faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #10: The Perfect Hope by Nora Roberts

I think I’ve learned my lesson with Nora Roberts’ trilogies. Wait until they are all published and read them in one go, not spread out over the course of a year. I read and reviewed The Next Always in June and The Last Boyfriend in October of last year for Cannonball Read Four. They were enjoyable and looking back The Next Always was certainly my favorite of the three.  The Perfect Hope was a standard wrap up but lacked a certain something to hook me in.

I think that in the waiting for books two and three to arrive at my library and be available I had conjured up the story as I wanted it to unfold and was left disappointed with the story as it actually turned out.Continue reading…

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #9: Gabriel’s Angel by Nora Roberts

Gabriel's Angel

While making what has become my weekly trip to the library I picked up Gabriel’s Angel, a new to me Nora Roberts for a much needed palate cleanser. I’m happy to report that this is not as painful as my previous forays into early Roberts fare this year. While this story is simplistic and lacking in the details that mark Roberts later work it is a serviceable story with well drawn leads and an interesting meet cute. Want to know more?

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #8: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

This one’s going to be a more in depth review than I usually do, so please be aware SPOILERS abound.

 

First, the caveats. I am a northerner who was raised in the South. I grew up in both the New South and the Old South. I am white, my best friend since the 4th grade – some 22 years now, is black. I have a degree in history, I earned a graduate degree in Museum Education, I work at a historic site in the Northeast and I deal with how to interpret the history and consequences of slavery and indentureship as part of my job. I will take part in shouting matches with people who claim lynchings only happened in the South, or a long time ago (it continued in the United States until the 1960s). For these reasons much of what others most likely found difficult to read or shocking, to me, is just par for the course. Jen K and I had virtually the same response to the book.

That said The Kitchen House opens up with one of the protagonists discovering someone she cared for lynched.  What Kathleen Grissom does well in this book is to present the truth of the times she is describing (1790-1810) and the setting of her story (Virginia) accurately. Grissom did her research. She studied slave narratives, interviewed slave descendents; she visited and researched at the Virginia Historical Society, the Black History Museum, and Colonial Williamsburg. If only all historical fiction writers did the same. The problem was not in the research, the problem was in Grissom’s distaste for what she knew and what she found.

Slavery is quite simply one of the great national tragedies of the United States. There is no getting around that. It is virtually impossible not to have a gut reaction to the way in which other humans were treated for hundreds of years in this country (not to mention around the world). The physical, psychological and economic toll is still being felt, and will take much more time and much greater minds than mine or Ms. Grissom’s to come to terms with. But, the suffering that is unfortunately essential in the story of The Kitchen House means that the author must leave her emotions at the door. By not being able to fully put aside her own appalled and disgusted reactions (Grissom’s own descriptions of her reaction in her Author’s note) and simply tell the story, Grissom hamstringed one of her two protagonists and perhaps ruined the final third of her novel.

At its root The Kitchen House is the story of two women: Lavinia and Belle. Lavinia and Belle alternate in narrating chapters of the book, giving us insight into the two different angles of the story. Lavinia arrives at Tall Oaks as a very sickly six year old Irish orphan who is indentured to the farm. Being white, young, and sickly she is sent to live in the Kitchen House with Belle. Belle is the illegitimate daughter of the owner of Tall Oaks, Captain James Pyke.  Captain Pyke fathered Belle before his marriage and she was raised until that time by his mother in the Big House. After her grandmother dies and the Captain marries, Belle was sent down to run the Kitchen House under the supervised care of Mama Mae. Mama Mae and her husband Papa George take Belle, and later Lavinia, into their family of House Slaves and the reader follows along with the various threads of storyline which are woven through the complex relationships of everyone living at Tall Oaks.

For the first half of the novel the reader becomes acquainted with the running of a plantation, although we are kept out of the Field Workers lives. Lavinia’s story drives the narrative. Her chapters eat up ten times as much real estate as Belle’s. This is a hindrance to the storytelling while at the same time it speaks greatly to the character development. Lavinia is a dreamer and remains childlike even while being continually exposed to the darker aspects of life. She never completely pieces together the things she sees and experiences, although the reader cannot help but to. I blame this wholeheartedly on Grissom’s own reaction to the atrocities in the narrative (beatings, rape, incest) and as an author she is protecting the character from fully realizing what she is experiencing and in the long run that means that Lavinia moves forward with such naïveté that she nearly brings everyone’s lives to an end.

The counterpoint to Lavinia’s viewpoint is the no nonsense approach Belle brings to bear. Belle is the more complex character with the more detailed personal history. She is the child of the captain and is promised her free papers. She continually refuses them because she does not want to leave her family or the man she loves. She is raped by her half brother Marshall and finds herself pregnant with his child. She waits too long to ask Captain Pyke for her freedom, after his wife Martha hides Belle’s free papers, and he dies before he can grant freedom for herself and her son.  She lives in fear of the day her half brother inherits Tall Oaks and is continually planning her escape, all the while entering into a relationship with a married man. Belle is separated from Lavinia for the second half of the novel and no longer able to balance out her gullibility with her own true understanding of how the world works based on her own experiences.

