Thursday, December 17, 2009

19th Century Values Shape the Lives of Two Remarkable Women

How about some interesting historical fiction to start off the new year? Well, best selling author Tracy Chevalier is back with a novel set in 19th century England, full of fossils and friendship.

Tracy Chevalier's "Remarkable Creatures" focuses on two historical women--Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, and tries to flesh out the historical accounts of the lives of these women that exists in the scientific record. The book begins when Philpot has just moved to the town of Lyme Regis, and first meets Anning. Philpot, in her late 20s, is already a spinster, and moving to Lyme from London gives her the freedom to pursue her unladylike passion for fossils. Anning has a natural gift for fossil hunting, and Philpot is quickly drawn to her. Over the next two decades these women will develop a close bond and make many fossil discoveries together. But will a force bigger than themselves--love or fame--eventually draw them apart?

In "Remarkable Creatures" Chevalier has done a good job of taking real historical figures and crafting an interesting story around them. I had never heard of either Anning or Philpot, but I actually had seen some of the collections of fossils they contributed to at the British Museum. The novel quickly introduces you to these two women and their world, and does a good job of helping you to see the world through their eyes. I thought the most interesting dynamic of the story was how the men treated Philpot and Anning, especially how they were considered just "hunters" not real scientists because they were women. Some of the novel, particularly the love stories and jealousy did seem a bit forced, but not so much so that they ruined the rest of the story.

I would recommend this book to readers interested in women's lives during the early 19th century and to general fans of historical fiction. It was well done and an interesting quick read.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Too Much Sorrow Drags Down a Potentially Interesting Story

Have you ever read a book that was just so buzzed about you couldn't wait to read it, only to find it a big let down in the end. Well, that was pretty much my experience with "A Gate At the Stairs". Maybe it was just that the ending of the book left such a cold taste in my mouth, but this will definitely NOT be on my top ten list!

Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" follows a year in the life of Tassie, a 20 year old college student. Tassie is from a small town in rural Wisconsin, and her world is expanded exponentially over the course of the novel, first by her experience in the college town of Troy, then by her employment as the nanny for a young adopted mixed race girl, and finally by her brother's experience in the military. Through all of these experiences Tassie is forced to reexamine the perspective that has shaped her life and decide who she is and what she believes.

When I started reading this book I was excited--it had received all around rave reviews and I enjoyed Moore's previous work. It soon became clear however that Moore's strength lies in short stories, not in novel length works. I felt like the different sections of this novel--the book doesn't really have chapters, but rather longish sections--weren't really connected to each other, and although the characters were the same there was no continuous narrative thread to hold all of the pieces together. Not that I didn't love some of the sections--particularly the part about Emmie, the little girl Tassie nannies--put the disconnect between them was too much for me. I also finished this novel deeply depressed, which I think skews my opinion of the work as a whole. Since the fictional Tassie and I are roughly the same age, it was extremely discouraging to see one of my peers (even if she is fictional) so negative and bleak at such a young age. I know the novel is set in a dark time and there are tragic events, but the end of this novel is discouraging and so depressing, it overweighs the rest of the story.

I would have a hard time recommending this book to others because it is so dark. Yes, there are some beautiful and uplifting parts, but the end of the book left me cold and depressed. Reader beware.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Nail Bitting Novel with a Big Mystery--"The Weight of Silence"

Do you ever read a book that just totally sucks you in and twists your emotions? Well this was one of those books for me, which is surprising, because a lot of times I feel like first time authors just don't have that kind of power. But this was definitely a good one, which I would recommend to fans of Jodi Picoult or Anita Shreve.

"The Weight of Silence" Heather Gudenkauf's debut novel, is a real nail bitter, full of drama and suspense. In a small Iowa town, a young girl Callie has not spoken in 4 years. Callie awakes one morning and surprises her drunk father, who drags her into the woods. Callie's best friend also disappears the same morning, setting off a day of frantic searching and high emotions from the parents of both girls. When the girls are finally found, both have injuries and questions swirl as to what happened to them. Only Callie can provide the answers, but will she talk?

I was impressed with this debut effort from Gudenkauf. The novel is fast paced and full of emotion, but does not feel overwrought like some other similar novels that I have read. I thought it was interesting how Gudenkauf switched between the perspectives of the different characters, because it allowed the reader to see the action from different perspectives without revealing the twist at the end of the novel. It also allowed her to explore how different members of the families reacted to the events, which really gave the characters and the novel as a whole a satisfying depth.

If you enjoy books by Anita Shreve and Jodi Picolt, I would recommend that you try Gudenkauf. I'm interested to see what this promising author produces next.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Welcoming December with a Flashback to Summer--Elin Hilderbrand's "A Summer Affair"

Happy December! The holidays are upon us, and life is even crazier than usual. But make sure you take time out to read a good book! I find that for me, books are my most relaxing form of relaxation--something that is sorely needed in the craziness of the holiday season.

Let's start December off with a flashback to lighter summer days, with Elin Hilderbrand's "A Summer Affair." Although this book sounds super light and fluffy, I actually found it a little bit heavier than I thought and an enjoyable read.

"A Summer Affair", Elin Hilderbrand's seventh novel, follows Claire, a mother of four and artist in her late 30s who is struggling to deal with the realities of her life. After an accident in her studio, Claire delivers her fourth son prematurely, and her husband forces her to give up her art, which leaves Claire feeling adrift. When Claire accepts a position as a co-chair of a local charity gala, she hopes that it will give her some direction in her life. Little does she know it will lead to her beginning a relationship with Lock Dixon, the Executive Director of the charity. As the gala draws closer, will Claire be able to keep herself and her family together, or will she chose to flee her former life.

