Tag Archive | novel

Book Review: Unsheltered

Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver

In poking around on the library’s website, I found a novel by Barbara Kingsolver that looked intriguing. It had been a while since I had read her work, but I had enjoyed the Poisonwood Bible several years ago.

Unsheltered

Unsheltered is the story of two families who live on the same block of Vineland, New Jersey 140 years apart.  It is a planned, utopian city, founded by Charles Landis, a notable eccentric who wanted the community to abide by his rules.

In the present day, Willa Knox and her multi-generational family move into a large, run down home that was willed to them when an aunt passed away. She goes looking for ways to help fund a renovation of the home, including seeking out grants based on the preservation of a historically significant home.

Back in the 1870s, Thatcher Greenwood lived in Vineland, a high school science teacher who is at odds with his principal for teaching evolution based science. Thatcher meets an unexpected ally and friend in his next door neighbor, Mary Treat, a middle aged woman with an interest in botany and small animals and insects.

Kingsolver weaves the two stories together, in her characteristic style of switching back and forth between the families and time periods.  It is effortless and interesting, with her complex character development.  You find yourself invested in their lives, cheering and cursing their decisions, and feeling their pain. 

The historic context of this novel was the real win.  Because Mary Treat is real, and the town of Vineland, New Jersey and its founder, Charles Landis, are real.  Kingsolver makes these real life characters come to life on the page, and tells a part their stories for a new generation of readers. 

5 stars.

Book Review: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, by Balli Kaur Jaswal

This book was nominated to be our book club selection for this month; it didn’t win the vote, but I had read the book that was selected already, so I decided to read this one instead.

Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

How interesting!

The story follows Nikki, a young Punjabi woman who lives in London.  She is struggling to find her identity, after dropping out of law school and experiencing the death of her father.  There is tension with her mother, as she works as a bartender and lives in the flat above the pub.  Her mother fears she’s going down the wrong path; throwing her life away.

Nikki reluctantly agrees to post a profile for her sister on the “marriage board” at the largest Sikh temple in Southall.  While there, she finds a posting for an English and creative writing teacher, facilitating a project for women to tell their stories.  She has no experience teaching at all, much less English or creative writing, but she gets the job because no one else applies.

She is in for a wild ride.  A half dozen widows sign up for the course, with varying degrees of interest in learning English, but almost all of them have stories that they want to tell…  And their stories are erotic!  These women are reliving their experiences with their husbands, or dreaming of the experiences that they would have liked to have had.  What becomes apparent is that these women, who are not supposed to have these feelings or desires, have rich imaginations and stories that pour out of them onto the page.  Nevermind that most of them don’t even know how to write…  They will find a way.

Along the way, Nikki finds herself drawn into the culture of her birth, one she has long held at arm’s length.  She learns that these women aren’t backwards or archaic; instead they honor their rich cultural heritage.

I think this novel could have stood on its own, but the author throws in the excitement of a murder mystery too.  I think I would have enjoyed this book either way, but I’m still not sure whether the side story adds to or detracts from the main plot line.

I listened to the book on audio, and found the reader, Meera Syal, to be engaging from start to finish.

4 stars.

Book Review: The German Girl

The German Girl is the debut novel of Armando Lucas Correa, a Cuban author.  It was published in 2016 in both Spanish and English.

The German Girl

The story is that of two girls, brought together over time.  Hannah Rosenthal, a German Jewish refugee fleeing to Cuba via ocean liner in 1939.  And Anna, a 14 year old girl living in New York City.

The perspective shifts back and forth between the two of them as the story unfolds, piece by piece.  Hannah’s flight from Germany, trying to escape the reach of the Nazis.  Anna’s trying to learn why her father left her, and understand why her mother just doesn’t have the energy to get out of bed.  I don’t want to reveal much, as the suspense and hold of the story would be diminished if you knew what was waiting around the next corner.

This novel was incredible.  Sweet, and heartbreaking, it pulls you in page after page, not wanting to put it down.  What will happen to these girls as their lives unfold?

5 stars.

 

Book Review: Emma

Emma, by Jane Austen

By all accounts, Jane Austen led a sheltered life.  So perhaps it is somewhat surprising that she had an uncanny ability to see deeply into the emotional lives of people.  Her six novels describe the nuances of people, and she had a gift for writing about the complex personalities of her characters and their daily lives, in a way that brought them to life.  All this despite the fact that Austen lived her entire life in only a few places, without much money or prospects. She never married, and died after a long illness at the age of 41.

