Monday, January 23, 2012

Book Review: Chatterton

Author: Peter Ackroyd 
Title: Chatterton
Description (source):  Charles Wychwood, a sickly man who struggles to write poetry, comes across a portrait in an antique shop. He comes to the conclusion that the portrait, although it is of an elderly man, is actually of Thomas Chatterton, who supposedly had committed suicide as a teenager. The book moves back and forth in time between the present day and Chatterton’s lifetime, as well as the nineteenth century and novelist George Meredith who posed as the dead Chatterton for a famous painting by Henry Wallis—who absconded with Meredith’s wife.
Plot: As Charles tries to prove that Chatterton faked his own death and lived a long and successful life as a forger, Charles’ former employer, formerly successful novelist Harriet Scrope plots to get her hands on the painting in order to revive her dying career.
Characters: The majority of the action is set in the modern day, where none of the characters are attractive enough to the reader to inspire any regard whatsoever. The past, both Chatterton’s and Meredith’s are fragmentary and one never gets a sense of either of them as a person.
Writing style: I disliked Ackroyd’s writing style, probably because I disliked the characters so intensely that I begrudged spending my time with them. Charles, the protagonist, is so passive as to be slapworthy. Harriet is simply repulsive and refers to herself as “Mother.” Other more interesting characters such as Chatterton himself, come across as bit players, which in itself is frustrating.
Audience: this is literary fiction.
Wrap-up: The idea of a novel that features Chatterton, the famous painting of Chatterton, and the attempt to unravel their mysteries still beguiles me—and the idea is so much better than the execution that it’s a severe disappointment! 2/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (7/15) and the unread books challenge.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Book Review: Moloka'i

Author: Alan Brennert
Title: Moloka’i
Description (source): If you are familiar with the name Moloka’i at all, you probably know what this novel is about. Moloka’i is a Hawaiian island famous for its leper colony (Father Damien’s domain). Rachel is just a small child when leprosy strikes and she is separated from her family and sent to live on Molokai. The book follows Rachel’s life there as it is affected by events in Hawaii (the book opens while Hawaii is still under the monarchy) and by advances in medicine. 
Plot: The kind of book you’d classify as “sweeping narrative.” It basically follows one woman’s life from start to finish.
Characters:  Rachel, the heroine, is a very sympathetic character, and the reader identifies with and roots for her throughout the book. There are many interesting secondary characters as well, including some who are actual historical figures.
Writing style: This is one of the best-researched books I have read in a long time. Brennert is not a native Hawaiian, but the amount of historical detail is impressive, and it all rings true (though I don’t know enough about Hawaii to know for sure).
Audience: I think this book will mostly appeal to women, as it is woman and family-centered, though men who are interested in Hawaiian history or mission work with lepers would also enjoy it.
Wrap-up: Achingly sad at times, the book overall is the story of a life’s narrative, with some great times and some long, difficult trials. While it is educational due to the amount of medical and state history that is included, it never feels didactic. Our book group read this book, and I think it was unanimously enjoyed. 4/5*

