alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 60: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

“Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn’t share his brother’s appetite for whiskey and killing, he’s never known anything else. But their prey isn’t an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm’s gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living–and whom he does it for.”

I enjoyed this book a lot. It moves fairly quickly, and has a wry sense of humor assisted by a touch of charming old-timeyness. It’s also poignant and thoughtful without being maudlin, and, not for nothing, I think the cover art is pretty cool. The story takes place during the Gold Rush, and the titular Sisters Brothers — their last name is Sisters — are infamous contract killers. Narration comes through Eli, the “sensitive” brother, and though I put “sensitive” in scare quotes, he really does seem like a kind of cuddly bear when you get down to it: he could definitely kill you if he felt so inclined, but he’d honestly rather not.

As I read this awhile back then settled comfortably into laziness regarding ever writing a Cannonball review again, I’m forced to rely on somewhat stale impressions. One thing I remember really enjoying was the dialogue — both the conversations themselves and Eli’s mental reactions to said conversations. For instance, Eli is about 200% done here with a would-be Scary Guy who is all talk: “Returning his pen to its holder, he told us, ‘I will have him gutted with that scythe. I will hang him by his own intestines.’ At this piece of dramatic exposition, I could not hep but roll my eyes. A length of intestines would not carry the weight of a child, much less a full grown man.” Another great remark comes later, from a man who shares with Charlie Sisters a possible reason for people overpaying, exorbitantly, for everything in Gold Rush-era San Francisco: “…I am happy to welcome you to a town peopled in morons exclusively. Furthermore, I hope that your transformation to moron is not an unpleasant experience.”

All in all, thumbs up. I had this on my reading list for awhile and was putting it off because though I had heard good things, it’s a member of a genre I don’t regularly gravitate toward. If I’d known how much I would enjoy it, I’d have picked it up a lot sooner.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #110: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

I bought this novel in May because the cover caught my eye (and the pages are lined blue), and then didn’t even read it until September – I hadn’t heard anything about it when I bought it but over the summer, it started getting quite a bit of favorable buzz. Waiting was such a mistake – this novel was totally amazing, and I have only one small complaint about it, but I’ll get to that later.

Full review.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #52: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

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This long read recently won the Booker Prize and has garnered much praise for its author, 28-year-old New Zealander Eleanor Catton. It’s an ambitious project, and every review I’ve read of it references Catton’s emulation of 19th century novels, a la Charles Dickens. The Luminaries, like a soap opera, involves a large caste of characters and complicated, intersecting story lines. Once you get through the first 400 pages, it starts to come together and gets a little easier to follow. I kept thinking as I was reading that it would make a wonderful mini-series (and would be easier to follow and keep everyone straight).

The novel opens on a dark and stormy night. Really. A weary traveler named Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of a dozen unusual men, men who wouldn’t seem to have any common cause. But of course they do, and it’s complicated, with each man telling his piece of the story. In short, it involves the murder of hermit Crosbie Wells, missing person emery Staines, drug-addled whore Anna, gold, and a very bad man with scar on his face. Catton spins her story both backward and forward, and between the dozen men at the meeting plus another half dozen or so important characters, it gets rather hard to manage at times.

One aspect of the novel I found confusing had to do with the gold. The story unfolds in an 1860s gold rush town in New Zealand called Hokitika. Catton has done extensive research on the gold rush and gets her economics and society facts straight, but the plot lines that involve gold — who’s got it, where did it come from and where is it now — read like a literary form of 3-card monte. I suppose it’s intentional, keeping the reader as confused and in the dark as the twelve men trying to find out what happened to the Wells, Staines and Anna. But then there’s the complication of the missing trunks (more than one!) and one character stealing another’s identity to commit financial fraud.

Another aspect of the novel that was lost on me had to do with astrology. The luminaries — sun and moon — refer to two particular characters, and the 12 men each stand for a sign of the zodiac. Each chapter begins with a chart of the zodiac for that particular day and how particular characters interacted with each other on that day. A character named Lydia, who works as both a madam and amateur astrologer, leads seances and reads people’s charts for them. Perhaps this is simply Catton showing popular interest in astrology at that time, but I’m sure there is some deeper, greater significance to all this astrological stuff that I’m just missing.