Emma

Emma is no exception to Austen’s talent for character development.  She is a bright, vivacious young woman who lives with her sickly father in the small village of Highbury, sixteen miles outside of London.  She has decided that she will never marry. 

Emma spends her days socializing, taking care of her father, matchmaking for her friends, and forming opinions about all her neighbors and acquaintances.  Sometimes her meddling goes awry, as when she convinces her friend Harriet that a Mr. Elton is interested in courting her, and encourages to discard another suitor whom Emma deems not good enough.  When Mr. Elton returns from Bath with a wife, well, OOPS…  Emma continues along this way, a wealthy society girl with nothing better to occupy her time than judging everybody she comes into contact with. 

The most action in the novel are a foray to a nearby home to pick strawberries, a minor run-in with a band of gypsies, and planning a ball that almost ended up not happening.  Many describe Emma as Austen’s worst novel due to this lack of action, but it still contains the rich character development.  You still see Emma’s strengths and flaws, and find yourself relating to her cringe-worthy moments.  I mean, we’ve all been there.  You become invested in the characters.  I found myself truly wanting them to succeed or fail. 

That said, it is probably still my least favorite of the Austen novels, but I’m still glad I finally read it. 

3 stars. 

Book Review: The Jane Austen Society

The Jane Austen Society, by Natalie Jenner

In the years after World War II, the residents of the tiny English village of Chawton are coming to terms with their collective loss.  Husbands and brothers have been lost to the war, and the economy is struggling. 

The Jane Austen Society

However, 150 years previously, Chawton had a resident who, although unknown at the time, is rather famous now.  Jane Austen.  Her distant relatives still live in a deteriorating manor house, with an impressive library of books that Jane Austen would have read during her time here.

Several members of the community decided to try to save the small home where Austen lived while in Chawton.  They were an unlikely band, including a widower doctor, a farmer, a widow, a 16 year old girl, a descendant of Austen herself, an American actress, and a Sotheby’s memorabilia scout.  As they embarked on their charitable cause, they also revived old friendships and formed new ones. 

The Jane Austen Society has parallel stories; the surface story is the mission of the group to save Austen’s home and open it as a museum.  This story is interwoven with the stories and lives of the characters, which provide a rich depth to this novel.  Their stories often parallel the life of Austen, and her connection to family, and also her loneliness.  It is this connection that makes this a fantastic book. 

Natalie Jenner writes believably about literature, friendship, grief, and loneliness.  Her characters are believable, with real trials and victories.  I enjoyed it thoroughly. 

5 stars.

Note: Although there really was an effort to save Austen’s home in Chawton, Jenner explains that her novel’s characters are purely fictional. 

Book Review: The Little Paris Bookshop

The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George

Monsieur Perdu is a bookseller in Paris.  Years ago he purchased an old river barge and converted it to a bookshop that is docked in the Seine River.  This isn’t just any old bookshop, and Perdu isn’t just any old bookseller.  You see, he can read people.  He reads his customers and selects for them the perfect book to heal them.  He calls himself a literary apothecary.  

The Little Paris Bookshop

His uncanny gift has helped scores of people along the way, those trying to understand the meaning of life, refocus their goals, deal with change, or heal a broken heart.  Unfortunately, his own broken heart is the one that he cannot fix.  It has been 20 years since she left, and he still has been unable to move on…

Perdu finally is confronted with his loss when he gives a neighbor an old table he isn’t using, and she finds in the drawer a letter that he never opened.  It sets him on a path to finally address his broken heart.

The book shows how the most unlikely people can become friends, and how total strangers can help us on our path to healing.  This novel is absurd, funny, and heart-wrenching in turn.  Nina George weaves her tale in a way that is relatable and whimsical, and leaves the reader wishing to join Perdu on his journey.

5 stars. 

Book Review: Dragonfly in Amber

Dragonfly in Amber, by Diana Gabaldon

Claire Randall has a secret.  She’s kept it for over 20 years, but finally it is time to return to Scotland and confront her past.  Dragonfly in Amber is the second in the Outlander series, but my friend assured me that you can read them out of order.

Dragonfly in Amber (Outlander, #2)

The story begins with Claire searching for historical records that will confirm her difficult to believe story.  20 years before, she went missing for months as a young, married woman, before arriving back at home malnourished and pregnant, as mysteriously as she vanished.  But where was she?

Now 20 years later, Claire’s husband has died and it is time to reveal to her daughter the truth about her father.

