Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How Do You Put a Broken Life Back Together? Cristina Henriquez's "The World In Half"

"The World in Half" follows Miraflores a college aged girl from Chicago as she travels to Panama to find her father, and her past. All Mira knows about her father is that he was from Panama and he worked at the canal--her mother, who returned from Panama disgraced and pregnant with her, never shared the details of her parentage. After arriving in Panama City, Mira befriends a worker at the hotel where she is staying Hernan, and his nephew, Danilo. Together with Danilo, Mira will not only learn the truth about her father, but also about her mother and herself. 

The World in Half is beautifully written, especially for a first novel. Henriquez transports her reader to Panama City, describing everything from the vastness of the canal to the poverty in corners all over the city. Her use of geology--Mira's academic love--as a metaphor for Mira's life works nicely as a framing technique and feels original and natural. The novel asks questions that it doesn't quite come out and answer for the reader, which leaves you thinking about this novel once the story is over. 

I would recommend this book to someone looking for an interesting and relatively quick read. It was an enjoyable one, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from Henriquez.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Disjointed Structure Handicaps a Smart Character Study--Joanna Smith Rakoff's "A Fortunate Age"

"A Fortunate Age" follow of group of friends from the Oberlin class of 94 in the late 90s and early 00s as they pursue their dreams in NYC. The novel centers around 6 friends, Lil, Beth, Emily, Sadie, Tal, and Dave--and slowly works in their larger circle of friends and family. As the novel progresses, each of the characters realizes the dreams and ideals they developed in their late 20s are unattainable--whether its a career, a great love, or an art. Eventually, in the shadow of 9/11 they all come to terms with their personal failures after a personal tragedy shakes them all. 

Joanna Smith Rakoff has a wonderful way of capturing people, so this book--her first novel--has rich character descriptions and wonderfully captures the way relationships ebb and flow between people over time. However, the novel lacks the continuous narrative thread that I feel is critical to a real great work. Instead of feeling like one book, A Fortunate Age felt like a collection of short stories told by different characters, an effect that was heightened by the long chapters--there were only 15 in 400 pages of text. At the end of each story, there was no resolution of the character's narrative, and even though you would expect important story elements to be resolved in the next chapter, it never happened, leaving this reader feeling confused and the story disjointed. By the end of the novel I was frustrated because I felt like their were just too many gaps in the story for me to be able to really enjoy it. 

I would be interested to read other, perhaps shorter works by Rakoff, because I think she is a talented writer. However, the structure of this novel just didn't work for me.
Someone at work brought my this article a couple of days ago from the print version of the Wall Street Journal.  I think the concept explored in the article is fascinating--that ebook readers will one day make book reading something more akin to internet surfing.  I do think it would be sad if there is no deep focus reading, but I'm also intrigued by being able to look up anything in a book instantaneously.  Pretty cool.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Review and A Prize!

Okay, so first off, let me say how excited I was to see that Olive Kitteridge (which I reviewed 
here ) win the Pulitzer Prize for literature today!  I first became interested in Olive Kitteridge after seeing the collection of short stories show up on several "best of 2008" lists.  And I was not dissapointed.  The stories were interelated enough that the collection felt more like a novel than a short story collection, and they were really rich, which I always love.  Definitely one worth checking out.

And now a review.  This is an older book, which is a little unusual for me, but I actually received this book as a gift way back when I got my Kindle 1 in December 2007, but I never got around to reading it.  Not really sure why I put it off so long, but now that I have my Kindle 2, I was anxious to read something on it, so this book was a natural pick.  It was good, although it did take me a long time to read since I've been super busy this past week.  So here goes...

Philippa Gregory's "The Boleyn Inheritance" picks up three years after the end of "The Other Boleyn Girl", Gregory's blockbuster novel about Anne Boleyn and her sister Mary. Many of the characters from the earlier novel make a return appearance here, but the story is told from a different perspective--with three narrators, Anne of Cleaves, Kitty Howard, and Jane Boleyn. These three narrators give a very different perspective on Henry VIII's court than is seen in the earlier novel, although all three women are subject to Henry's rapidly changing temper. The court is now one of fear instead of the golden court of the earlier novel, and everyone has to watch her back to keep from getting caught up in the Boleyn Inheritance. As first Anne, and then Kitty become Queen and then quickly fall, the treachery of the English court is explored with all of Gregory's usual detail and intrigue. 

Although I don't think this book was as good as "The Other Boleyn Girl" or "The Virgin's Lover" it is definitely a strong addition to Gregory's "Boleyn" series. The novel is a fast paced and easy read, and it keeps moving to keep the reader interested. I wished frequently that Gregory would have spent more time getting into the head of each of her characters--sometimes the chapters felt a little rushed. But overall I did feel like this was an enjoyable read that captured the spirit of the Tudor period and life at court. 

