Tag Archive | novel

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I didn’t know what to expect when I picked out this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love.  I was looking for an audiobook that was available without waiting from the library website.  All I knew is that it was a historical novel, telling the story of the fictional Alma Whitaker.

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma was “born with the century,” in 1800, the daughter of Henry Whitaker, a man who was born poor but made a fortune in the business of plants.  Alma is bright and hard working, but not at all pretty.  She takes after her father and begins to study botany, at a time where women are generally only taught the finer arts of music and sewing.

Alma makes her way in a man’s world, never catching the attention of a man in a romantic way, but achieving successes with her research in botany.  But she’s lonely, she wants companionship, and perhaps most of all, she wants intimacy.

The novel follows Alma throughout her entire life, weaving an intricate story of characters, showing the joy and tragedy of a life whose outcome you don’t always get to choose.  Is it enough to find a career when most women simply find themselves to be the mother of children and in charge of a household?  Do we ever really know if others around us are happy or truly satisfied with their lot in life?  Is it possible to accept the pain of losing our loved ones?  Do we ever stop yearning for that which we do not have?

Alma’s life takes her from her father’s home all the way to Tahiti, as she seeks new plants, but also the answers to the questions she has about the human condition.  Along the way, she encounters so many others, who are flawed, imperfect and richly complex, all just trying to do what Alma is doing – find happiness.

Gilbert’s writing is excellent.  Amazing.  Despite what might seem at first a dry topic, this is a must read.  Although it is long, I was entranced until the very last page.


Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Anthony Doerr knocks it out of the park with this novel, set during World War II.  It is a NY Times bestseller, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (photo from Amazon.com)

Marie-Laure, is a blind girl living with her father in Paris; he works for the Museum of Natural History as its master locksmith.  He also has a talent for woodworking, and makes her a scale model of her neighborhood in Paris to assist her in learning how to navigate the streets without sight.  Soon enough however, the two must evacuate to Saint-Malo, a seaside walled city, to live with her eccentric great-uncle Etienne, his long-time housekeeper, and her father.

Meanwhile, Werner is an orphan growing up in Germany with a talent for building and repairing radios.  His skill is noticed by the Nazis, and he is sent to an elite school to hone his craft for the war effort.  This means he must leave his younger sister, Jutta, who has her own talent – she sees even at her very young age the evil that resides within the Nazi party.

Throughout the novel, the stories are intricately woven together, culminating with Marie-Laure and Werner meeting during the German occupation of France.  He lays bare all the cruelty and tragedy of the war, as well as the bravery that was exhibited by so many during the period.

Doerr’s character development is superb, and you can’t help but love some of them and hate others.  Despite your feelings for them, you see that they are all flawed beings, with their strengths and weaknesses.  I was entranced from beginning to end.

Book Review: Cane River by Lalita Tademy

Have you ever felt that your family history is the stuff of novels? Perhaps Aunt Gertrude was that one-of-a-kind woman who fought in the French Resistance? Maybe your Grandfather Jacob was a CIA spy during the Cold War in Cuba? Or maybe your family was just made up of hard working people who did what they had to do to survive, caught up in the laws and social norms of an era. They survived and loved in the ways that they knew how, warts and all.

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Cane River, by Lalita Tademy

Lalita Tademy’s family was more like that – the ordinary kind of family.  Although living for generations in bondage made the family’s achievements more extraordinary. The story begins with her Great-great-great Grandmother, a slave sold from Virginia to the Louisiana bayou, a place called Cane River, where the culture was predominantly French Creole. She fell in love, raised a family, and lived, all while owned by another. Generations of strong women, with all different personalities, doing what they could to fight for some semblance of control and authority in a culture that gave them none.

The novel is fiction, but based on the genealogical record of her family. Tademy researched for about two years, piecing together the births, deaths and marriages of a family over 150 years ago. Her work was challenging, as records were not as thorough for slaves, if they existed at all. And the gaps, the information that could not be gleaned from court and church records, and deeds of sale, were filled in with Tademy’s imagination, weaving a rich story of the women that preceded her.