Still, I was willing to remain bewildered over the economics and astrology thanks to the brilliantly drawn and diverse characters and a story that holds together well if you stick it out to the end. The hookers here do not have hearts of gold, the Chinese miners are abused and not considered worthy of consideration, the pharmacist deals in opium, a politician is being blackmailed, and Walter Moody may or may not have seen a ghost. Striking it rich, forgetting one’s past and exacting revenge seem to be common goals on the frontier, and that makes for good reading.

The end of the novel does not provide the reader with all loose ends tied up neatly in a bow, but it was a satisfying resolution to me. On the whole, I liked the novel quite a lot. It can be a bit of a slog at first, but once you see the connections among the characters and the facts of their pasts slowly work their way forward, it’s an engrossing story.

Malin’s #CBR5 Review #135: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Young Margaret Hale’s life is turned on its head when her father, a parson from the South of England, renounces his position because he experiences a crisis of faith. He moves his anxious wife and dutiful daughter to the factory town of Milton Northern, where he’s going to work as a tutor. The town, a bustling result of the Industrial Revolution, is full of cotton mills, soot and smoke, a stark contrast to the pastoral idyll of the Southern English countryside. With the loss of Mr. Hale’s living, the family is in severely reduced financial circumstances, (not helped by the fact that they keep sending money to Margaret’s brother who is wanted for mutiny in England, and as a result living in exile in Spain) and can’t really afford more than a modest lifestyle. Margaret bravely adapts fairly quickly, but her mother never feels happy or comfortable in Milton and her health gradually deteriorates.

In Milton, the main social interaction the Hales have is with Mr. John Thornton, a mill owner who leases from Mr. Hale’s best friend, Mr. Bell (Margaret’s godfather). Thornton’s father drove his family into debt and further caused scandal when he committed suicide. Thornton had to quit school, and take a position as a shop clerk to support his sister and widowed mother. Putting aside most of what he earned, he slowly and quietly worked to repay all his father’s debts and became a respected and formidable man in Milton. His mother is a proud and arrogant woman who loves her son fiercely, constantly worried some fortune-hunting young miss will get her claws into him.

Full review on my blog.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #65: The Conductor by Sarah Quigley

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In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany broke its non-aggression pact with Stalin’s USSR, and marched on and besieged Leningrad. Hitler’s plan was to wipe the city from the face of the earth, and he very nearly succeeded. Over the 872 days of the siege, air raids and artillery bombardment reduced the urban area to rubble, while famine, disease and the extreme cold of Russian winters claimed the lives of 1.5m people. Destruction on that scale is impossible to fathom from my safe middle-class 21st century viewpoint, but in The Conductor, a brave fictional web woven around real-life events, Sarah Quigley brings the shocking statistics into sharp relief through the experiences of individuals.

Dmitri Shostakovich is one of Leningrad’s most famous sons. In the throes of writing his seventh symphony, he is a man possessed, and so delays his inevitable evacuation to the relative safety of Siberia for as long as he can. So immersed is he in his work that he sleepwalks through the campaign of German shelling, losing friends and colleagues to the war effort and the declining health of his wife and children as they waste away before his unseeing eyes. His best friend is violinist Nikolai, who lost his wife some years before. Raising his daughter with the help of his spinster sister-in-law, he is forced to make a choice that haunts him, and he finds solace in the music composed by his friend. Finally we have Elias Karlsberg, the second-rate conductor of the third-rate Radio Orchestra, who is plagued by self-doubt as he struggles to keep his elderly mother alive. Shostakovich flees to complete the final movement of the symphony, and after the full score is flown in over enemy lines, Karlsberg and his orchestra are commissioned to perform it for the dying city.

