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The Sleeping Dictionary: by Sujata Massey

Most readers can explain why they did or did not like a book.  And while on the surface those reasons may seem a little strange, or even random — those reasons will usually relate directly to the reader’s preferences, interests and general points of reference in their life.  This is a book that I really liked and was somewhat indifferent to at the same time.  Although, as far as a captivating read — it really worked, with only a few minor weaknesses that detracted to a certain degree.

The historical setting of this book is wonderful.  Set in the middle of revolutionary India, the background events really made this book.  There is always a feeling of inevitability, combined with both desperate hope and tragic fatalism, in turns that haunts the reader from beginning to end.  This aspect of the book is a great instructive element, in that it allows the reader to contemplate many of the tragic, as well as miraculous events that all emerge during a time of civil unrest and political revolution.  War, famine, political unrest, religious disputes, caste/class struggles, racial conflict — they all make an appearance in this book.  And these are only the broad canvas aspects of the story.  These say little of the insight into devastated families, oppression, prostitution, murder, injustice and others that all impact on the more personal levels throughout the story.  Massey has done a great job of showing the reader the dangers of the declining British imperialistic years in this highly volatile country.

I was particularly impressed with Massey’s ability to portray the myriad levels of social structure throughout this society, through the eyes of her characters.  These divisions exist not only between the British and the English, but also between Indians and Indians, Muslim and Hindu, pacifists and revolutionaries and all the different ideologies that accompany those divisions.  In a world where social class has really devolved into only three divisions: rich, poor and middle class — the nuances of this Indian society really opens the door to a vastly different culture that is both accessible and engaging for the reader.

Where Massey had a little bit of trouble in this one was with the characters.  The characters evolved in varying degrees — some amazingly larger than life, and others almost not at all.  Kamala emerges on the scene and grows from the lowest levels of Indian culture, up to a powerful Memsahib.  Her character is multi-dimensional with a great deal of depth.  However, her overbearing image of self is a little heavy handed in places.  In comparison — Simon Lewes is a complete enigma.  He is one of those characters that is what ever the reader turns him into — rather than a presence in his own right.  It is almost impossible to get a handle on who or what he is.  Most of what the reader learns about him originates from others and not himself.  He comes across as emotionally flat and only existing on the periphery of the story, even though he plays a major role.  This sharp contrast between the characters is, at times, disorienting.  But I came away feeling that all of them were over top, in your face characters that tended to brow beat the reader into paying attention.  There was either an overbearing sense of person, or an understated dimension that completely hides the character from any sense of understanding.

Some of the themes are very well developed.  The book allows the reader to consider the extent to which people will go, in an attempt to hide those aspects of themselves they don’t wish to be made public.  It develops the themes of self discovery, trust, commitment, hate and love in nuanced terms — allowing the reader to bring their own insight and interpretation to these themes, and place the amount of weight on them, in light of their own opinions and understandings that they deem appropriate.  But, at the same time — it opens windows into these themes that the reader can slip into, as a means of expanding their own understanding of the significance of these, life impacting issues.

This is a fun read — and one that I couldn’t put down.  But there were some areas where it got a little overbearing. But it is still one I would recommend — particularly for those lovers of historical fiction.

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The Kept by: James Scott

This book just creeped me out — there is no other way to put it.  The beginning started out confusion, trying to figure out the characters and their motivations.  Yes — I get that Elspbeth is a sinner.  But that is about as far as I could get.  Her husband, Jorah is an absolute mystery to me, even now.  And the randomness of the entire beginning was beyond my comprehension.  I am assuming that this problem resolved by the end of the book — but truth to tell, I simply couldn’t finish it.  I couldn’t get past the children, and there role within the family structure.  It just disturbed me on so many levels.

What I did read left me pretty cold.  And that is more than just in the figurative sense.  It seems that the only weather that happens in this book is snow.  Granted, this goes a long way to adding to the oppressive, chilling quality and feel of the book.  So much so, that I am sure it was a literary device used to great effect.  The desolate nature of the snow scenes, combined with the isolated scene of the initial event that launch this story, give the book an almost hopeless feeling that haunts the reader on extreme levels.  To reinforce this perception, the hopeless feeling is mirrored in each of the characters in turn, demonstrating the depths of human suffering and the emotional consequences that result.

This is also a book of sharp contrasts.  They are everywhere in the story.  The stark contrast between the frigid winter landscape, to the burning home of Elspbeth and her family; the vast differences between the moral character between Elspbeth and her husband Jorah; Eslpbeth’s chosen profession and the origin of the children; even the degrees of sanity and insanity are all found in this book.  These contrasts establish a strongly demarcated line of moral questions, as well as the vast differences between Elspbeth and her family.  At the bottom — it especially highlights what Elspbeth perceived as the huge chasm that exists between her, as a sinner and that of the world around her.

