I have been really bad about writing my latest book reviews, so this is going to be a long post with lots of books, but with some very brief thoughts!
Magda’s Daughter by Catrin Collier
A Polish woman named Magda and her young child move to Wales after WWII to start a new life. Helena grows up hearing the stories of her heroic father and his tragic death, but not much more about life in Poland. When her mother dies unexpectedly in the 60s, Helena tries to take her body back to Poland to be buried next to the man she loved. But when she arrives in Poland, she discovers that the stories her mother passed on are not all true. It’s an interesting story, and I liked reading about the Cold War relationships. But the story felt contrived and too complicated. It turns out (I’m going to go ahead and spoil the ending here) that Magda was not really her birth mother. Magda was her birth mother’s best friend, who was brutally raped by the Nazis. In a really bizarre twist, the birth mother decided NOT to tell Helena that she was a rape baby, but instead that she had a wonderful romance with a soldier who died, which Helena totally believes. This woman travels hundreds of miles, into Communist territory, and STILL doesn’t know the truth. This is a mediocre book at best, without much depth or detail about the time and places involved. And the continuing deceptions towards the main character, who is engaged on a search for truth, left me with a bad taste.
House of Meetings by Martin Amis
I’ve never read anything by this author, despite the fact that he is quite famous and often mentioned. But when I saw this book, I was intrigued both by the author and the subject matter: the Gulag. I’ve been fascinated by the gulag ever since I read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch in Mr. Knutti’s high school English class. This book focuses on the gulag’s impact on a very personal scale: 2 brothers, in love with the same woman, imprisoned for different reasons in the same prison. After many (many) years, they are both released back into society. But everything changed for them on the night that one brother (the younger one married the woman) was granted a conjugal visit in the titular House of Meetings. This is definitely a book I will be reading several times, as the character studies are really fascinating.
House of Angels by Freda Lightfoot
OMG this is a terrible book. I usually try to be more delicate than that, but seriously! I picked up this historical fiction (Lake District, 1908) expecting to read something about the ending of the Victorian age and the coming of the new century, women’s lib, industrial revolution, etc. etc. etc. Instead, it’s about young women getting married, or getting screwed by their father. And I mean that literally, unfortunately. I wonder if, because incest is one of the last social taboos, authors feel they can use it to spice up an otherwise dull story. And I guess sometimes that could work. But Freda Lightfoot uses this plot point too heavily. It’s a sledge hammer driven home once too often. Three sisters each confront their fate. The youngest becomes pregnant (by daddy) and kills herself. The middle one is basically traded by dad in an arranged marriage (but she ends up loving her husband anyway, so it’s okay). The eldest runs away and falls in love with a local (soon to be unionist) lad. In the penultimate scene, Daddy dearest conveniently falls out the window and everyone lives happily ever after. Puke!
Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
I read this book about a month ago, but I’ve completely forgotten everything about it! That’s not to say it wasn’t a good book, because I think Sarah Dunant is a talented writer. But something about this book, as opposed to Sacred Heart (her other book that I read back in the spring) makes it a bit forgettable. I feel like the author never decided on a path for this story, and so it’s a bit lost. A young girl in Florence has to choose between marriage or the convent, and ultimately is manipulated into marriage with a much older man. Unknown to her, the man is actually her brother’s lover, which causes some consternation when she finds out. But she is secretly in love with a young painter, so she and her husband make an open-marriage agreement that’s pretty unusual for the time. But then Savonarola and the religious reformists arrive (much like the modern day Tea Party) and try to shut down all the fun. Our heroine is saved by a great sacrifice, but ultimately ends up living in a convent anyway. So much for the power of choice!
Penelopioad by Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood is one of my favorite authors of all time. This book is a total delight, both because it’s short and sweet and saucy, and it’s really made me think of ancient history and modern feminism and how they can and cannot combine. The well-known story of Odysseus has been told so many times. He goes off to fight the Trojan War, and is goes missing on the way home. He’s gone for 20 years, during which time his patient wife waits for him dutifully, seeing off multiple suitors in her devotion. But Margaret Atwood takes a closer look at Penelope and her long wait, and tells the story of the patient wife with a good bit of personality and spark!
Officer’s Ward by Marc Dugain
I found the premise of this short novel to be quite intriguing: a special ward set up in Paris at the beginning of WWI, solely for officers who have suffered severe maxillofacial wounds. Basically it’s a ward for men who no longer have faces. All mirrors are removed, and the men are kept isolated (to stop them from shocking others with their appearance.) The main character is wounded in the very first days of fighting, and spends the entire war in seclusion at the hospital. It’s a fascinating concept, and one that I wish the author had explored more.The book is quite short, only 192 pages, and the last bit gets a bit lost as we move forward through time to WWII and beyond. It would have been better to focus more on the Great War, and perhaps the immediate aftermath. Before the days of intensive plastic surgery and therapy, how did people survive, both physically and emtionally, such a severe and harshly traumatic experience? Interesting both from a medical and humanist perspective.
Chocolat by Joanne Harris
I’ve seen the movie, and loved it, so when I saw this book on the free-shelf at work I decided to see how much the movie differed from the original. And I was pleasantly surprised. I think this might be one of the few times when I liked the movie more than the book. Don’t get me wrong, the book is perfectly delightful, but I think the director made a great decision when he moved the timeframe back to the 50s. It really adds a lot to the story. I also like that they changed the character of the priest a bit, and changed the boat fire from the past to the present. The magical bits were a bit off-putting, because I don’t normally get into all that. But overall it was just like a piece of chocolate: sweet, delicious, and over just before the cloying bits.
The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
Obviously the author had a winning idea with Chocolat, so I can’t blame her for trying to continue the magic with a sequel. Unfortunately, as with so many sequels, this one lacks the sparkle of the original. Perhaps it’s because Anouk has grown up to be a teenager, or that it’s set in modern times with cellphones and such, but The Lollipop Shoes left me feeling a bit sticky. A character who is never really defined, but who I can only assume is the devil in disguise, tries to steal Anouk’s soul. This part of the book is interesting and should have remained the focus. Unfortunately we get sidetracked by the little sister, the missing Roux, and the identity swap that has happened since we left Vianne at the end of Chocolat. I don’t know why so much had to happen between the books, when the action should have been concentrated within the books. That creates a giant chasm in the plotlines, and the rest of the action is just not weak enough to bridge the gap.
The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracey Chevalier
The author of The Girl with the Pearl Earring has definitely captured a specific audience: historical fiction with a hook into the art scene. Unfortunately she chooses a work that is neither particularly famous, or particularly striking, for this work. It’s a tapestry about unicorns, and only folks who are really into their textile history will care enough about the work to be drawn into this story. Also unfortunately, she narrates from the perspective of many different characters, leaving the story fractured and incomplete. I’ve always felt that it’s better to tell one single story in a wholly complete and satisfying way, than to try and tell 20 stories and just end up with nothing.
Whale Road by Robert Low
I don’t usually define literature as being “masculine” or “feminine”, simply because I find it trite and stereotypical. But I cannot deny while reading Whale Road that I felt I was catching a glimpse of a male world that I’d never before seen. Vikings, to be specific. Really angry ones, looking for treasure. It’s a great little story that reminded me a lot of Call of the Wild, except with a young boy instead of a wolf. The viciousness of the weather and man is still present, as is the coming of age in a wild and atypical way. Apparently this is one of a series, and I’ve decided to look for the other books at the library to see if the story continues to hold my interest.