Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #87: Of Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende

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Of Love and Shadows is billed as a romance, and while there’s certainly a romance within it, the novel is so much more than that. It’s political and social commentary wrapped around a romantic story.

Of Love and Shadows is about a journalist (Irene) and her photographer (Francisco) who live in an undetermined Latin American country in which people keep disappearing. The government, which runs EVERYTHING, is suspected of these disappearances, but people are too afraid to investigate. Irene and Francisco, however, follow the case of one of these disappeared citizens, and uncover more truth than they were expecting.

Allende sets up these frightened, oppressed people so expertly that I kept thinking that maybe the book was older than I thought (it was published in 2005) and set in some real country under a militaristic regime. It certainly has its roots in actual historical events, which make it even more effective.

The romance-y bits are good, too, if you like that sort of thing (who doesn’t, really?).

Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #81: The Infinite Plan by Isabel Allende

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Allende’s The Infinite Plan follows the life of one man, Gregory Reeves, from his time as a four year boy traveling the country in a van with his parents until he is an old man. Gregory goes through many changes in his life, living in the barrio for while, attending college, serving in Vietnam and several careers. He also marries, fathers children, has countless lovers and loses friends. As we follow Reeves through his life, we learn about the consequences of his decisions and the affects they have on others.

This was a pretty interesting book. Reeves is not terribly sympathetic, but seeing his through the eyes of his friends and family (Allende switches from first to third person throughout the novel) make you understand why he is loved fiercely by some and hated by others. He’s definitely a unique character.

In the end, I’m not sure how much I enjoyed Reeves’s story versus how much I enjoy Allende’s manner of writing. But either way, I liked it.

Sara Habein’s #CBR5 Reviews #32-34: Ron Currie Jr., Isabel Allende, & Rayya Elias

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

I read Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles right after Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and they complimented each other to the point of Miracles almost reading like a sequel to Leopards. Both deal with unreliable male protagonists speaking to the reader, men who need some enlightening on matters of women and healthy relationships.

I preferred Jansma’s book, but Miracles is still quite good. Currie’s self-named character somewhat accidentally fakes his own death in the Caribbean, and as a result, his novel becomes a bestseller. He misses the woman with whom he’d lived “pre-death,” and eventually coming “back to life” makes the public unhappy with upending their Lost Genius fiction they’d constructed in his absence. We all have stories we tell ourselves, and facing their inaccuracies is startling.

The earliest known mention of a person enhanced with a prosthesis, believe it or not, comes from the Vedas. We’re talking 1500 B.C., or thereabouts. A female warrior loses her leg, and is given a replacement. We’ve had 3,500 years to get used to the idea, yet when I talk about the Singularity, people still get an indulgent look on their faces, like they’re humoring me and my absurd notions of human beings with brain/computer interfaces and titanium exoskeletons. I mean, they’re polite about it, usually, which I appreciate. But, you know, 1500 B.C. The first time a person was joined with a machine, however primitive. Consider that, I tell them, then ask yourself: Who’s being naïve, do you think?

Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende

Also dealing with questions of identity and existing in hiding is Maya’s Notebook by Isabel Allende, released this past May. In it, Maya Vidal alternates between writing about living in Chile with a friend of her grandmother’s, and also the self-destructive path that brought her there. The scenery shifts between Berkeley, the Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas, and Chiloé.

Although the book is nearly 400 pages, it never feels like it goes on too long, and the diary premise never seems forced. Maya’s story hurtles along, and Allende, no matter the location, immerses you in a way where you can nearly taste the weather. And there’s a fair dose of humor too:

The cousin showed up an hour later than he said he would in a van crammed to the roof with stuff, accompanied by his wife with a baby at her breast. I thanked my benefactors, who had also lent me the cell phone to get in touch with Manual Arias, and said good-bye to the dog, but he had other plans: he sat at my feet and swept the ground with his tail, smiling like a hyena; he had done me the favor of honoring me with his attention, and now I was his lucky human. I changed tactics. “Shoo! Shoo! Fucking dog,” I shouted at him in English. He didn’t move, while the cousin observed the scene with pity. “Don’t worry, señorita, we can bring your Fahkeen,” he said at last. And in this way that ashen creature acquired his new name[.]

