Monday, December 29, 2008

The Musician's Daughter--A Fun YA Read in 18th Century Vienna

Susanne Dunlap's "The Musician's Daughter" tells the story of 15 year old Theresa, who--after the mysterious murder of her father--finds herself removed from the everyday routines of a young lady and thrust into a world of court politics, music and political intrigue. As she helps to solve the mystery of her father's murder, Theresa finds her true loves in life, music, family, and a young musician/wronged nobleman named Zoltan. The stakes are high as Theresa risks everything to help solve her father's murder and the reader is left wondering whether it will all be worthwhile in the end. I chose to read Dunlap's novel before I realized it was considered young adult fiction--I thought the plot sounded interesting and I was impressed with Dunlap's background as a historian, so I thought the novel would be good. In my opinion, this book did not read like YA fiction--the language is mature and the historical context is rich--even if it does have a teen appropriate storyline. I thoroughly enjoyed this book--it was probably the best YA fiction i've read in years. The pacing is good, the narrative kept me interested and the characters are well developed. I would recommend this book to mature teenage readers looking for good historical fiction, or even adult readers that are interested in the time period.

Blindspot--A Great Historical Romance Set in Pre-Revolutionary Boston

"Blindspot", a collaboration between Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, is a wonderful historical romance. The novel has two narrators--Fannie Easton, a fallen Boston woman of aristocratic birth who disguises herself as Francis Weston to move freely in Boston society; and Samuel Jameson, a Scottish painter who has come to America to flee debtors prison in Britain. Fannie answers Jameson's ad for an apprentice, and Francis Weston becomes Jameson's apprentice. A comedy of errors ensues, as Fannie and Jameson--who believes Fannie is a young boy--fall in love, become involved in a murder investigation, and paint all of Boston society. 

This book is smart and enjoyable. The book uses a diary/letter style to make the use of two narrators easy for the reader--there is no confusion about who is narrating at any given point. As you would expect from two college professors, Kamensky and Lepore did a thorough job researching their work, and their portrayal of Boston immediately before the American Revolution feels authentic, from the scenery to the language. This book really pulls you in, and you want to figure out what is going to happen in all of the different storylines--with the romance, with the mystery, with the other characters in the novel. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical romances. The romance and the mystery plots are both captivating, and you will keep turning the pages on this great book.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Disjointed Story with a Shocking Twist--"The Lace Reader"

Brunonia Barry's "The Lace Reader" is a complicated novel. It tells the story of Towner, a thirty something year old woman who has returned to Salem, MA from California after her beloved great aunt has gone missing. The reader quickly discovers Towner fled Salem after a series of traumatic events, which she begins reliving soon after coming to town. A series of violent events begin happening to people close to Towner, and it soon looks like Towner herself may be the next victim. A fantastic twist at the end of the novel leaves everyone--including the reader--in shock at the magic and mystery that surrounds old Salem. 

"The Lace Reader" is a hard novel to get into, and then to follow. Three characters narrate different parts of the novel, the story does not follow a linear time sequence, and several of the characters are constantly changing their version of the story. On top of these obstacles, Barry's language is choppy and often confusing making it hard for the reader to follow the complicated story line. This novel would have benefited from a good editor and some enhancement of the central storyline, which at times becomes so vague the reader isn't sure what's happening. 

Overall, the story in the "The Lace Reader" was interesting, but too disjointed to really like. I would recommend this book to people interested in Salem or in witchcraft, but not necessarily to the casual reader.

Friday, December 5, 2008

The Mighty Queens of Freeville--A Heartwarming Memoir

Amy Dickinson's "Mighty Queens of Freeville" recounts Dickinson's life with her daughter Emily, after her divorce when Emily was a toddler. Dickinson--of Ask Amy fame--has a humorous way of telling the trials of her life, and a heartening way of describing how she is always drawn home to the tiny upstate New York town of Freeville, where she grew up. Dickinson's narrative invites you to join her family of loud opinionated women, and you see where she learned the advice she dispenses in her daily syndicated column.  