Monday, January 16, 2012

Book Review: Disgrace

Author: J.M. Coetzee 
Title: Disgrace
Description: A literature (more recently, Communication) professor has an affair with a student and is forced to leave his career. Twice divorced, David Lurie ends up moving in with his daughter Lucy on her farm in rural South Africa. There, David is further disgraced by his inability to protect his daughter when they are the victims of a violent crime.
Plot: The plot is divided fairly sharply into city and country. In the city, David at least seems competent. He has a job and a (paid) mistress. After he is cast out into the country, he seems helpless; he relies on his daughter for food and shelter and has to be instructed in the most basic of tasks. His complete impotence when they are threatened by thugs reinforces just how out-of place he and Lucy are as white people in rural South Africa.
Characters: There weren’t really any likeable characters in the book; in fact, the main characters are downright horrible. David Lurie has to be the most unappealing protagonist I’ve encountered in a long time. Some characters are anti-heroic, but I don’t think David even qualifies for that designation. He’s just a really unpleasant man I would never want to meet. The line dividing the men who brutalize David’s daughter Lucy and David himself in his relationships with women is nearly non-existent.
Writing style: Brilliant. Thought-provoking and disturbing. Can’t fault Coetzee here.
Audience: literary fiction aficionados.
I read this book along with my book group, composed of women educators. We were lucky enough to have a member who lived in South Africa for several years and could illuminate for us the reasons that this book is uniquely South African. Without at least some familiarity with post-Apartheid conditions in that country, readers could have difficulty understanding some of the events that occur.
Wrap-up: It’s difficult to criticize a novel by a Nobel Prize winner. It usually just makes the reviewer look stupid. But when I read, I’m not just reading for literary or philosophical value. There has to be something about the book that I fall in love with. Here, I can admire the craft, as one would admire a well-wrought but horribly ugly piece of art, but far from engaging with my spirit, the book made me just feel a little befouled from having handled it. 2/5*

Article first published as Book Review: Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee on Blogcritics.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Praying Scripture for Your Teenagers

Author: Jodie Berndt 
Title: Praying Scripture for Your Teenagers
Description (source): It's never been tougher to be a teenager---or the parent of one. Thankfully, from your teen's first date to the next time he or she borrows the car keys, you can take your concerns to God through prayer. Drawing on God's Word, Praying the Scriptures for Your Teenager offers palpable help to pray about the stormy issues your teen faces: Relationships, Depression, Rejection, Sexuality, Eating disorders, and much more. This book also guides you in praying about everything from your teen's character and safety to the purposes and plans that God has for his or her life. Filled with historical, biblical, and contemporary illustrations, Praying the Scriptures for Your Teenager shows how to make the Bible your source for prayers that can powerfully influence your teen's life. With humor and a warm, personal style, author Jodie Berndt encourages you that, in this sometimes daunting new world, 'when you pray the Scriptures, you tap into the same power that has kept teenagers safe for generations.’ (book marketing info)
Writing style:  Berndt is the author of Praying the Scriptures for Your Children (which I haven’t read); six years later, she followed it up with this title on praying for your teenagers (probably even more needed than the previous book!) I was given this book at a youth event at our former church. It’s comprised of short (5-7 page) chapters that detail a specific problem or issue that teenagers face, give an example, and then list prayers (with Scripture references) that Berndt suggests.
Audience: Christian parents of teenagers—that would be me.
Major ideas: Because of the timing of its publication (six years after her earlier book on praying for your children), I’m guessing that Berndt has experienced issues or worries about many of the topics in this book, and has prayed through many of these scriptures herself. I thought the scriptures she chose were appropriate, and appreciated having the suggestions of the many ways to pray—sometimes we can all get in a rut.
Wrap-up: I only have one criticism about this book, and it’s not significant. Every chapter has at least one example of a teen who has had difficulty with the issue addressed in the chapter; these are always friends’ children (who I’m sure have been given pseudonyms). Now, I can understand how the author’s teenagers would be horribly embarrassed if Mom ever revealed their own sufferings or shortcomings in her books, and she doesn’t. She does, however, include plenty of their triumphs. The result that the author’s family looks like the only ideal family amid a sea of friends who have teenagers beset by every possible problem, while her teens have sailed through these difficult years unscathed. I would have preferred that she not refer to her own family at all, rather than causing them to appear to be misleadingly perfect. Overall, though, I recommend the book—our teenagers need all the prayer we can spare! 4/5*

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (6/15) and the unread books challenge.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: Astrid and Veronika

