluster, in a “That’s it??” kind of way. I understand that the important part of the book was seeing these people connect with one another over personal, but universal, experiences–but after getting so emotionally invested in the characters, I was hoping to see them take what they’ve learned about themselves while trapped and change their lives for the better. (Trying not to be spoilery here.)

It did remind me of Bel Canto in a way–so if you liked that, I’m sure you’d enjoy One Amazing Thing. (Truth: I actually preferred this to Bel Canto.)

I won this book as an ARC from Fizzy Thoughts! Thanks!

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: Nine people + earthquake + rising tension = stories

Second Opinions:
Fizzy Thoughts
Bibliophile by the Sea

Review: Forever

 How to review a book like Forever, by Pete Hamill, which spans two countries and over 200 YEARS of history?

Okay, so: This guy grows up in Ireland in the 1730s. Some bad stuff happens, and then he makes  his way over to America, specifically New York, for vengeance. He becomes friends with a bunch of people, including some slaves. He eventually receives a magical gift: as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan, he will live forever. So he keeps living and living and seeing the city change and it’s all very historical but in a cool way.

What's more New York than reading in Central Park? :)

I also think this is the first book I’ve read written by a norteamericano that I’d call magical realism. The first time something magical happened, I was really not into it, because it seemed to come out of nowhere. As I read on, though, Hamill got me to sign on, and soon my reactions were just like, “Oh, she turned into a raven” or “Hey, that’s the guy Cormac first met on the ship he left Ireland on.” 

Anyway, Cormac doesn’t just passively watch history, he interacts with it. He fights for General Washington, becomes a friend of Boss Tweed, even meets some jazz greats. By the time he hits year 150, though, you’d think he’d be bored and jaded, or just driven completely insane. But Cormac finds ways to keep his mind and body occupied, ranging from helping to build the underground subway system, to painting, to learning to play piano, to becoming a reporter for a slew of different newspapers, to having relationships with women of varying seriousness.

Now, for my minor complaint: For me, the Ireland part of the book was just an absolute slog to get through. I don’t know why. Hamill is a great writer, and some bits were genuinely interesting, like Cormac’s summers spent with the old, true Irish in the mountains. And the Ireland years set the stage for a lot of supremely important events that take place later. The problem may have been with me, honestly: I knew there was awesome New York City goodness just lying beyond these pages, and I wanted it NOW!

And if I’m honest with myself, I was kind of disappointed with the ending. But I understand why Hamill did what he did.

Really, though, I just wanted more. More early New York history! More run-ins with famous historical figures! The best, most exciting parts of the book for me was the huge swath of the middle section where Cormac is living (and living…and living) in New York and watching it change decade by decade. But then, curses! Hamill jumps from 1878 to 2000 with only a peep about the years in between! I love current New York City, obviously, but Hamill has such a skill for turning early New York into a tangible place that I was kind of sad we made such a large jump to the present. And I have to address this…(highlight because of spoilers…) I really went back and forth over the inclusion of 9/11. On the one hand, it was probably one of the better treatments of it that I’ve read. On the other, it felt a bit jammed in there, though I knew it was coming as soon as Delfina said where she worked.I guess I have to ruminate on it some more. Okay, spoiler over.

A must read for New Yorkers, and anyone who wants to learn about New York City’s history in the least textbook-y way possible. (Listening to “Forever” by Chris Brown while reading not recommended.)

This fulfills the New York Challenge.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: See New York as you’ve never seen it before!

Second Opinions: Has anyone else reviewed Forever? Drop me a link and I’ll add it here.

And just for fun, here are some photos I took last Sunday in Central Park:

The view above the pond

May only be exciting to me...but this wood duck was hanging out with mallards in the pond!

Spring is here!!

Review: The Commoner

I’ve always found Japan’s history and culture extremely interesting, so when I stumbled across The Commoner, the tale of an  ordinary girl becoming Empress of Japan by John Burnham Schwartz, I was immediately set on reading it. I’m glad I did–I enjoyed it, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t have some issues with it.

Based on the real Empress of Japan, Michiko, the novel details the life of the first commoner to marry into the Japanese imperial family. In the fictionalized version presented, her name is Haruko Tsuneyasu, and she takes us through her life growing up in post-WWII Japan, becoming a young woman, and eventually marrying the Crown Prince of Japan, against the advice of her father.

Learning about the secretive, tradition-bound world of the Japanese royal family was really intriguing. Haruko is the perfect narrator, as she too is learning about these rules for the first time. It was easy to see how stifling the court rituals were, and therefore not surprising to see Haruko begin to wither away. Until relatively recently in Japan, the Emperor and his family were worshiped as descendants of the gods. On the surface, that sounds great–you’ve got servants at your beck and call, live in the royal palace, don’t have to work, etc, etc. But where The Commoner really shines is showing how being perceived as gods is actually an awful burden. Besides coping with the endless rules (always enter the room behind the Prince, never speak before he does), Haruko is nearly robbed of her humanity. Becoming the Crown Princess changes her relationship with her parents, introducing stiff formality and distance between them all. Haruko is barely allowed to see her son–nurses feed and change him, and only hand him off during prearranged visits. She has no real friends in the palace, no one she can trust or talk to. It’s heart-breaking to read.

