Monday, March 30, 2009

A Little Giant in a Little Story--Tiffany Barker's "Little Giant of Aberdeen County"

Tiffany Baker's "The Little Giant of Aberdeen County" is set in the second half of the 20th century in the small town of Aberdeen, New York. The story focuses on the life of Truly, a girl in Aberdeen who has a disease that makes her grow unusually fast. Her size makes Truly an outcast her entire life, a problem that is compounded when the town insists on comparing Truly to her perfect and beautiful sister Serena Jane. Truly leads a difficult life, and it is only made more challenging by decisions others make for her. It is only once Truly decides to take her life into her own hands, that she is able to escape the stigma of being the "little giant" and find happiness. 

I think my opinion of this book suffered from the over-the-top praise that I read about it before I actually got around to reading the book. From what I had heard others say, I thought this book was going to change my perspective and introduce me to a completely new and wonderful character. Instead, "Little Giant" is filled with miserable people who are downright cruel to each other. Only at the very end of the novel does anything even remotely uplifting happen, but by that point the novel is so dark it's hard to redeem. I feel like I can't say too much without giving away the plot, but I found myself continually frustrated by the passivity of the characters--they knew they were miserable, but they did nothing to try to change their circumstances. There was no great lesson for all of this suffering, and at the end of this novel I felt sorry for its characters but I also felt a little empty--I couldn't figure out what the purpose of the story had been. 

This novel is still kicking around in my head--I think I'm still trying to figure out why the author wanted to tell this story--so I can't say it wasn't worth reading. Baker also has a gift with language, and she has some wonderful turns of phrase that made sections of the novel beautiful to read. But I am puzzled as to much of the praise for this novel--but I would still likely recommend that if you're curious about this buzzed about book, go ahead and give it a read.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Journey to 15th Century London--Vanora Bennett's "Figures in Silk"

Vanora Bennett's "Figures in Silk" follows the life of Isabel Claver, a young silk merchant in late 15th century London. Isabel's father, a famous silk trader, marries her off at age 14 to the son of the silk trader Alice Claver. Isabel is widowed within a year, but because of a chance encounter with a mysterious young man, she decides to stay with her mother in law to learn the silk business. Isabel becomes a brilliant silk trader in her own right, using the connections of her sister Jane Shore, who is mistress to King Edward, to rise to the top of her field. Isabel also re-encounters her mysterious man, only to discover he is Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Will Isabel and Richard end up happily ever after, or will the politics of the War of the Roses get in the way? 

I don't know a lot about this period in English history, but I thought "Figures in Silk" did a good job of capturing the atmosphere of late 15th century London. Yes there are some things in the novel that are a bit of a stretch--commoner sisters being mistresses to Kings for one--but I also thought there was a lot to like in this novel. Isabel is spirited and free minded, but like so many women, she can also be blinded by irrational love. She's very real, and it is interesting to see her balance her business interest and the role of a freed woman during this period in London. I found this book difficult to put down--I always wanted to know what was coming next--and it has made me interested in this period in English history. 

I would recommend this book to fans of Phillippa Gregory, because it has the same type of courtly intrigue and strong female characters as her books.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Another Tale of Strong Women and Their Relationships--Kristin Hannah's "True Colors"

"True Colors" is Kristen Hannah's 27th novel, but it sure doesn't feel that way--it's still so fresh! The novel tells the story of the Grey sisters, successful but unlucky in love Winonna, perfect Aurora, and beautiful Vivi Ann. When Vivi Ann falls hard for a ranch hand, Dallas, on her family's ranch her life is forever changed. A few years into their marriage, Dallas is accused of murder. After a trial where he is defended by an incompetent lawyer, Dallas is convicted and sentenced to life in prison, leaving Vivi Ann on the outside with their young son, Noah. Will Vivi Ann be able to free Dallas, who she believes is innocent, without tearing her family apart? 