Author: Linda Olsson 
Title: Astrid and Veronika
Description: Astrid and Veronika are neighbors, both wishing to live in seclusion, but somehow coming together to form a friendship. Although Astrid has lived in the same area her whole life and is coming to the end of her years, and Veronika has travelled all over the world and has many years to live, both are grieving and in danger of cutting themselves off from the world. Watching them move gradually toward friendship, the reader gets to know them as they become acquainted with one another, both sharing secrets that have brought them to this point in their lives.
Plot: The novel is more character-driven than plot-driven, but enough happens in the story to move things along.
Characters: Both Astrid and Veronika are guarded and protective against vulnerability. Olsson does a masterful job of revealing their secrets bit-by-bit. Both have been scarred by events in their lives that they can’t escape or fully acknowledge, but somehow they are able to help one another.
Writing style: Olsson, a first-time novelist, has produced a quietly understated gem.
Audience: While I would primarily classify the book as literary fiction, readers of chick-lit who could be convinced to try it would probably like it.
Wrap-up: Women’s lives can be almost unspeakably tragic, but their resilience, especially as they bond with one another, can be remarkable. Astrid and Veronika portrays this in a sympathetic and moving manner. 4/5*.

I'm claiming this book for two reading challenges: the new author challenge (5/15) and the unread books challenge.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Book Review: Join Me

Author: Danny Wallace 
Title: Join Me
Description: Danny Wallace (for a reason while I’ll let him explain to you) decides to place an ad asking people to join him by sending a passport photo. They do. What results is a collective, not a cult. To tell much else would be to present spoilers, since really not much actually happens in this book. Danny has done some silly things in the past, and conceived of a few more; his no-nonsense girlfriend calls these boy-projects and refuses to have any part of them.
Writing style: Wallace has a clever and funny writing style, which is really the point of this book. While I don’t know that I laughed out loud, I certainly enjoyed his sense of humor and read the book in about three days.
Audience: Those who enjoy humorous memoir (or really any type of memoir) will enjoy this book.
Major ideas: We can make the world a better place just by being friends and thinking of others. Don’t deceive your significant other.
Wrap-up: This was a very British book, full of pints and chips and other British things, including British humor, which can be irresistible if done well. 4/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (4/15), the unread books challenge, and the Memorable Memoirs challenge (1/4).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: Blue

Author: Lou Aronica  
Title: Blue
Description: Becky is 14 and splits her time between her squabbling divorced parents. Chris, her dad, regrets that they have grown apart, but isn’t quite sure how to heal the widening gap between them. He recalls how years ago, when Becky was undergoing treatment for childhood leukemia, the two of them would make up stories every night about a fantasy world called Tamarisk. One night, Becky actually travels to Tamarisk and meets Meia, the young queen. Tamarisk is facing an environmental disaster, which Meia hopes Becky and Chris can help her solve.  Meanwhile, is Becky’s leukemia returning?
Review source:  this was a free book from Amazon for the kindle.
Plot: The plot moves back and forth between earth and Tamarisk and the narrative is from various points of view: Becky’s, Chris’s, Meia’s, and even some secondary characters. For me, this made the novel uneven and sort of “jerky.” There were several plot points that were not cleared up (not sure if that means there will be a sequel or not).
Characters: The main character issues are that Becky is a teenager and has difficulties getting along with both of her parents, who have major problems getting along with one another. Meia had to abandon a romance when she became queen and now struggles with loneliness and isolation. On the whole, the reader is told about a lot of personal difficulties, but the story doesn’t really support them. For example, why do the parents hate one another so much? Polly, Becky’s mom, announced she wanted a divorce, but we’re never really told why. Why can’t they just get along better? Why did Meia have to give up a romance? There’s no law against the queen being married. Etc.
Writing style: As you might have sensed, I had some problems with the writing style. I’ve already mentioned the abrupt shifts in point-of-view and narrative. Then there are the Tamariskian features. So Becky and her dad made up all these weird animals, foods, substances, etc. for Tamarisk, and we’re introduced to a bunch of them. Way too many. All these made up words just to show us that things are different there. Yawn.
Audience: The book doesn’t appear to have been written for the YA audience, but that’s how I’d class it. There’s no graphic anything.
Wrap-up: I did finish the book, but I was underwhelmed by it. 2.5/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (3/15), the unread books challenge, and the Why Buy the Cow challenge (3/12). 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Book Review: Summer at Willow Lake