The character development, however, was extremely weak, at least for me.  While the sharp comparative contrasts between the characters was particularly intriguing — the depth and dimension of the characters was noticeably lacking.  The only character that has any depth was Elspbeth, herself.  And that depth was not so much a complex character, as it is a marked absences of moral foundation — even for a sinner.  This leaves her protestations of guilt and shame for being a sinner, surprisingly unconvincing.

This is a book that I simply had no points of connection.  The characters left me feeling disinterested and the story left me cold.  This is not a book I would recommend, unless you are looking for an interesting insight into the use of marked contrasts as a literary device.

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Tuscan Rose by: Belinda Alexander

Just as often as not, a reader will come across book styles, story styles or writing styles that simply will not work.  That is not to suggest that the book is not good (although I have read a few of those in my life.), but something about the format, style, rhythm, feel, writing, or a combination of these and a myriad other things just come together in such a way that the reader cannot connect with the book.  These types of reads (especially for students who have no alternative than to finish the book) are excruciating to get through.  This is one of those books for me.  From the start I really wanted to love this book.  Everything about the description sounded like it was exactly what I would love to read.  The foreign setting (for me), the mystery, the historical time period — it all just sounded perfect when I picked it up at the library.  But, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t make this one work.

In a word, the story was odd.  There appears to be so many bizarre things going on in the under-story that I wasn’t really sure where Alexandra was going.  Strange visions, stereotypical mysterious settings, a creepy grave yard, wild rumors about the characters and secrets behind every door and down every hallway just made this book trite in the extreme.  I honestly felt like I was reading a “B” rated book that was predictable at best and frustrating at worst.  Seriously, I felt like this was a walk through a conglomeration of literature’s settings all rolled into one — to poor effect.  Thornfield Hall, Lowood school for girls,  U. S. Southern Graveyards, Ghosts of the Spanish Inquisition, Egyptian artifacts, black magic — it all makes an appearance in this one.  But there is nothing new in all of this.  It is exactly what you expect, due to past reads, with no depth, change or insight in their presentation.

Rosa drove me crazy.  She appears to be the only one in the book that can’t see everything that is right in front of her — but she can see everything that no one else can.  She swears from top to bottom that she isn’t a witch — but can “see” where things come from.  (This makes for some pretty gruesome and troubling meals — especially since it happens so often.)  So many things that are so apparent on the surface that they are predictable in the extreme, she simply cannot see.  This, of course you could excuse, being that she was raised in a convent.  But when offset by her ability to see truly horrifying things, it somehow just doesn’t work.  This ability is quite surprising for a girl that draws little attention of the fact that she has been able to do it all her life.  She mentions the ability like twice and only in passing — as if this hasn’t been a huge factor in her life, even though it would make sitting down to every meal a nightmare.  Combine this with the other characters, who are all simply crazy and you end up with a hodge podge of characters that muddy the water of the story.

On top of all this — the story just never went anywhere.  At 583 pages — it never really gets past setting and back story development until well into the half way mark of the book.  The entire first half is a whole series of events that are related only loosely through their strange nature.  I felt like this is one of those examples that my English professors were always pointing to as a story that is told, not shown.  The reader always has the feeling they are outside of the story, with no way in.  Someone is telling it — and making sure to point out all the aspects that they feel are important.  Every important point is magnified through rhetorical questions.  Rosa does a lot of asking question of herself and the reader, leaving the reader wondering why Alexandra doesn’t feel a reader is competent enough to identify significant points on their own.  More than that — by the time Rosa gets around to asking those questions, the reader realizes that they already started asking the same things pages before Rosa even realized there was a question to ask.  She also loves to venture down the “dark hallways,” slip into locked rooms, hear conversations that she never should have, leaving the reader feeling like this is one book that had the “horror flick” format of mandatory events, all lined up on a checklist waiting to make their appearance.

This is a story that would be great for younger, young adult readers.  But for older teens and adults — this is one that I would have to give a pass on.  It just doesn’t seem to work in more than one area, leaving the reader (at least for me) frustrated with the entire work.

 

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Chocolat by: Joanne Harris

There are a lot of reasons why most readers will pick up a book and I am no exception.  Everything from the cover to the description, there are myriad reasons why for reading a book.  In the case of this book — it was the title.  In my universe, there is just no passing up anything that has the word chocolate on it — I don’t care what language it is in!  So, when I went into my local library and saw this sitting on a display table, I didn’t even think about it.  I grabbed it with no other thought.  Frequently, when I do an impulse grab on my way in or out of libraries or bookstores, it is usually indicative of I will either love the book or hate it — but there is almost no in between ground.  In the case of this one — I loved it.  (For the most part).