I don't know exactly what it was about "Mighty Queens"--maybe its that I also grew up in the DC area, that my parents are also divorced, or that I'm only 10 or so years older than Dickinson's daughter--but I really loved this book. So many of the experiences Dickinson described reminded me of my own childhood, that I felt like I was reliving part of MY past. I usually don't love memoirs, but I loved Dickinson's warm story.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Literary Puzzle of One Family's Insanity

Kirsten Menger-Anderson's "Doctor Olaf van Schuler's Brain" traces one New York City family from their arrival in New York in the early 17th century to the modern day. But the family history has a twist--all of the family members share two things--a medical curiosity the leads them to become doctors and a tendency to go crazy. As Menger-Anderson traces the family through history in short vignettes, the depths of the family's insanity becomes clear, as does the fact that no one can escape it. 

Menger-Anderson's story is intriguing, and the author has a style that keeps you reading to the very end. Each short story begins with a puzzle--why are these people in this situation--and then quickly builds to a climax that keeps you asking more questions. The author takes different approaches to introduce the central family in each story, and each individual's story adds to the overall family puzzle. 

I really enjoyed this book, and I often enjoy interwoven short stories. But this book may not be for everyone--the narrative thread is only loosely carried from story to story and some of the characters are not very likable. But I would recommend this book--it's a great thinking story.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Twilight--Entertaining, but Not Great

After several years of bugging by my younger sister, and all of the recent media hype, I finally broke down and read "Twilight" the first book in Stephanie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight Saga. After reading almost 500 pages in less than a week, I have a couple of things to say about Twilight. 

1. It really does pull you in. Yes, there are parts of the book that are cheesy, and after a while you do get tired of hearing the vampire and teenage girl confess their love for each other, over, and over, and OVER again. But there is something about their pure teenage love that is kind of cute, in the same way that teen love is cute in teen movies. 

2. There could be more character development. Both of the main characters, Edward and Bella, are pretty flat--Edward is perfect and Bella is swoony. But they're not overly annoying. I will be interested to see if they're still not annoying in three books. 

3. Meyer uses a number of elements from other vampire books--especially stuff from Anne Rice, that I thought was a nice homage. I love Rice's vampire books, and it was good to see a tribute here. 

Overall, I thought Twilight was okay. I didn't love it, but it did keep me reading, and I've been known to put down bad books. I will likely read the other three books in the series, and I'm not a tween. This is good clean vampire fun--worth a read by vampire fans and young readers.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Something Different from Anita Shreve--Testimony

I'm a big fan of Anita Shreve, and I've read all of her books. When I saw her newest novel, Testimony, in stores I picked it up immediately. What I discovered was that Testimony is a story different from Shreve's other novels. Most of her novels deal with a woman who falls in love in some life altering way--but Testimony is definitely different. 

Testimony still deals with a life changing event--but instead of love its a sex scandal at a tony private school. The book uses short passages from about a dozen characters connected to the scandal in different ways to reveal how it happened and its repercussions. Even though the scandal seems pretty straightforward from the start, there are some twists that happen through the course of the narrative that make the story much deeper than a ripped-from-the-headlines teen sex scandal story. In Shreve's usual style, Testimony keeps you turning the pages--I didn't want to put this book down. 

I will warn readers that there are some graphic scenes in this novel--it does deal with a sex scandal. I enjoyed the book overall, but I was a little disappointed since I had enjoyed Shreve's earlier novels so much and was hoping for more of the same. But overall I think this book is worth reading--its a good story about the consequences of seemingly harmless actions.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Patrick Taylor's "An Irish Country Christmas"--Light Holiday Reading Fun

Patrick Taylor's "An Irish Country Christmas" is a tale of a fictional town in Northern Ireland at--you guessed it--Christmastime, 1964. The town is picturesque, full of all of the characters you would expect to find in Ireland, and amazingly, without any religious strife. The novel focuses on two country doctors and their quiet lives. 