In the music of Shostakovich, the musicians and their conductor find beauty and passion in horrific circumstances. As the winter snows thaw to reveal corpses that have been mutilated for meat, the orchestra of ‘walking cadavers’ battles through personal loss, illness and malnutrition to deliver their performance, broadcast on loud speakers throughout the city and at enemy lines. It is a testament to Quigley’s writing that such themes as the triumph of the human spirit, or a weak man finding inner strength under extreme pressure do not seem trite or hackneyed. This book moved me.

loulamac’s #CBRV review #60: The First Man in Rome by Colleen McCullough

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I’ve been reading this for what feels like years, or at least months and months, as this is the kind of book that you end up dipping in and out of – partly because reading it is a seemingly endless chore, and partly because of its girth. At 1,056 densely-typed pages (including the cast of characters, notes and glossary), it is a real beast. Fit in my handbag? Not likely, I pretty much had to get it its own special wheely suitcase. Which meant that when I was doing things like running to work or travelling abroad, it got put on the back-burner in favour of my Kindle. So maybe it has been years, but now it’s over. Hallelujah.

The novel is concerned with the rise to power of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Marius is low-born and as ambitious as he is wealthy; Sulla has the patrician heritage but not the money to succeed in politics. Their lives are changed when they marry the daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar (the grandfather of Julius Caesar himself), and their fates become intertwined on the battlefields of north Africa and northern Italy. Marius will also face very different conflict in the form of the political machinations of the Roman senate, as the old guard of Rome struggle to preserve the right of the patrician class to rule.

The book bristles with births, marriages and deaths, allegiances and betrayals, battles and even murder. However, it still manages to be deathly boring. I accept that with historical novels, you need a spot of exposition and character back-story, but in The First Man in Rome, that’s pretty much all you get. The plot points, which span 10 years, could be covered in a couple of hundred pages. But this is Colleen McCullough. She likes to wear her research on her sleeve, and no one at her publisher’s seems to have had the guts to tell her to edit. This is the first of seven volumes in her Masters of Rome series, and despite the fascinating subject matter, I won’t be reading the rest of them. Life’s too short.

Even Stevens’s #CBR5 review #20: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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On February 11, 1910 a blizzard snows in the house at Fox Corner, where Sylvie is giving birth to a baby girl, Ursula, who dies before she can take her first breath.

On February 11, 1910, a blizzard snows in the house at Fox Corner, and Dr. Fellowes makes it in the nick of time to deliver Sylvie’s healthy baby girl, Ursula.

This is how Ursula Todd’s life begins, a duality from the start. For Ursula, life and death, or death and life, are intertwined. Ursula suffers several deaths, and each time she dies she is reborn and able to change the course of events in her life. Some are happy, some are heartbreaking, some are lonely, but each one is richly detailed and riveting.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: anyone looking for a time traveling thriller should look elsewhere; this is Ursula’s story, where her ability to resurrect (one of which she is unaware of, she merely feels a commanding presence of déjà vu when she comes back) is part of the strange and complicated background of the Todd family. The family themselves are an odd and compelling bunch; Sylvie is prim and sometimes snobbish, Hugh is a loving, doting father. Ursula’s siblings Pammy, Maurice, Teddy, and Jimmy are as opposite as can be but each has their own place in family and Ursula’s life.

I purposely avoided reading any advanced reviews about this book because the premise was so unique, I thought it best to go in blind, and I’m glad I did. I think having no pre-conceived notions of what this book would be really helped the experience and I was sucked into Ursula’s surreal and ever-changing world. I was captivated by how different a person’s path can be (or how remarkably similar) by changing just a few details in life. I was rooting for Ursula and wanted only the best for her; sometimes she gets it, sometimes she doesn’t.

This book reminded me of a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book (maybe with a little Sliding Doors thrown in), but with more substance and depth.  I read (after I finished) reviews that complained that her rebirth bled out any narrative tension, but I disagree. In fact, I think it adds tension because the rules are never explained to us; it’s as much a mystery to us as it is to Ursula, and you never know if the next death Ursula experiences will be the final one.  I loved Atkinson’s writing; through Ursula she showed her love of literature and words, and that’s something I can get behind no matter what the subject matter.

There is one aspect of the book I didn’t really like, I do have to say. This isn’t really a spoiler, as the book opens with a chapter that strongly insinuates what adult Ursula is up to. But if, like me, you don’t want to be spoiled at all, go ahead and skip this paragraph.  So, moving forward with the part I really didn’t like: Ursula’s story is set against WWII, which is fine and great and I think it gave each member of the family an even greater depth. However, we learn in the first chapter that Ursula grows up and shoots Hitler. Yup, that Hitler. Atkinson does a fairly good job of paving a believable path to get to that point, but it just seems unnecessary. There are so many interesting characters and situations and backdrops that it kind of seems thrown in as a sensational afterthought. It plays a minor part, so it certainly doesn’t ruin the book, but I think leaving it out would have strengthened the book.