The book is a long saga weaving in the 1960s with the 1740s, in Claire’s attempt to stop the slaughter at Culloden during the Scottish Jacobite rebellion.  It weaves history into the novel’s story and is extremely detailed and painstakingly researched.  You will learn about the family connections of the clans in Scotland, the political motives of the various players, and some pretty gruesome medical treatments of the time.

I don’t want to give away the story, but highly recommend the book. The only challenge was that it took so long to get through (I admit I had to put it down to read other things in between), it was hard to remember the beginning once I got to the end.

5 stars

 

Book Review: The Idiot

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, was another book club pick…

In 1995, back when email was a new thing, Harvard freshman Selin, a young Turkish-American woman, sets about to discover herself.  She navigates dorm life, takes classes in subjects she never imagined herself studying, and begins meeting new friends.

It all sounds like the beginning of a fabulous adventure, because who wouldn’t expect a novel about college life to be filled with fun and frivolity.  Except this one isn’t.

The Idiot is basically a story about what happens when people are so smart that they can’t actually relate to the real world.  Her conversations with others barely touch on subjects that normal 18 year olds would discuss, instead opting for the nonsensical ramblings of a genius with no real-life experience.

Selin bumbles along, disliking her roommate without ever having a conversation, falling in love and getting her heart broken via email without seeming to display any emotion, and never really finding any joy or sorrow in her surroundings.  The best way to describe her life is academic.

I kept waiting for this book to get better, because a friend said her mother told her it was funny.  I wonder now if she meant funny in the ironic sense.  At any rate, this book, for me, did not contain any funny.  It also didn’t contain any emotion at all…

1 star.

Book Review: The Murderer’s Daughters

The Murderer’s Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers, was a book club pick, and I was thankful that my hold at the library came in just in the nick of time.  Of course, my hold at the library had been ready for several weeks, but pick ups were delayed by violence and protests at a homeless camp that had been set up on the library lawn…  2021 so far seems to be a continuation of 2020!  But that’s a story I won’t get into here.

The Murderer's Daughters

Lulu and Merry were 9 and 5 years old when they witnessed their father murder their mother in a drunken rage.  The family was fractured and dysfunctional, and shortly afterwards, the girls were sent to live in a group home for girls.  They had weekend visits with their grandmother, who inexplicably couldn’t care for them, even though she managed to live on her own, and visit their father in prison every other weekend.  She and Merry had to take a couple different buses and the Staten Island Ferry to get there, but visited him faithfully, while Lulu refused.  The girls spent years in the orphanage before they were finally fostered by an employee of the home for a short time.

Lulu and Merry each developed different coping methods and strategies and built drastically different lives for themselves.  They remained bonded in their trauma, neither effectively dealing with the pain of what happened.  The novel follows them from the time of the murder in the 1970s until the early 2000s; their careers, their relationships and their family bonds.

Randy Susan Meyers draws on her experience working as a domestic violence advocate to frame the story. It was interesting in many ways, with the characters displaying believable attributes.  The manipulative father who holds no accountability for his actions, the perfect child, and the daughter who rebels against everything…  That said, the characters felt one-dimensional and flat to me; they needed more depth to truly immerse myself in the book.

3 stars.

Book Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

I feel like I might be the last woman in the world who hadn’t read this book…  Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L James…  It was available on the library’s website, so what the heck?  People were raving about it; why not see what the hype is all about?

Fifty Shades of Grey (Fifty Shades, #1)

Anastasia Steele is a bright, young woman just about to graduate college when she does her roommate a favor and interviews rich, handsome, CEO Christian Grey.  She can’t shake the physical attraction, and neither can he.  However, Mr. Grey, in his late 20s, has acquired a taste for the BDSM lifestyle, and only wants to date Anastasia if she will agree to his kink.  As a 22 year old virgin, this is her first foray into any type of romantic relationship, let alone one with so much risk…  Of course, he is gorgeous, and so sexy, and rich… What will she choose?

The majority of this book is Christian and Anastasia’s two-steps-forward, one-step-back relationship progression, with Anastasia falling hard and getting way, way, too worked up about this jerk of a man…  Love?  I mean, she barely knows the guy.  Yet she agrees to sleep with him on their second date?  And don’t get me started about how a young woman with no sexual experience whatsoever is able to feel mind-numbing pleasure within 5 minutes of her first encounter…  Guys in their 20s just don’t deliver like that…

This novel is really just a vessel to deliver a story of kink and BDSM, wrapped up in a mainstream package with a red bow…  If that interests you, you will like it.  Otherwise, you will probably agree with me, that it’s one to skip…

2 stars.