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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

These Is My WordsThese Is My Words by Nancy E. Turner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The voice of the main character, Sarah, captures you from the first page and is consistent throughout. Strong, feisty, funny and displaying a native intelligence that shines despite her lack of schooling, she narrates a tale that is at times, grim and harrowing, yet at other times, charming to the point that you can’t help but chuckle. And the romance, while easily predictable, becomes more and more real and deep long after vows have been spoken. Indeed, it is a rare pleasure to read a book with such a love and understanding between man and wife.

Having read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” I wasn’t too pleased at first to see the book told in a format not too different from letters, for I found that other novel took me a good 100 pages before I really began to be sucked into the story. Nancy Turner succeeds magnificently in this Journal format, however, to the point that you almost begin to ignore the dates for each entry. The story flows and the pace never falters.

Some have compared this to “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and I wouldn’t disagree. Where that novel brought the injustices of the South to life through a unique voice and set of characters, this one illuminates the wild Arizona Territories in the decades prior to statehood and the kind of women who pioneered that land.

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Anne of Avonlea (Anne of Green Gables, #2)Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this as much as the first in the series. While Anne is now older and not nearly so humorous a character (after all, as a schoolma’am she must act in a somewhat reserved fashion)–except for a hilarious predicament she gets herself into involving a china platter and a less than stable roof–the author has introduced some new characters–chiefly the little boy, Davy–to fill the bill. Montgomery certainly has an understanding of little boys and not necessarily the stereotyped version. I loved how life-like the characters of both Davy and Paul were and yet they had almost nothing in common. The romance in the story came somewhat unexpectedly and in unforeseen places, but the ending was perfect and only left me wanting to read the next in the series.

One more note: This is a story that will appeal to anyone, but is a particular must-read for those about to begin teaching for the first time. Several passages contain words of comfort and/or wisdom for first-time teachers looking with a good deal of trepidation at having to face (alone) a classroom of strange little people for the first time.

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ReunionReunion by Fred Uhlman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reunion is beautifully written, with some passages reading almost like poetry. That may seem strange for a novella focused on the events of World War II and its impact on two particular friends. In some ways, it reminded me of A Separate Peace. It was particularly nice, for a change, to get a feel for the German countryside and way of life in the years before Hitler’s rise.

Still, I wish the author had chosen to lengthen the story, for the last third of the novella seemed to be a too-quick summary and it brought me up short. After dawdling in the description of pre-war Germany and particularly the lengthy build-up to the friendship between the sixteen-year-old Jewish boy, Hans, and the similarly aged Konradin, a Protestant son of a prominent Swabian family, I wasn’t prepared for the quick shifts that followed.

In any case, for a story that gets at the heart of the tragedy of World War II without making the reader wallow in its evils, Reunion is well worth the short time required to read it.

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I know I haven’t posted for a long while and that I last promised to share the list of tips on dialogue from Karen Joy Fowler, but I have to share a brief review of a terrific book I read about a week ago.
Eight Months on Ghazzah StreetEight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent look into the life of an expatriate British woman in contemporary Saudi Arabia as she stumbles across a mystery but lacks the freedom and means to really explore for answers. Answers come in any case, gradually unfolding as the pages turn. Mantel is excellent, once again, at drawing her characters in unique ways, displaying all their various (and sometimes contradictory) facets like a diamond held up to the light.

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Parallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger'sParallel Play: Growing Up with Undiagnosed Asperger’s by Tim Page

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having a son with Asperger’s who is fast approaching adulthood, I long to know how any Aspie makes it through all the throes of adolescence to become an independent, thriving member of the community, let alone one who is valued.

Tim Page, a gifted music critic currently writing for The Washington Post, fortunately decided to pen a memoir of his childhood and adolescence (with a brief epilogue recounting his major milestones in adulthood). This book was worth the read not only for further insights into how an Aspie might handle it all (other than his drug years)–for example, transcendental meditation worked wonders for him–but, also, for his recommendations in music, film, etc. He’s exactly my age and, as I read of the pop culture surrounding his youth, it took me back to those wonderful times, re-living favorite songs and artists.

An excellent book for those whose world has been touched by someone on the Autistic spectrum. It provides the one thing we need most–hope.

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Wolf Hall: A NovelWolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve had a soft spot for Sir Thomas More ever since I saw the excellent film, “A Man For All Seasons,” but this book turned my view upside down. Cromwell, the villain in the movie, is here very sympathetically fleshed out by Hilary Mantel, whereas More is depicted as cold and ruthless. I am left wondering which is the truer depiction. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. In any case, the book was well worth the read, though it took me long enough. It took me a few chapters, too, to get used to Mantel’s use of the anonymous-seeming “he” to keep me deep in Cromwell’s POV as he observes all the developments at the court of King Henry VIII with regard to Wolsey, the queen, Ann Boleyn, etc. By the end, I had to wonder: “How did the main character change over the course of the novel?” There seemed to be no arc. For that reason, alone, I almost decided to rate it with only three stars. But then I realized that the author had put me so deeply in Cromwell’s mind that I was seeing with his eyes and no one really sees the arc in his/her own development. I’m sure when he looked in the mirror at age 50, when he was at the height of his power, he still saw and felt like the bruised, beaten boy he was at nine. His father had marked him for life.