Overall, this was a fascinating book, one that kept me engrossed and wanting to know what happened next to the Todd family. I loved Atkinson’s writing and the characters she created and if you’re open to strange but interesting storylines, I would definitely recommend giving this one a go.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #45: The Daughters of Mars: A Novel by Thomas Keneally

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The Daughters of Mars, by Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally, is a World War I novel told from the perspective of two Australian sisters who serve as nurses both at Gallipoli and later in France. This is not just the story of the war, however; it is also the story of the two sisters and their uneasy relationships with their family, their comrades and each other, and the effect that war has on them. Historical lit fans, particularly those who are familiar with WWI lit, will see that Keneally really did his homework for this novel. His attention to historical fact and detail is impressive. Overall, however, I felt the tale being told lacked oomph. The main characters were somewhat flat, I didn’t feel a bond to them, and the final resolution left me dissatisfied.

Naomi and Sally Durance are the narrators of this novel. Older sister Naomi left home in the Australian boondocks to work in a city hospital as soon as she was able. Sally also became a nurse but chose to live at home and work at the local hospital, helping her father care for their mother, who is dying quite painfully of cancer. We learn from the first pages of the story that when their mother died, both girls were there and that Sally intended to give her mother an overdose of morphine as a mercy killing but it appears that Naomi took the initiative and did it for her. The two sisters never discuss what happened and Sally has conflicted feelings — guilt over planning to kill her mother, gratitude that Naomi did it, and resentment that Naomi seems so calm, cool and collected about it. When the opportunity to volunteer as nurses at war arises, both sisters independently decide to go and wind up traveling to Gallipoli together with the other nurse volunteers.

Once the story moves to Gallipoli, it’s like Keneally pulls out his list of Every Horrible Thing that Happened in the War and goes to town. (If you aren’t familiar with the battle of Gallipoli, in which Australian troops were massacred by the Turks, do yourself a favor and watch Peter Weir’s superb film Gallipoli. It is gut-wrenching and beautiful and you will be utterly devastated at the end.) Sally and Naomi are stationed on a hospital ship off the shore of the battle. They can hear and see the shelling, and when the waves of wounded come aboard, the doctors and nurses are overwhelmed by the number and extent of the injuries and by their lack of preparation for it all. Later the ship is torpedoed and sinks, and Keneally gets to describe the horrors of watching people and war horses die horrible deaths at sea. When the survivors are placed on an island to work at the hospital there, Keneally shows us the stupidity of high command and sexism in the hospital environment. He also makes sure to cover the psychological effects of war on the wounded when Naomi travels back to Australia on a ship of men both physically and psychologically maimed by battle. And then it’s on to the Western Front with trench warfare, gas attacks, the treatment of conscientious objectors, the Spanish flu and strong women who try to run their own voluntary hospital while butting heads with British command.

I don’t object to the historical detail. I actually find it very interesting and accurate. The problem is that over this historical picture, we are supposed to be drawn in to the unfolding relationship between Sally and Naomi, who are trying to become friends and, well, sisterly to each other. And each sister has a love interest, even though they are known for being standoffish girls. One falls for a Quaker and the other for an artist/soldier. I was mildly interested in these plot lines but I simply never felt a powerful connection to either sister. I think part of the problem is the lack of character development. We are told that the sisters aren’t close but there’s nothing about their childhood to show how that came about. And their feelings for each other and for their love interests seems tepid even when we are being told that they are becoming closer or falling in love or whatever. 

If the reader is at all familiar with World War I literature, he/she will know that an unhappy ending looms ahead. It’s simply unavoidable (read All Quiet on the Western Front or the war poets, or go watch the above-mentioned Gallipoli). I think Keneally could have produced a very powerful ending to his tale but he equivocates. He provides two endings, and each made me think “Oh, that’s too bad” instead of “Oh, God, WHY???” In my opinion, a WWI novel should end with you feeling the “Oh, God, WHY” way. While Keneally is quite thorough in including just about every kind of tragedy that could have happened in the course of the war, and there is abundant suffering and senseless death, in the end the story lacked the sort of punch that the subject matter deserves.