When I started this book, I thought it was going to be an airy light and candy coated fiction, where a woman has a carefree summer affair. I was surprised to find out that this book was much more complex, and really explored why Claire was involved in the affair, her guilt, and her emotional struggles with her life. The way Hilderbrand got into the head of her main characters was really interesting, and she did a great job building to the tension of the actual event and running multiple story lines at once.

This was the first Elin Hilderbrand novel I had ever read (I had always been turned off by the fluffy covers) but I think now I'm interested to read more. This was definitely better than I expected!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Wonderful Prequel to Little Women--Geraldine Brooks' "March"

A few weeks ago I was reading an article somewhere (it seems I read so many online publications these days it's hard to keep them all straight) and the article referenced a Pulitzer Prize winning prequel to Little Women, my all time favorite book.* How had I MISSED a prequel to Little Women? Especially a Pulitzer winning one? I jumped onto Amazon and ordered this book up for my Kindle immediately. Luckily I had a day of jury duty right around the corner in which to read this wonderful story.

Geraldine Brook's "March" envisions the world before the classic novel "Little Women". She explores how Mr. and Mrs. March met, and why they are the people we know in "Little Women." The book also explores Mr. March's service during the Civil War, including the incidents leading to his injury and recovery.

Geraldine Brooks does an excellent job rounding out classic characters in "March" and making them into much more than what the reader of "Little Women" knows about them. She explores Mr. March's character as a young man, and creates for the reader the events that made him into an abolitionist, and eventually led him to invest his life earnings in the schemes of John Brown. She shows us Marmee, as a fiery woman with a fierce temper who is passionately committed to the Underground Railroad and the independence of women. Brooks' narrative is beautiful, and I felt transported to her locations throughout the first half of the 19th century. She also has a wonderful way of getting inside the heads of these characters that I thought I knew to give me a whole new perspective.

If you are a "Little Women" fan, I highly recommend that you read this book. I think it will reintroduce you to the world of "Little Women" a create a new perspective for you on why the novel is how it is.

*When you're named after a character in a book like Little Women, it basically HAS to be your all time favorite!

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Unnamed Thing Cannot Conquer Love--Joshua Ferris' "The Unnamed"

Sometimes you read something so far outside of your normal reading habits, that its almost like a breath of fresh air. I read a lot of books by women and about women, often in the historical fiction category. Rarely do I find myself picking books by men, often because I feel like they lack the emotional element I really love in my books.

In October, I decided to pick up The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris from the Amazon Vine program. I remembered that I had wanted to read Ferris' first book Then We Came to the End but I had never gotten around to it. So I decided to take a leap and try this book. I was so glad that I did, because this book was really different than everything else I've been reading this fall, and may be one of the more interesting books I've read this year.

"The Unnamed" follows Tim, a high powered New York lawyer who has an unnamed disease. Tim's disease causes him to drop everything at a moment's notice and take off on long, meandering walks. Tim's wife, Jane, stays at his side as he has bouts of the disease, even though they last up to a year. Tim has seen every doctor that money can buy, but none of them can offer an explanation for the disease that plagues him. Will Tim and Jane's love be able to overcome the disease, or will it, and the miles it causes Tim to put between them, ultimately lead to their undoing.

"The Unnamed" is a puzzle of a novel that sucks its reader in from the very first page. Tim and Jane appear to be a fairly normal suburban couple, until Tim's disease reveals a whole subtext to their relationship that is complex and unexpected. Ferris uses the disease to explore his character's inner thoughts and emotions, and the disease operates as a stand in for the realities of modern life--long separations and distractions due to work, children, and other relationships--that can tear apart a marriage. I liked how Ferris made the point that Tim's money can't save him, anymore than it can save his relationships. Although Tim, Jane, and their daughter Becka change significantly over the course of the novel, Ferris always brings them back together in a way that makes them human and accessible to the reader.

This novel really made me think, and it is really much more complex than it seems on the surface. I think ultimately this novel could stand as a metaphor for our times. And although overall it is bleak, Ferris leaves his reader with some hope at the end that like Tim, maybe we could find a way to overcome our unnamed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Vivid Journey Through the Turbulent Mexico and America of the 30s and 40s--Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna"

I love Barbara Kingsolver, and just about everything she's ever written. So when I heard she had a new novel coming out this fall, I was a bit anxious. I've had a bad run of favorite authors turning out disappointing novels recently, so I didn't want my expectations to get too high, only to be dashed by a poor showing.

Oh Barbara, why did I ever doubt you! This novel is fantastic. It has all of the rich language you've come to expect from Kingsolver, with a riveting story to match.

Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel "The Lacuna" is the story of Harrison Shepherd, a young man with a split identity--he's half Mexican and half American and feels like he doesn't truly fit in either country. After being born in America, Shepherd's mother takes him to Mexico, where he spends much of his childhood, before going back to America to finish school, then shortly going back to Mexico, where he starts working for Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. Meeting the Rivera's sets Shepherd's life on a course from which he will be unable to escape, despite his eventual fame and fortune.

"The Lacuna" is a novel so sweeping, it's difficult to describe. Kingsolver has structured the novel as a series of journals written by Shepherd over the course of his life and edited by his secretary Violet Brown. Although this seems like a difficult structure to work with, Kingsolver uses it to really get inside of Shepherd's head and to use him as a unique type of first person narrator. His perspective on Mexico in the 1930s and America in the 1940s and 50s is unique, and unlike anything I've read before. The story is thoroughly engaging and Kingsolver's beautiful language takes this novel to a whole other level.

I really enjoyed this novel. If you are a fan of Kingsolver's previous novels, I would recommend you pick up this one, because it is not one to be missed!

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Program for providing me with a review copy of this book.