Tademy doesn’t gloss over her slave ancestry; instead she confronts head on the complexity of a system that created relationships that mirrored marriage in every way but name, yet often didn’t allow a couple to live together, or even keep their own children. She also fills the tale with rape, social customs, racism, and subservience that existed in the slave-holding south. She explains how her family members inherited progressively whiter skin as white men fathered children. She explained how some family members chose to move away – where they could “pass.” How education and enrichment provided a better life; how rare those chances were in a society built upon slavery and filled with racism.

The result is a wonderfully written narrative, with characters that explode off the pages of the book; their emotions, their defiance, their intelligence and their desire to work for a better life all evident in the descriptions of their personalities and lives. I was intrigued until the very last page.

Book Review: Boy’s Life

What do you get when you write a novel from a pre-teen boy’s perspective? Lots of bike riding, baseball, as well as a few monsters and some magic thrown in for good mystery. That wrapped up with a murder mystery makes for a pretty good story.

Boy's Life, by Robert McCammon

Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon

I purchased Boy’s Life years ago from the Barnes and Noble clearance rack. The book actually contained two novels from the same author, Robert McCammon. For some reason (well, I know the reason – it is because I love to buy books and have so many that it is hard to get to them all!) I had never actually read either of the novels that came in this book. Until now. For some reason a couple of weeks ago I was looking for a book to read and this one said it was time.

The book tells the story of growing up in small town Alabama in the 1960s, from the perspective of an 11 year old boy, Cory Mackenson. He spends his days with the usual 11 year old issues, domineering teachers, schoolyard bullies, and finding time to hang out with your buddies. Throw in some monsters and magic and you make for a complete childhood. Cory has an active imagination, and uses it to create complex, whimsical stories to entertain his friends and begin an exploration of a career in writing.

However, like any small town, its residents have their share of hardships, further compounded by the local version of a crime boss, and the typical tensions between white and black citizens in the Civil Rights Era South. If that weren’t enough, early in the novel Cory and his father witness the disposal of a John Doe body in an old quarry-turned-lake.  Despite law enforcement’s efforts at identifying the man and his killer, the lake gives up no secrets. And it haunts Cory and his father relentlessly.

Although it seems like there are a lot of disconnected themes going on in the novel, the author weaves them together well, with humor and a sober reflection that seems difficult for an 11 year old. Somehow it works. It does require a suspension of disbelief at certain parts; made easier when you consider the narrator. Didn’t we all have a healthy belief in monsters and magic at that age?

If I had to voice a gripe, it would be that you wouldn’t expect your average, small town, 11 year old to have witness so much death and destruction at such an early age. Apparently this Alabama town isn’t as sleepy as the ones I have encountered.

This book won’t blow your mind, or make you ponder the meaning of life, but nevertheless, it is a riveting read that kept me guessing with its plot twists and turns. Although not the genre of novel I typically go for, it kept my interest the whole way – and that’s saying a lot considering that at about 470 pages, it is rather on the long side of novels. A worthwhile read from the bargain bin.

Book Review: China Dolls

When you don’t have family, who can you turn to? The family that you choose – friends. China Dolls, by Lisa See, is a book about friendship. Not just any friendship – three friends from seemingly different backgrounds. Helen, Grace and Ruby – three Asian women coming of age just before World War II. But that’s where the similarities end.

China Dolls by Lisa See

China Dolls by Lisa See

Grace grew up in small town middle America, the only Asian girl in her town. She learned to sing and dance and fit in with the culture and customs of her white neighbors. Trouble with her father caused her to run away to San Francisco to start a new life.

Helen was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the only daughter in a family that prized her seven brothers. She lives in the family compound, a constant reminder of the family’s bad luck, torn between her loyalty to her family’s traditional culture and the modern big city life that is all around her.