Overall, this book is a slow, but enjoyable read. It really captures the spirit of a small town at Christmastime--you can almost see the Norman Rockwell paintings (even though Rockwell is American, not Irish). But it is SLOW. The whole book covers a period of less than a month and it's almost 500 pages long. You won't have any trouble understanding what is going on in this book if you haven't read the previous two in the series, because the author seems to recap everything from the two earlier books.  But the discussion of medical techniques and patient care feels authentic, since much of it is based on the author's experience as a country doctor in Ireland during the same period.

I would recommend this book to someone looking for a light, holiday themed read. But it's definitely lightweight, lighthearted material.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Laurel Conrad's "The Four Seasons"

Laurel Corona's "The Four Seasons" tells the story of two orphaned girls who are brought up in a cloistered girls only home/school in 18th century Venice. The specialty of the school is music--and when Vivaldi, the great 18th Century composer--shows up at the school and recognizes the girls' talents, their worlds are turned upside down. The novel follows the girls for almost 40 years as their lives change and intersect with Vivaldi's. 

Corona's story is interesting, but underdeveloped. She picks a rich historical period, and she lovingly describes both Venice and the music which fills her novel, but she has a harder time with characters. Most of the characters--including the two heroines--are flat, one dimensional, and frankly, a little dull. I kept expecting one of them to do something unexpected--it is VENICE after all--but they are both just so good, and unwilling to stand up against the world. I know a lot of this characterization is what was "expected" of women during that period, but this is a NOVEL and it would be good to have some excitement. Without real excitement, the novel seems to plod along at times, simply telling the passage of time and not a story. 

If half stars were an option, I probably would have given this book 3.5 stars, since I did enjoy most of the story. But it can be slow at times and its not the best written historical fiction I've ever read. I would recommend this book to Vivaldi fans, fans of the period, or Venice fans (yes there are courtesans).

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Arawad Adiga's "The White Tiger"--Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize

Arawad Adiga's "The White Tiger" is a fascinating story about the underworld of modern India. Unlike the India that is common in Bollywood films and the Western media, "The White Tiger" creates a portrait of a country that is brutal, corrupt, and cut throat. The narrator Balram separates Indians into two groups--the rich and the rest--and describes how he realizes its worth sacrificing everything to escape poverty and become one of the wealthy. 

The novel is written as a series of seven long letters from Balram to the Premier of China. This unconventional style took a little getting used to, but after I did the novel was very gripping. Agida's style is sharp--he often uses the names of his characters or objects to ridicule them--but you also can really understand Balram's frustrations. 

I would recommend this book to someone who wants to get a different perspective on modern India--one that isn't exclusively focused on shiny new skyscrapers and outsourcing. The hunger of the characters in this novel is alarming--you can see why India has quickly become a challenger on the global stage.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Review--Kira Salak's "The White Mary"

Kira Salak's "The White Mary" is a gripping first novel about one woman's journey to the end of the earth--otherwise known as Paupa New Guinea--and back. Salak's heroine, Marika, goes to PNG looking for the famous war reporter Robert Lewis. A war reporter herself, Marika goes into the jungle expecting an adventure, but instead undergoes a near death experience that changes her life. The novel flashes back and forth between Marika's time in PNG and her life in Boston before her trip, slowly exposing the heroine's demons to the reader. When Marika is forced to face who she really is in the depths of the jungle, the reader is pulled along through her emotional journey. 

I think Salak's novel is so gripping because the author herself is a war reporter, and many of Marika and Lewis' experiences are based on things the author experienced. When she describes the jungles of PNG or the African plains, you feel like you are really there. This realism does warrant a warning though--some passages of Salak's novel are graphically violent, so sensitive readers should beware. 

I would recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a story about a strong woman, or a story of a woman finding herself. This is very much a modern "Heart of Darkness" so be ready!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nominated for the National Book Award--Rachel Kushner's Telex from Cuba

Although I originally published this review before I launched Ratskellar Reads, I am republishing it now since 'Telex' has just been nominated for the National Book Award!  I loved 'Telex from Cuba'--it was probably my favorite book this summer--so I'm rooting for it hard!

Rachel Kushner's "Telex From Cuba" is an excellent first novel, probably the best one I have read this year. The novel creates a vivid view of pre-Castro Cuba--a country full of life, color, and dark secrets.