What I loved about this book was the prose.  Harris has a real gift for words and knows how to express them in a lyrical, almost melodic way.  There was no settling in period, no searching for the rhythm of the writing — it was simply there. I learned only after finishing the book that it was made into a movie — but in my opinion, this is one story that would loose a great deal in the conversion process.  The story is good — but the way it is expressed is what makes it great!

The story strongly reminds me of Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter in both content and style.  Everything from the characters to the story are hauntingly familiar — particularly if you are very familiar with Hawthorn’s work.  Each of his characters finds its counterpart in this well told story, giving the reader a chance to relearn the beauty of this timeless tale — through the eyes of modern story telling and reading.

The characters reflect the same mysterious depth that evolves layer by layer throughout the book, demonstrating Harris’ gift for intimate character development providing the opportunity for  profound connection between the book and reader.  Vianne and her daughter are masterfully portrayed as the strong, independent protagonists that challenge the social mores of a community, while forcing those around them, as well as the reader, to challenger their beliefs, in order to determine what they as individuals believe, as opposed to what they are taught to believe.

I also loved the moral themes found throughout this book.  (Which is probably not surprising since I loved The Scarlet Letter for the same reason).  Challenges of belief systems, morality, commitment, social pressure, living for appearances and individual insight into the self all make appearances throughout this book.  These are the types of books I love because they give the reader the opportunity to think about things they would not normally explore because of social expectations.  Coming from a highly moral, conservative, predominantly religious community, I was able to easily identify with the story and the characters, which Harris made easier through her writing style.

One thing that I didn’t like about the book is that the ending was somewhat unfinished.  Most of the threads of the story are concluded, so as to “bring closure” for the reader.  However, one of the characters just seems to disappear.  Normally this would not bother me — especially since I realize that this is a series.  But where it is not only one of the central characters, but the antagonist at that — I felt like the ending was left open and unfinished.  (This opinion may change however, as I move farther into the series.)

I also found the relationship between the priest and his father a little strange.  I understand that it is a literary tool to develop more fully the antagonist, but the relationship is beyond bizarre — as are the actions of this priest as well.  I will warn you that the story gets a little strange in the end.  But it isn’t bad strange, so much as “ummm — OK.  That was interesting.”  But it is the strange coming together of polar opposites that make this story work the most.  So, while the characters, at times, appear a little strange — when taken in the over whole of the book — it works really well.

Harris spends a great deal of time using opposition to develop tension throughout the book.  There are definite themes of good and evil; dark and light; wet and dry; religious and non-religious; conservative and liberal; old and young and even socially acceptable and social undesirables.  These opposites develop a community of complexity and contrast.  I really loved how they all work together to form a solid underlying foundation for an interesting piece.

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Leonardo: A Biographical Novel by: Curtis B. Pepper

This is the book I was looking for when I undertook last week’s read.  I loved it in every detail.  Da Vinci was a man who defined intellectual investigation.  His hunger for understanding, through an artistic expression opened doors for his mind that most of us will never conceive.  All of this and more is portrayed in Pepper’s work.  While there are some challenging aspects of the book, it is also a fulfilling read that offers a great insight into not only Da Vinci, but the world that shaped the man he was.

I will start with the challenging part of this book.  This is not a breeze through read, nor is it short and sweet.  The book covers the entire course of Da Vinci’s lifetime.  Consequently, the book is nearly 600 pages long.  Additionally, the choice of writing style is unusual.  A biographical novel is a loose, descriptive term.  At times it is hard to follow, as Pepper suddenly shifts from historical background to personal — documented references and back to biographical interpretation of the lives and loves of Da Vinci.  However, the writing method works.  It would help to have a basic understanding or historical background to read this book, but if you don’t, it doesn’t disappoint.  Also, unlike many historical fiction book, where it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction, Pepper makes it very clear what is historical fact.  He uses dates and quotes from Da Vinci’s own records, as well as historical records of the times.  These portions of the book are almost written as an aside, and he makes it clear that he is speaking as an historian and not a novelist.  He will then suddenly shift back to the novelistic development of characters, places and events.  This can be confusing in places and disorienting as he shifts from one voice to another, frequently in the middle of a chapter or paragraph.

His biographical, novelistic development of Da Vinci, however, more than offsets these challenges.  Da Vinci lives and breaths through this work.  I found his interpretation to be both fulfilling, uplifting, heart breaking and freeing in turns.  Da Vinci is portrayed in all of his various roles.  From his heartbreaking non-relationship with his father, his frustration and sense of betrayal of patrons who abuse both his talent and artistic works, his constant fear of failure in comparison to other artistic masters, his almost unnatural relationship with his step-mother, as well as his constant inspiration which originated from this relationship — even his self-disgust and self-loathing for his sexual being.  All of these issues are explored in Pepper’s work, with honest presentation, without apology or excuse.  Through this almost brutal portray, Da Vinci comes to life as a person and master artist.