The second half of the novel finds Lavinia living in Williamsburg with the sister of Martha Pyke once Martha is committed to the Hospital for the Insane. This is where Lavinia’s story begins to unravel, and perhaps her greatest character flaw is revealed. Lavinia will not ask a question. She doesn’t ask about details she doesn’t know about her loved ones or about her own future. Ever. Much of the plot movements in the second half of the novel revolve around Lavinia making decisions about her future without asking anyone with the knowledge to tell her what her options are. Admittedly her options are few coming of age in the first decade of the 1800s, but there were still options available to her. However, because she doesn’t want to offend the Maddens, or reveal that she doesn’t know the terms of her indenture, she careens from poor choice to poor choice. It culminates in her decision to marry Marshall Pyke. Yes, that Marshall Pyke.

Because Grissom kept Lavinia from piecing together the details of life at Tall Oaks she makes the grave error of trusting him and marrying him. If she had not trusted him she could have found herself married to the quite lovely Will Stephens. The most frustrating part to me was that Grissom could have explored the decay of Marshall Pyke without having him marry Lavinia. She did not need to endure his physical violence and subsequently turn into a laudanum abuser as Martha Pyke already had. The lynching we see in the first chapter, which is where we know we are going to find ourselves again at the end of the novel, could have been reached in another way. Instead, because Lavinia is too naive and weak to choose otherwise the final hundred pages of the book read as a litany of sin and destruction.

It is for all these reasons that I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this novel. I’m going with three because it is well researched and written, even if plot choices and character development left me shaking my head in disappointment of what could have been.

This review, like all my others, is cross-posted.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #7: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This one has been reviewed for CBR5 a few times already, so let’s just skip to the meat of the issue:

“The story is summarized as being Bee’s search for her mom, but it’s not. It’s the documenting of a life out of control and the magical realism way in which that life is brought back under control.  And I say this while falling a little in love with the book as it is.”

Read more here.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #6: The Phantom of Manhattan by Frederick Forsyth

Ever find yourself wondering what happened to that rascally character the Phantom of the Opera? Are you one of the over 50 million people who have enjoyed/endured Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage production and wondered “well then what happened?” This book was meant for you. But don’t read it.

I’m telling you not to read because although the continuation of the Phantom and Christine’s story from the play can be intriguing it is handled with a rather ham-fisted delivery. What of the original source material, Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra? Frederick Forsyth, in his preface which is longer than any of the chapters, outlines all the ways that Leroux failed as an author and praises the masterful touch Andrew Lloyd Webber applied to the source material and fixed it for the stage making it so attractive the masses that flock to see it. This is a sequel to the play, and is heavily influenced by Webber. As the title indicates this portion of the story is set against the backdrop of Manhattan, where the Phantom escaped to after the events of Phantom of the Opera.

The book glints from point of view to point of view, slowly putting the pieces of the narrative together. While this is quite effective in keeping the mysterious air of The Phantom going, it also leaves the other characters underdeveloped and barely more than a voice in the reader’s mind. This strategy initially turned my off to the work and never really won me over. Perhaps what Forsyth really should have written was a play. There is a vast difference in the way plays and novels are structured. The episodes from each character’s perspective work well as scenes, but are generally failures as chapters.

Perhaps worst of all the character the reader comes to know best – a young newspaper reporter – does not have a consistent characterization. While the first  fifteen chapters are short and all staged over three months the sixteenth chapter jumps 41 years ahead and brings us back into contact with the now retired newspaperman as he tells a college class about the story he failed to put together, the story of Erik and Christine. This is a jarring chapter and should have served as the epilogue but instead Forsyth also throws in a three page epilogue outlining the fates of the surviving characters and unleashing a little bit more mystery.

Don’t read it. This one is a poorly written waste of time with a storyline you could guess for yourself once I mention (SPOILER) that Christine found herself with child shortly after that fateful night in the bowels of the Palais Garnier but before finding herself married to Raoul.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #5 : City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves is the definition of a great Cannonball Read find (thanks Katsings!). I think it’s safe to say that the consensus around the Cannonball is that author David Benioff has the goods. Benioff  also has the potential to be a bit of Pajiba favorite, being the executive producer/show runner of Game of Thrones, and writer of 25th Hour – both the novel and the screenplay – and the screenplay for The Kite Runner, although I haven’t seen this one yet,  I hear good things. But back to the point – City of Thieves is a classic coming of age story filled with some rather un-classic aspects: cannibals, suspense, cross-dressers, romance and torture set against a historically accurate picture of Leningrad in 1942.

City of Thieves opens with a writer asking his grandfather to tell him about his experiences during World War II.  The narrator knows that his grandfather, “the knife fighter” killed two Germans before he was eighteen. After relenting, Lev begins to tell his story to his grandson, talking openly for the first time about his childhood, coming to America and sex. Mostly though he talks about a two week period in 1942 when he met his best friend, the woman that would become his wife and killed those two Germans.