Like Hannah's other novels, "True Colors" is rich with emotion and drama. The three sisters are torn apart and come back together multiple times over the course of this nearly 400 page novel. You find yourself identifying with different sisters at different points in the novel, and each has her strengths and her flaws. The real star of the novel is the relationship between these ordinary women whose lives and torn apart by an extraordinary event and the resulting tragedy. This novel has a happier ending than some of Hannah's other stories, but it is no less emotional. 

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys stories about strong women and the bonds between them. This is a great, fast read.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Story of Star-Crossed Young Loves in WWII Seattle--Jamie Ford's "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet"

Jamie Ford's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet follows Henry, the son of Chinese immigrants in Seattle in both 1942 and 1986. The story starts in 1986, when Henry hears a news story about the personal items of Japanese internees discovered in the basement of the nearby Panama Hotel. His curiosity spiked by an item he sees brought out of the hotel, Henry, a recent widower, decides to go to the basement of the hotel to look around. The story then moves into flashback, and Henry remembers 1942 and his friendship with Keiko, a 12 year old Japanese-American he met at school. As Henry and Keiko get closer, Keiko's family gets closer to "evacuation" to an internee camp. When they are evacuated, both Henry and Keiko are devastated, but promise to remember each other. Will their memories hold, or will the war tear them apart? 

Overall, I thought Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a wonderful story of two teenagers caught up in turbulence and hatred aimed at Asian-Americans in general and Japanese-Americans in particular during WWII. The novel does a good job of capturing the emotions of the evacuation of the Japanese from Seattle and of young Henry losing his best friend and young love. The characters and emotion are not as strong in the 1980s, but there is plenty to catch a reader in the 1940s story. At times Ford does rely on cultural stereotypes, particularly with the African-American characters and with Henry's father, a staunch Chinese nationalist. But this rough characterization is overshadowed by the strength and emotion of the story. 

I would recommend this book to just about anyone--and lovers of historical fiction especially. This was a good debut novel, and I will be interested to see what else Ford writes.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Wonderful Family Saga--Nafisa Haji's "The Writing on My Forehead"

The Writing on My Forehead is a family history told from the perspective of Saira, a young woman who has grown up in LA and is the daughter of immigrants from India and Pakistan. The novel starts with Saira looking in on her young sleeping niece and then flashes back to Saira's own childhood. The novel then traces the next 30 years of Saira's life--from childhood to adulthood--and her struggles against the rigid Muslim and Indo-Pakistani traditions of her family. As Saira learns more about her family history, she is more set upon defying the traditions that surround her. By the time Saira has reached adulthood she is a successful journalist hiding a huge family secret that will blow up in the turbulent days following 9/11. 

Nafisa Haji's writing in this novel is crisp and fluid--she moves easily from one topic to the next and her descriptions make the reader feel as though she is traveling Saira's life journey with her. Haji does a wonderful job of unfolding Saira's personal story and her family's larger story on parallel narrative threads. The interaction between the generations is wonderful, and you get a sense of the complicated task of growing up in a large interconnected family. The novel has wonderful pacing until the last 50 pages, when it feels like the novel is rushed to the end. I wish the author had spent more time with the conclusion of the story, because it was so rich, I reached the end wanting more. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. If you enjoyed The Kite Runner or The Namesake, you will enjoy this book.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

An Update, and Belated February Recap

So i've been away from reading for a while (I know it's a shock).  Well I shouldn't say away from reading, but away from full novel reading and reviewing.  Instead, for the past two weeks i've been participating in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) program as an expert reviewer.  This basically meant that I had 12 days to read 40 10-page excerpts.  Phew!  It was a lot of work!  But I got exposure to some really interesting new fiction.  I encourage all of you to check out the contest when Amazon posts the finalists--they will be open for public reading and reviewing . 

And now, for my best book from February--even if it is a little bit late.  My pick is "Firefly Lane" which was totally a fluffy, chick lit tear jerker, but I totally devoured it and now I have Kristin Hannah's new book "True Colors" in my to be read pile.  From a more literary bent, I also enjoyed "Delicate Edible Birds" but short stories are always harder for me than full length novels.