This book also explores Da Vinci’s significant difference that set him apart from all other artistic masters.  His passion for scientific exploration, and constant need for understanding of the physical existence demonstrates Da Vinci’s meta-physical understanding of the natural world.  The book asserts that Da Vinci didn’t just seek inspiration for artistic works, but saw the world from an scientifically artistic perspective.  Pepper had me exploring more of Da Vinci’s works, all of which demonstrated a keen mind and creative exploration in all aspect of this life.  All of this is eloquently presented in a cohesive whole.

The historic setting is carefully maintained and all the dates and historical references are presented, as a means of orienting the reader.  These facts and figures, while burdensome for some readers, help to demonstrate how Da Vinci was a product of his world, while still maintaining a life separate and apart from the many upheavals that altered its shape and structure.  The writing is eloquent and descriptive, while still maintaining an amazing ability to sounds both biographically historical and fictional prose all at the same time.

This is a great read for both lovers of the arts, as well as avid readers.  It helps reflect on the challenges found in artistic exploration, in all of its aspects.  It also demonstrates the painful challenges all artists face, and the resulting difficulties and struggles with self doubt, self perception and ultimately self expression.

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The Front Porch Prophet by: Raymond L. Atkins

This is one of those books that I can’t even remember when I bought it.  It has been sitting in my NOOK for quite some time, and to be honest — all I do remember about buying it, was that the title is what peaked my interest.  Since then, it has remained passed over time and again, for more interesting ventures.  By the time I got around to reading this one, I kept wondering from beginning to end what, exactly it was that I was waiting for!  I fell head first in love with this book from the first chapter and kept praying that Atkins would be able to maintain the power and artistic beauty to the end.  He did.  It is funny, sad, real, eloquent and simply an amazing read.

Atkins’ writing style really comes across as the South’s answer to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with all of the captivating nuances of the story and depth of characters and settings as well.  The writing maintains a very literary, almost rhythmic flow that draws in the reader.  Atkins is particularly great at using many of those trite old phrases, metaphors and similes that most readers breeze right over and changes them just enough to catch the reader and insist they don’t gloss over any of the story.  This combined with the colorful, warm and at times funny development of both story and characters really made this a fun read.

Before I go too far, I have to say that one of things that I found the most amusing and endearing is the name of the small town, local diner of Sequoyah, Georgia.  This name changes nearly every chapter, with the most bizarre convergence of religious affirmations and daily specials, to create some of the most amusing passages of this book.  Every time this diner makes an appearance — and it does so regularly — I just found myself laughing out loud.  This was probably my favorite part of the book, as it is reflective of both the deep south, as well as the Bible belt conservative heritage of the region.  I really loved it!

The characters are as colorful as the setting.  There are a couple of characters — primarily Eugene, who are very rough around the edges, consequently, for those who are sensitive to language, this book will give you some problems.  However, it isn’t excessive.  Eugene’s development is profound and haunts the story, as his last days emerge in slow, almost painful reflections.  He stands in strong counterpoint to A. J. and demonstrates how different types of relationships and loves can have different impacts on people’s lives.  The love of these men, even through the male posturing, provides a strong backbone for this story.  As their relationships moves from wayward hellions to responsible, (or in the case of Eugene, semi-responsible), adulthood, with all the trials and tribulations that accompany this journey.

In tandem with these two protagonists comes a line up of supporting characters that cover a whole range of personas and emotions.  Crazy small town sheriffs, a drunken pilot, an aggressive real estate mogul, bootleggers, dogs in varying quirkiness,  and crazy ladies that live next door — they all come together to give depth to a story that is as haunting as that of Nick and his tragic counter-point, found in Jay Gatsby. The story is a portrayal of two close friends, as they come to terms with the fatal illness that is plaguing one, but devastating them both, particularly when the patient asks the hardest favor of their lives — that of a mercy killing when the end comes.  Much of the story is told through reflective moments of who these men were, and how they came to be the men they are.  Their loyalty, commitment and devotion to each other, which has survived juvenile delinquency, questionable business prospects, divorce, children, dogs, and even a stolen school bus.  Each of these stories give greater meaning to the friendship they share, and how the small moments in individual lives create a foundation on which, when tragedy comes, they can find the strength to face the heartache that accompanies it.

This is one of those books that you will either love or hate — depending on if you like stories, where much of their development evolves from past events.  But, whether you like that format — Atkins uses it to great effect and mastery, as a writing style.  It makes the whole book both poignant and heartbreaking at the same time.  The stark differences between A. J. and Eugene are glaringly obvious, while at the same time subtle in their influence.  And the book even provides a couple of significant surprise throughout that makes for a very fulfilling reading experience.  A must read, in my opinion.