Despite the description on the book flap, "Telex" is really an ensemble tale, covering the six years before Castro's Revolution in Cuba through the eyes of a group of Americans that are in Cuba working for American companies. The novel's storytellers are mostly women and children, whose collective naivety of the strings holding up their comfortable lives in a tropical paradise brings an interesting perspective to the story. As the story progresses all of the characters become more aware of the oppressive conditions that make their lives possible, and of the rebel cause that exists beyond their picturesque doorstep.

Although the novel jumps around a lot between characters and their distinctive narrative voices, it does not feel choppy. Kushner does an excellent job of timing the increasing awareness of her characters along with the progression of the rebellion so that both crescendo at the same time, creating an excellent pace and intensity in the novel. Even though as the reader you know how the revolution and the story will ultimately end, Kushner's narrative style keeps you engaged throughout.

I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a compelling read, or anyone with an interest in Castro's Revolution or Cuban history. The book certainly made me more interested in several of its central subjects--the United Fruit Company, Castro's Revolution, US Government involvement in Cuba--and gave me a new perspective on the consequences of Cold War politics and American Imperialism.

Monday, October 13, 2008

"Frozen Pancakes and Fake Eyelashes" Review

G. Pearl Mak's "Frozen Pancakes and Fake Lashes" is fairly standard chick lit fair. A woman who has everything (in this case a lawyer about to make partner at a big LA firm, with a fancy car, a rich best friend, and a gorgeous husband) suddenly has a wrench thrown into her best laid plans--she gets pregnant. Chaos ensues as she adjusts to being a new mother and finally makes a life changing decision to balance her new family and work responsibilities.

The problem with "Frozen Pancakes" is not this rather typical and predictable chick lit plotline, but rather the execution. All of Mak's characters, including her heroine Angela, are flat. There is no character development in this book AT ALL, so its hard to get emotionally involved at the critical points in the story. In addition, good chick lit relies on smart, witty dialogue to portray its formulaic story in a new way. Mak's dialogue is not smart or witty--which makes it hard to believe that the heroine is a top young lawyer--and it's hard to take a book seriously where all the characters keep saying "tee-hee" or "ha-ha".

Although the plot is predictable, "Frozen Pancakes" wasn't terrible, but it wasn't great either. If you're looking for good chick lit, there are better options out there.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

My First Review--Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife"

Curtis Sittenfeld's "American Wife" is a wonderful read about an ordinary woman who finds herself married to the President of the United States. The book tells the story of Alice Lindgren, a small town girl who grows up to become a librarian before falling hard for wealthy jokester Charlie Blackwell. Alice stands by Charlie as he struggles with alcoholism, then buys a baseball team, before becoming governor of Wisconsin, then President. Throughout Alice questions whether she made the right choice in marrying Charlie--a conservative, born again Christian--whose political ideas clash with her own liberal opinions. If you've been thinking that this story sounds familiar, that's because Sittenfeld's Alice is a close double for Laura Bush. The similarities between these two women, as well as the author's professed "love" for Laura, cannot be ignored as you read this novel, and its hard not to let your opinion of Laura cloud Alice. But Sittenfeld's portrayal of her narrator is so sympathetic, you find yourself really liking this woman, even if you do wish she would push back a little harder against her husband and his family as they continually steamroll her. I found this book extremely readable, and the first three sections in particular read very quickly. Although the final section of the book, which takes place in 2007, felt a little rushed and forced, it provided a nice conclusion to the contradictions of Alice's life. I would recommend this book to any woman--friends and foes of the current administration alike. Just remember, this isn't actually Laura Bush--just a stylized view of what she could be.

Welcome to Ratskellar Reads!

Welcome to Ratskellar Reads, a book blog about what's being read at the Ratskellar.

What is the Ratskellar exactly? Well, it's our humble home in Baltimore, Maryland.  Me, my other half, and our two cats, Ariadne and Chelsea.  I'm an avid reader, and I want to share my book insights with the world.  So enjoy.