I would recommend this book to fans of the Tudor period or people who enjoyed Gregory's other works.

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Young Woman, Caught Between Two Worlds--Colm Toibin's Brooklyn

Brooklyn begins with Eilis, a young Irish woman, preparing to leave her small town in Ireland in the early 1950s to emigrate to Brooklyn. When Eilis arrives in America, she is overwhelmed, by the size of New York, the different types of people, and her new life. As she slowly adapts to her dull job as a shop clerk and her night classes at a local college, she begins to feel comfortable in this new life and her life in Ireland feels distant and strange. She even meets and falls in love with Tony, a young Italian American. When Eilis is suddenly recalled to Ireland after a family tragedy, she is re-confronted with her old life and must choose, is she the old Eilis or the new? 

Although Brooklyn is a slow, quiet novel, and it took me a while to get into, in the end I loved this book. Toibin has a great way of capturing the everyday details of life and making them poignant and often beautiful. Nothing extraordinary happens in this book, but Eilis does have to make a huge decision that will alter the course of her entire life. The way Toibin presents this choice feels authentic without being overwrought, which is what makes this novel so good. In the end I was sad to see this novel finish, and I wished I could glimpse just a bit more of Eilis' world. 

The novel also does a suburb job of capturing the attitudes and prejudices of first and second generation immigrants in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The changes that are about to fundamentally change America are beginning to take route, and Toibin addresses them quietly, as subtle changes in the everyday lives of his characters. Toibin's attention to these issues made the novel feel very authentic, and added to its quiet charm.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Lots of Love and Intiruge in Palace Circle by Rebecca Dean

Palace Circle follows Delia, a Virginia belle who marries into the British Aristocracy, and her family, including her two daughters Petra and Davina, and their lovers, Jack and Darius, from the dawn of the 20th century to WWII. Each of the five characters narrates a section of the book, making for an interesting perspective on the historical events that frame the lives of these wealthy members of the elite British palace circle. The novel takes place in London, Virginia, and Cairo, so there is certainly enough going on to fill the 400 pages. There is tons of intrigue--both political and romantic--throughout the forty odd years covered by the novel, as well as any number of fashionable balls and brushes with royalty and other famous people. 

Palace Circle is a fast, light read, that gives you a different perspective on a fairly well known period in modern history. It was very enjoyable, but at times a little shallow, and the rotating narrator makes all of the characters other than the narrator of any given section feel a little flat. This novel would make for a good vacation or beach read--it's full of enough historical detail and famous faces to keep a smart reader interested, but its also light enough with lots of romance and partying. It's not great literature, but I thoroughly enjoyed this romp through elite Britain.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

A Great Intergenerational Mystery--Kate Morton's "The Forgotten Garden"

Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden opens in Australia in 1913. A young girl has been left alone on a dock and has nowhere to go. This scene opens a mystery that the reader will chase for the next 500 pages. The unfolding of the mystery spans nearly 100 years, two continents, and three generations of women--one in the early 1900s, one in 1975, and one in 2005. As the secret that ties these women together is revealed, Morton weaves a fascinating story of love, jealousy, and the need to find a place where one belongs. 

I really loved this book and I couldn't put it down. Morton is a great storyteller, and she does a wonderful job of slowly unfurling the mystery surrounding her characters so that the reader isn't really sure what the conclusion will be until the final pages of the novel. I feel like Morton also did a good job of representing the different times and places in her novel, while giving all of the women a certain familiar sense. The jumps between time periods were not confusing for me, and I actually thought they heightened the mystery and gave the story the satisfying sense of a slowly assembled puzzle. 

I would definitely recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, gothic novels, and intergenerational family tales. I can't wait to see what else comes from Ms. Morton.


I just found out this book was also selected as one of Amazon's "Best of the Month" for April!  Check out what they have to say:

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

The Forgotten GardenLike Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved classic The Secret Garden, Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden takes root in your imagination and grows into something enchanting--from the little girl with no memories left alone on a ship to Australia, to the fog-soaked London river bend where orphans comfort themselves with stories of Jack the Ripper, to a Cornish sea heaving against wind-whipped cliffs, crowned by an airless manor house where an overgrown hedge maze ends in the walled garden of a cottage left to rot. This hidden bit of earth revives barren hearts, while the mysterious Authoress's fairy tales (every bit as magical and sinister as Grimm's) whisper truths and ignite the imaginary lives of children. As Morton draws you through a thicket of secrets that spans generations, her story could cross into fairy tale territory--if her characters weren't clothed in such complex flesh, their judgment blurred by the heady stench of emotions (envy, lust, pride, love) that furtively flourished in the glasshouse of Victorian society. While most of them ache for a spotless mind's eternal sunshine, the Authoress meets the past as "a cruel mistress with whom we must all learn to dance," and her stories gift children with this vital muscle memory. --Mari Malcolm