Ruby grew up in Hawaii, and moved to San Francisco to launch her show biz career. She is loud, brash, and forward, shocking the other two girls with her tendency to flaunt her body. She is hiding a secret though, that would eventually change her life forever.

The three meet by chance and get jobs at a new Chinatown nightclub, dancing in a show that is risqué for its time. As the three bond, they learn each other’s hopes, dreams, fears and secrets, and learn that each one of them is not quite who she seemed. They go through life’s joys and disappointments, often together and sometimes apart.

The book is well written, switching between the three character’s stories effortlessly, providing each woman’s unique perspective, formed by the life she has led. The book explores some deep subject matter: friendship, womanhood, love, domestic violence, promiscuity, homosexuality, war, and the complexity of traditional Chinese culture. Within each of these contexts, the novel explores a woman’s experience, and it does it in a way that is often raw and heart-wrenching.

At times the women are quite drama-queeny – but I appreciated that it captures the essence of these three friends as complex, flawed beings. Each of them succumbs to the temptation of self-interest at times – only able to see and consider her own needs. At other times, each woman is incredibly generous, putting her own desires aside to help her friends.

The secrets come out throughout the novel, while following these women through the war and beyond. Some secrets you are expecting; some are so deeply hidden that you feel just as shocked as the other friends when the truth is revealed. And when it is, you finally feel that you understand the motivation. Times change, people change, but the friendship remains.

I enjoyed China Dolls; it was an interesting trip back in time.

Book Review: The 19th Wife

I’m not usually that into murder mysteries.  But when a novel is a cross between a murder mystery and historical fiction?  And when you add in one of the most controversial religious doctrines in American history?  I’m in!  Plus, someone several years ago had recommended The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff, and I was lucky enough to find it at the library book sale.

This novel starts out by telling the story of Jordan Scott, a young man who became a “lost boy” several years before; kicked out of a Fundamentalist Mormon closed community for the minor (and false) charge of holding hands with a girl.  He finds out that his mother, who was forced to cut off contact when he was booted from the community, has been charged with the murder of his father, and is in jail awaiting trial.  He re-establishes contact with her, even though he is still angry and hurt about being abandoned, in order to find the truth.

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The 19th Wife, by David Ebershoff

The story is interwoven with the story of Ann Eliza Young, one of the true life wives of Brigham Young; the one who renounced her faith and fled the community, at the same time filing for divorce from her husband.  She wrote a book about her experience, and this novel includes excerpts from Mrs. Young’s book, detailing her experiences within the Mormon church, as a plural wife, and her apostasy and attempt to get the U.S. Government to ban polygamy.

While Ann Eliza Young was a real person, and did write a book, it is unclear whether the excerpts in this novel are taken from Young’s book or another piece of fiction.  It probably doesn’t matter; they are well written and believable.  Of course, Ebershoff fills in the gaps of Ann Eliza’s life as well with an intriguing story about how she ultimately ended up as one of Brigham Young’s 55 wives.

As the two stories alternate, suspense builds as Jordan confronts the still raw emotions he feels after being cast out, and as he gets himself into increasingly dangerous situations as he takes the law into his own hands and tries to solve the mystery of who really murdered his father.  Although fiction, the scare tactics used by the men of the closed community to get Jordan to leave well enough alone, well, those are real.

Although fiction, this novel does a great job of shedding light on a religious community that is all too real, and that uses its power to perpetuate a system of subjugating its women and children to the demands of a few powerful men.  It is heartbreaking to reflect on the hopeless lives these women lead, entirely at the mercy of their Prophet.  It is a real page turner – although a long book (544 pages), it kept me captivated from beginning to end.

To be honest, I would have loved the book even if it didn’t have the murder mystery plot line.  I thought the historical fiction pieces of the novel were just that powerful.  But the murder did provide an interesting bit of intrigue and a tie in to present day.  Now that I’ve finished The 19th Wife, I might have to read Ann Eliza Young’s book too!

Have you read The 19th Wife?  What did you think of it?