Both present and past storylines are riveting, and I can see this book also becoming a good movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if the rights have already been sold.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From The Middle East to The Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

Yes, that title is a mouthful, but this New York memoir from Rayya Elias is an interesting portrait of redemption. At this point in my reading life, I admit to tiring of the addict memoir, but that doesn’t mean that these stories aren’t worth telling. It comes down to the surrounding environment, when I decide on giving the book my attention. It was the post-punk angle that sucked me into this one.

Elias and her family left Syria when she was young, and the rebellious teenager took to drugs in order to impress her tougher classmates:

For the first time I had earned street credibility — not because of my cool cousin, but because of what I had done. I was christened into the club of the psychos[.]

She joins a lot of bands, learns how to cut and style hair, and eventually moves to New York during the 1980s. She rises and falls multiple times, including a stint in prison. Although Elias isn’t the strongest writer, I appreciate that Harley Loco isn’t one of those “hit rock bottom/ climbed out/ everything is fine now” stories. Rayya Elias, though many years sober, shows the reality of her struggle, and how art can transcend addiction.

Full Disclosure: Viking provided me with review copies of both Harley Loco and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. Harper provided the review copy of Maya’s Notebook. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

(These reviews originally appeared on Glorified Love Letters.)

The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR5 Review #27: Zorro

I’m officially on my victory laps after completing my annual half-cannonball. Now it’s just about setting a new personal best. You can keep up with these and all my reviews of other things at my personal blog

For those who prefer authorial style to iconic characters: Zorro

I’ve been listening to Blair Brown slowly, almost lovingly, read Isabelle Allende’s take on the famous caballero and off for the past year. Finally reaching a stage where I turned it on double speed just to get through it all.

It’s not dull exactly, there are plenty of humorous adventures and acts of daring-do to keep fans of the masked swashbuckler happy. But it’s much more of an origin story than an epic adventure. Diego De La Vega (the man who will be Zorro) isn’t around for the first quarter of the book–only his parents are–and he doesn’t become Zorro until the final third kicks off. The last disc (which I would guess is about a fifth of the book) is where the action really picks up and all of Allende’s other work pays off.

That’s the thing, with an author like Isabelle Allende behind it, you have to expect that the immensely gifted author is going to make it her own. But with a character as well known as Zorro, you come into the book with a host of preconceptions and expectations. In an ideal world, Allende would use her talents to enhance and illuminate an already beloved character. In the real world, Allende used the character to showcase her talents.

Again, that’s not a bad thing, it’s a pleasure to hear a gifted author’s words brought to life (it certainly seems like Brown favors the description to the action, enhancing this feeling even more). But it’s a trifle disappointing to expect a heroic character’s greatest adventures only to find a beautifully described portrait of life in Post-Napoleonic Spain and her colonies.

Badkittyuno’s #CBR5 Review #09: The Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

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     The Island Beneath the Sea was my first book by Isabel Allende, but I really enjoyed and plan to seek out more (suggestions? leave me a comment). Her writing reminded me in a way of John Irving’s, in that rather than being plot-driven, she simply follows the life of her main character, and lets us see what happens to her and her family. The novel flows beautifully, and covers over forty years in the life of a slave named Zarité (aka Tete).

Tete is a mixed-blood slave, purchased at age 10 by a Frenchman named Toulouse Valmorain to run his plantation on Saint-Domingue (Haiti). The book begins in the 1770s, just prior the French Revolution (and its counter-part in Haiti) and follows Tete through the birth of her children, her attempts to become free and her journey that is inexorably tied with the horrible Valmorain.

The supporting cast in this novel are fantastic. I loved the healer on the plantation, the mixed-blood courtesan who takes Tete in, the Irish family who run the fields. Characters talk politics, argue about abolition and discuss religion. Throughout it all, there’s an undercurrent of Haitian spiritualism and music that ties everything in Tete’s life together.

I would highly recommend this book, especially for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. It starts slow, but really takes off when the Revolution hit, then I couldn’t put it down.