Author: Susan Wiggs 
Title: Summer at Willow Lake
Description (source): Real estate expert Olivia Bellamy reluctantly trades a trendy Manhattan summer for her family's old resort camp in the Catskills, where her primary task will be renovating the bungalow colony for her grandparents, who want one last summer together filled with fun, friends and family. A posh resort in its heyday, the camp is now in disarray and Olivia is forced to hire contractor Connor Davis—a still-smoldering flame from her own summers at camp. But as the days grow warm, not even the inviting blue waters of Willow Lake can cool the passions flaring or keep shocking secrets at bay. The nostalgic joy of summers past breathes new promise into a special place and people…a promise meant to last long after the season ends. (Amazon)
Review source: free for my kindle
Plot: There was lots going on in this book that was first of a series (that now has 8 titles). I counted four romances: the main couple, a couple of friends, a couple of teenagers, and flashbacks of an earlier romance set at the camp. Flashbacks throughout the book reveal the protagonists’ earlier relationship and how it went wrong. I found the various story lines interesting, even though it was a bit much to keep straight. Most of the secondary story lines were not resolved, as the author heads into book 2 of the series.
Characters: Most of the characters come across as sympathetic, especially the heroine, Lolly/Olivia, who was damaged by her parents’ divorce when she was a young adolescent and struggled to keep her footing through her teen years, and Connor, who had his father’s alcoholism and his family’s own breakup to deal with.
Writing style: I tend to like elaborate plots like this one, although I would have liked a little more resolution; while the main couple’s relationship was resolved, none of the other story lines were.
Audience: This book is fairly straightforward chick lit, which I like every once in awhile. I read it in one long, quiet day at the beach.
Wrap-up: I’ll be looking for book two in the series, just to see if any of the plot lines are tied up. But I won’t be looking urgently. This book gets 4/5*.

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (2/15), the unread books challenge, and the Why Buy the Cow challenge (2/12).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Book Review: Cottage by the Sea

Author: Ciji Ware 
Title: Cottage by the Sea
Description: As the book opens, Blythe Barton Stowe is finalizing her divorce from her film director husband, who indicated his dissatisfaction with their marriage by getting her sister pregnant. She escapes the paparazzi by fleeing to Cornwall, where her family claims they originated. Stunned by the betrayal, she engrosses herself in planning a business with her new landlord, Lucas Teague. Meanwhile, she finds that Lucas has an ancestor who shares her name, and before she knows it, she is travelling back in time to share the experiences of the first Blythe Barton. Blythe’s time travelling experiences, her romance with Lucas, and her eventual confrontation with her ex-husband and her sister make up the plot of the novel.
Review source: this was a free book for kindle.
Plot: The most interesting part of the book for me was the business that Lucas and Blythe started. I’ll bet that wasn’t supposed to be the most interesting part. The time travel was interesting, since the reader really wasn’t sure what would happen—the modern-day Blythe only viewed events as if they were a movie; she didn’t participate in them.
Characters: The historical love triangle featured three really nasty characters who were difficult to care about, while Blythe and Lucas weren’t nasty, but they also weren’t really interesting.  Lucas’ relationship with his 10 year old son Richard provided some relief from boredom, as did the nasty Chloe, rival for Lucas’ affections.
Writing style: the author seemed to have an agenda promoting some weird DNA inheritance theory (i.e. Blythe’s troubles were partly caused by her ancestress’ flaws); too much print was wasted on this. Just call it bad karma and move along. Also, Blythe is from Wyoming, and the frequent “Wyomingisms” that she spouts are a bit much.
Audience: I had this book in the “fiction” folder on my kindle, but it was more of a romance.
Wrap-up: If you are a total sucker for time-travel romance, or romance of women who are betrayed by their own sisters, this book is for you. Otherwise, probably not. 2/5*

I'm claiming this book for three reading challenges: the new author challenge (1/15), the unread books challenge, and the Why Buy the Cow challenge.