Schwartz does an admirable job writing from the voice of Haruko. She is dedicated to her loving parents, but headstrong and her own person; her voice, though traditional in style and prose, shows just how deeply the strict rules of the court affect her, and how much, in her own small ways, she challenges them. (Also, though it’s not a large part of the book, I really related to the parts where Haruko described her aimlessness after graduating school without knowing what she truly wanted to do with her life.)

One thing I would have liked more of were the “middle years” of Haruko’s life; the book covers her early life as Crown Princess very well, and her later years as Empress, but completely cuts out her life from her late 20s to late 40s. I may have just read it too quickly, but despite the lingering treatment Schwartz uses on Haruko’s post-college and early Princess years, the book felt very short. (And to some, the ending might seem straight-up wish fulfillment, but I didn’t care–I was cheering for Haruko and Keiko to pull it off the entire time.) I also felt that the book was a little weaker in the second half, once the excitement and then dread of Haruko’s marriage wore off, but it did still keep me reading.

It’s overall an interesting, worthwhile read, especially for those who are interested in getting a glimpse behind the scenes of Japan’s royal family–and learning about the women who suffered under, and eventually changed, the system.

This book counts towards the Women Unbound Challenge.

Bookwanderer Rating: Three and a half/four stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: A sad but ultimately hopeful look at the world of the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Second Opinons:
Breaking the Fourth Wall
Book Reporter

Review: The Boys of My Youth

“Oh God,” I thought while reading the first story or two in Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. “I’m not liking this. I’m going to have to write ANOTHER negative review about a memoir! People are going to think I’ve got it in for memoirs!”

I am so, so glad I kept reading. The Boys of My Youth is actually a fantastic collection of creative non-fiction focused on Beard’s childhood in the Midwest, her relationships with her parents, siblings, and friends, and her tumultuous marriage. I feel like it’s somewhat misnamed; “The Boys of My Youth” is one specific story in the collection, not really the theme of ALL of the pieces. I’d say it focuses much more intimately on Beard’s family and female friends, and it’s pretty affirming.

The stories range in subject and length from the short, “Against the Grain,” about living with a perfectionist, to the long, titular story, that highlights how the relationship between Beard and her childhood friend Elizabeth has changed–and, more importantly, remained the same. That one especially is cute and cutting at the same time, as it depicts the ways the two friends support each other through divorces, while at the same time flashing back to when they were girls playing pranks on the boys in their neighborhood.

They all have, for the most part, a slow, sad sort of air about them, with little bursts of humor (yes, real humor!). “The Family Hour” is about Beard’s parents’ rocky relationship, due to her father’s alcoholism. “Waiting” is about Beard and her sister choosing their mother’s coffin, and the last days of her life.  “Out There” is about Beard’s frightening run-in on with a trucker on an abandoned road. So the majority of these diverse stories are upsetting, yes, but also SUPER good. I felt like a got a really good feel for the kind of person Beard is, too, and I LIKED her.

One of my personal favorite stories, “The Fourth State of Matter,” is ostensibly about the slow, graceless decline of a pet dog and the end of Beard’s marriage–and then the main conflict comes at you out of nowhere and leaves you, like Beard in the story, a shaking mess. If you only read one story in this collection (and why would you do that??), make it that one. A million stars.

Interestingly, my least favorite stories of the collection were the most experimental: “Coyotes” was a sappy chore to read. (I can appreciate what she was doing and how she was using form and tone, but I don’t have to like it. And I LIKE nature writing!) “Behind the Screen” and “Bonanza,” the former about watching fireworks with her family and the latter about her grandparents, were two of the weaker stories, I felt. There was a shift in tone, a sense of trying too hard, or something else that I can’t quite pinpoint, but it definitely affected my enjoyment of those stories.

Overall, though, this was a thoughtful, enjoyable read that should appeal to even those who think they don’t like memoirs. Her tone is serious and funny where it needs to be, and she’s a talented writer with a well-developed sense of pace and plot. I especially liked the fact that the most defining characters in her life were the women: her mother, her cousin, her childhood best friend. All of these women supported her and shaped her in some way–made her stronger, really–and she regards them with a good mix of humor and honesty.

In my opinion, though, the collection is worth buying for “The Fourth State of Matter” and “The Boys of My Youth” alone.

This book counts as a non-fiction pick in the Women Unbound Challenge.

Bookwanderer Rating: Four stars

Bookwanderer Tagline: The boys (and girls!) of a Kansas childhood and tumultuous adulthood.

Second Opinions:
New York Times Book Review
Meat and Potatoes


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