 

  

bonnie’s #CBR5 Review #68: Regeneration by Pat Barker

I come and go on historical fiction. Really. There are some aspects that are delicious to imagine, and then ponderous writing or plot-formation that makes me crazy. I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and while I enjoyed both, neither changed my somewhat indifferent attitude towards historical fiction/romance/whatever. But then I read Pat Barker’s first Regeneration Trilogy novel, and maybe changed my mind.

Taking place during World War I, Regeneration is the story of the relationship between poet Siegfried Sassoon and his psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers. Rivers is working on nerve regeneration and seeing young men affected by war has given him plenty of food for thought. Sassoon, having written a pamphlet decrying World War I’s continuation, is sent to Craiglockhart after a diagnosis of “shell-shock” is ascribed to his pacifist leanings and writings. Here, we also meet aspiring poet Wilfred Owen in the beginnings of his writing “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (one of his anthologized poems) and other fictional patients within the hospital.

Barker provides meaty, thought-provoking material in her work: masculinity, sexuality, war vs. peace, state-sanctioned violence and its effects on citizens, work/professionalism, and many others. I like the way she interacts with historical figures and weaves a fiction that is both beautiful and horrifying at once. Some of the soldiers’ memories of the war broke my heart and filled me with horror–how could anyone live through that and not be damaged for life? There’s also this incredible line where Rivers observes that the men he observes are at once both old men waiting to die and young schoolboys frozen in time. It’s an extremely apt way to look at victims of combat, and one that haunted me long after I finished reading.

If you’re looking for a cute, fun, fluffy historicized romance, this is not your book. But, if you like literature about literature (the poetic references might be familiar if you took British Literature in high school or college and studied the War Poets), beautiful writing, or World War I subject material, then I think you’ll like this book. It’s a slow read, but simply because I wanted to savor it as I went along.

You can also read this review on my personal blog, The Universe Disturbed.

narfna’s #CBR5 Review #80: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Climbing this book was like reading a mountain. (Wait, what?) I am exhausted, yet fulfilled. I’m also feeling a bit out my depth.

Ever since I finished my Master’s degree two years ago, I haven’t read that many CAPITAL L ‘Literature’ books, mostly out of what you might call ‘avoidance.’ So I’m a bit out of practice in writing anything that isn’t based off of things my hindbrain spews up out of reflex, and I’m definitely out of practice digesting and processing prose that is in any way not designed to deliver pleasure directly to my frontal lobe. So forgive me, please, for not being able to write about this book in a way that would match its own quality, which, by the way, was excellent.

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award winning Wolf Hall, the first in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy — which continues in last year’s Bring Up the Bodies and will conclude in 2015 with The Mirror and the Light — chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell from a poverty-stricken violent son of a drunken blacksmith to the personal advisor to Henry VIII.

I will admit up front that before reading this book, my knowledge of Tudor England was on the limited side, most of it consisting of what I’d gleaned from listening to “I’m Henery the Eighth, I Am” and from reading Hark! A Vagrant, along with wherever else I might have soaked up the occasional tidbit of general knowledge (as a rule, most American children have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on with the history of the English monarchy, excepting to know it was good old King George who fought us in the Revolutionary War, and some king named James wrote the Bible — and we’re lucky if they know even that). I’d heard the name Thomas Cromwell, but I had no idea that he’s generally considered somewhat of a dick, historically speaking, and I still wouldn’t know if it this book were my only source of information.

Certainly you come away from this book with a pretty good idea of the goings on surrounding Henry’s quest for a male heir (and the sometimes surprising motivations behind it) — the annulment of his marriage to Queen Catherine, the disinheriting of his daughter Mary, making himself the head of the Church in England, and the resulting split from the Catholic Church (and all that mess entailed), and of course, his marriage to Anne Boleyn (and the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth, not that anyone in this book regards her of any worth at all — Mantel even has characters referring to her regularly as ‘The Ginger Pig’). But the real focus is Thomas Cromwell, both the private and the public man. We spend just as much time getting to know Thomas’s family as we do with the King’s affairs (and Cardinal Wolsey’s before that).
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