Warning: this book is a bit raw in places (sexual references and descriptions of medieval torture), so if either of those kinds of things get to you, you probably wouldn’t enjoy the book.

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I’m only about a fourth of the way through Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and it’s already clear why it won both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The writing is superb and the characterization rings so true…particularly for the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell (always referred to as “he” in this book). He is mind, flesh and blood fully formed. And the dialogue snaps. Here’s a terrific scene with the Duke of Norfolk as Norfolk is making it clear that Cardinal Wolsey is on his way out in terms of being in the king’s good graces:

The duke is now approaching sixty years old, but concedes nothing to the calendar. Flint-faced and keen-eyed, he is lean as a gnawed bone and as cold as an ax head; his joints seem knitted together of supple chain links, and indeed he rattles a little as he moves, for his clothes conceal relics: in tiny jeweled cases he has shavings of skin and snippets of hair, and set into medallions he wears splinters of martyrs’ bones. “Marry!” he says, for an oath, and “By the Mass!,” and sometimes takes out one of his medals or charms from wherever it is hung about his person, and kisses it in a fervor, calling on some saint or martyr to stop his current rage getting the better of him. “St. Jude give me patience!” he will shout; probably he has mixed him up with Job, whom he heard about in a story when he was a little boy at the knee of his first priest. It is hard to imagine the duke as a little boy, or in any way younger or different from the self he presents now. He thinks the Bible a book unnecessary for laypeople, though he understands priests make some use of it. He thinks book-reading an affectation altogether, and wishes there were less of it at court. His niece is always reading, Anne Boleyn, which is perhaps why she is unmarried at the age of twenty-eight. He does not see why it’s a gentleman’s business to write letters; there are clerks for that.

Now he fixes an eye, red and fiery. “Cromwell, I am content you are a burgess in the Parliament.”

He bows his head. “My lord.”

“I spoke to the king for you and he is also content. You will take his instructions in the Commons. And mine.”

“Will they be the same, my lord?”

The duke scowls. He paces; he rattles a little; at last he bursts out, “Damn it all, Cromwell, why are you such a . . . person? It isn’t as if you could afford to be.”

He waits, smiling. He knows what the duke means. He is a person, he is a presence. He knows how to edge blackly into a room so that you don’t see him; but perhaps those days are over.

“Smile away,” says the duke. “Wolsey’s household is a nest of vipers. Not that . . .” he touches a medal, flinching, “God forbid I should . . .”

Compare a prince of the church to a serpent. The duke wants the cardinal’s money, and he wants the cardinal’s place at the king’s side: but then again, he doesn’t want to burn in Hell. He walks across the room; he slaps his hands together; he rubs them; he turns. “The king is preparing to quarrel with you, master. Oh yes. He will favor you with an interview because he wishes to understand the cardinal’s affairs, but he has, you will learn, a very long and exact memory, and what he remembers, master, is when you were a burgess of the Parliament before this, and how you spoke against his war.”

“I hope he doesn’t think still of invading France.”

“God damn you! What Englishman does not! We own France. We have to take back our own.” A muscle in his cheek jumps; he paces, agitated; he turns, he rubs his cheek; the twitch stops, and he says, in a voice perfectly matter-of-fact, “Mind you, you’re right.”

He waits. “We can’t win,” the duke says, “but we have to fight as if we can. Hang the expense. Hang the waste–money, men, horses, ships. That’s what’s wrong with Wolsey, you see. Always at the treaty table. How can a butcher’s son understand–“

“La gloire?”

“Are you a butcher’s son?”

“A blacksmith’s.”

“Are you really? Shoe a horse?”

He shrugs. “If I were put to it, my lord. But I can’t imagine–“

“You can’t? What can you imagine? A battlefield, a camp, the night before a battle–can you imagine that?”

“I was a soldier myself.”

“Were you so? Not in any English army, I’ll be bound. There, you see.” The duke grins, quite without animosity. “I knew there was something about you. I knew I didn’t like you, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Where were you?”

“Garigliano.”

“With?”

“The French.”

The duke whistles. “Wrong side, lad.”

“So I noticed.”

I could go on and on, but then you wouldn’t buy the book for yourselves. And you should. You really should. All of us who write (or ever intend to write) historical fiction particularly should. This is HF at its best!

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