Lev’s story begins in and around Leningrad during the first winter of the German siege during World War II. Our hero is a seventeen year old virgin living alone after his mother and sister fled the city for the seemingly safer countryside. Too young for the Red Army, Lev does all the other jobs available to him, including being on his building’s firefighting squad. It’s from his position on the rooftop during the nightly bombings that Lev sees the falling German trooper who would so drastically change his path.

Lev is arrested for looting the corpse of the dead German, under martial law this is a crime punishable by death, but he is instead arrested and placed in a cell with a handsome friendly deserter named Kolya. Kolya’s crime is also grounds for execution, he is a deserter of the Red Army, and that’s what they expect come morning. However in a twist of fate they are given a chance to save their own lives, all they have to do is find a dozen eggs for a powerful colonel’s daughter’s wedding cake.

A dozen eggs in a city cut off from supplies, a city which is starving to death – is a ludicrous and impossible task, one which takes our new friends far into German occupied territory, through the bitter cold of winter and countless adventures and atrocities. While the description of the plot seems dark and depressing it’s also important to note that the leads approach each event with a degree of gallows humor which keeps the book light for the reader.

This review is cross-posted.

faintingviolet’s #CBR5 review #3: Secret Star by Nora Roberts

What those of you considering reading this book should be concerned with is the fact that this is the third book in a trilogy. I had not read the first two and that kept me from truly loosing myself in the narrative more than the technology gaps. If the basic plot sounds interesting, I would suggest starting at the beginning with Hidden Star.

The plot is pretty typical of the Nora Roberts oeuvre. There are three blue diamonds, known collectively as the Stars of Mithra. There is a string of murders which take place in the search for these priceless diamonds, before they enter the Smithsonian Institute. In pursuit of the perpetrators of these crimes Detective Seth Buchanan finds himself charged with solving the murder of Grace Fontaine. Who shows up very much alive and becomes something Seth cannot keep a professional distance from.

Read this rest of my review over on my blog.

faintingviolet’s #CBRV review #2: The Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

“And everyone alike indifferently happy for the three or four days September lasts before winter sets in.”  p. 403

This one is a keeper. To me, the sign of efficient characterization is that the reader has the desire to stay with a character past the point of reason. The character relaying the story to the reader in The Gods of Gotham is a Mr. Timothy Wilde. From the moment Tim begins to describe the story he is going to relate I knew I would sacrifice sleep to stay with him and read it as quickly as possible.

Its 1845 and a fire and explosion in the Eighth Ward took his home, his life savings, and left him with a facial scar covering a quarter of his face. Lucky to have survived at all, and with such relatively minimal damage, Tim is left without a home or job. This scenario leads him to having no other choice than to accept a position with the newly established New York Police Department his brother Valentine secured for him. Since Tim, unlike Val, is not involved in Democratic politics he is sent off to the Sixth Ward, home of the infamous Five Points.

The story properly begins with Tim relating to the reader why he hates writing police reports, that they don’t capture the essence of the story. The police reports he’s writing all refer back the cases we’ll be tracing with him throughout the month of August, which are decidedly dark. Just a few weeks on the job Tim becomes entangled in solving the case of murdered children prostitutes who have been buried on the outskirts of New York. Tim is invested in discovering the truth of the children’s deaths, taking the reader with him as pursues information from ministers, priest, doctors, whores, newsboys, and anyone else he can think of.

Structurally the novel works well. The beginning of each chapter starts with a quote from various historical sources which recount the social milieu of the time. It can be difficult for a modern reader to understand the hatred and fear associated with the Irish and the Pope/Catholicism during the 1840s, but these quotes and the insights of certain characters including our decidedly unreligious protagonist the reader is given an understanding they may not have previously had.  The other issue the quotes lay out for the reader is that of the economic and political climate of the 1840s.

The other bit of structure that can be handy as a reader is getting used to the vocabulary of the world is a ‘flash’ dictionary in the beginning of the novel. Certainly not comprehensive it is however an important reminder to the reader that many characters in the novel are so severely divided from proper speech as to have a language all their own. There is plenty of flash in the book that is not spelled out, but Lyndsay Faye does a good job of putting a character in place that needs to be translated for, and in turn translating for the reader.

An entirely engrossing read, I have already passed it along to a friend.

This review is cross-posted.

faintingviolet’s #CBRV review #1: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

The novel’s full title is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story and I find that to be a telling detail about John Berendt’s work. This is a story that shows many, but not all, of the facets that make Savannah a unique place. Savannah has been haunting me the past few years. Several family members and friends have made the sojourn to the famous city and all have the same report: “you have to go”. I believe that John Berendt would agree after his 8 years of living on and off in the sequestered city.

Read more here.

On a separate note from the book (and even the movie it was eventually turned into) I want to talk for a moment about e-readers. I have an early model Nook – the kind that uses e-ink technology and is not backlit. Whenever I read a book on it, instead of a paper copy borrowed from the library or purchased in a moment of indiscretion, I read much slower than average. Has anyone else noticed this phenomenon or is it just me?