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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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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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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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Leonardo the Florentine by: Catherine McGrew Jaime

I have always been a fan of historical fiction.  I love the underlying historical times, places and events that mark the development of the world we know today.  And some times and places in history are more captivating to me than others.  World War II’s Germany, The American Revolution, The Russian Revolution and the death of Tsar Nicholas the II and his family.  One of those times and places is also Renaissance Italy.  This history of the great artists, combined with the power struggle of the Church and the highly influential merchants, with more money than Midas are fascinating events and people, all of whom shaped a very interesting world.  The interplay between the great artists — particularly that of Leonardo Da Vinci and the all powerful Medici family is a history of intriguing proportions.   So, when I cam across this book, it peaked my interest.  It is challenging to find good historical fiction surrounding these individuals and the role they played in history.  There are certainly more in the non-fiction genre — but sometimes, you just need a good story mixed into the history, as a means of getting lost in a great book.

Unfortunately, this one didn’t quite make it for me.  This was a time and place of extremes.  There were power struggles all over the place.  The Church and the Medici’s; the great masters of the artistic world; the Medici’s and other financially influential families; even the various surrounding cities — all of which existed as their own city-states and were laws unto themselves.  This is not a time in history to venture into lightly.  Which is exactly what I felt like this book did.  Jaime did a great book for perhaps the young adult age.  But there was little about the volatile time and place in which Leonardo took his first steps towards his artistic greatness.  The story is idealized, with characters who have few flaws and little depth.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of the more controversial masters of history.  His influence expanded into more than just the artistic world.  His study in science led to amazing scientific inventions and his artistic works changed the Renaissance world, all of which continue to amazing the world today.  A man with a multifaceted character he struggled with his bisexuality and was haunted by his bastardized life as the son of a slave.  And yet the visions of the world he leaves behind have given shape and definition to the religious world.  His Mona Lisa continues to captivate the world over, even after all these hundreds of years.  And yet, none of this will be found in Jaime’s work.

Here we have a Leonardo portrayed as a young man with only minor engagement in an artistic life.  Angry at the idea of being shuttled off by his father and forced to study under his mentor, Master Verrocchio.  He spends little time painting and drawing and a great deal of time playing with younger children and exploring the hillsides and country around him.  There is little to be found of the brooding, troubled man in Jaime’s envisioning of Leonardo da Vinci.

Additionally, the story is just off somehow.  It constantly feels rushed and a great deal is passed over, or forgotten completely.  Condensed into 150 pages, there is barely enough room to get the history started, before it is ending.  Additionally, there is the constant interruption of the modern world onto this historic setting.  Many of the phrases and terminology have a decidedly modern tone, which detracts from the overall feel of the book.  Generally, this is a book that left me wanting so much more than I found that once I finished it, I went to the library to find a book on da Vinci that presented more substance.

For those who are first being introduced to the history of Leonardo da Vinci, or for young adults first exploring the world of reading — this is a great starting point.  But for those that love to get lost in a book so completely that the real world goes away — this isn’t the book for you.

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The Wandering Falcon by: Jamil Ahmad

Hmmm.  I’m not really sure what to say about this book.  There are a lot of descriptions that come to mind, and even more disparate thoughts that formed while I was reading.  And perhaps this disconnected response is reflective of the book itself.  A child, born into a harsh, inhospitable world, to walking dead parents, who ultimately finds himself cut adrift in this nomadic existence.  Yes — this is a very condensed version of the book description.  But the story’s cohesion is not much more than this.

The “protagonist,” if that is what you can call him — Tor Baz — is one of the most non-existent characters I have ever come across.  Quite frankly, it isn’t that I loved him or hated him; I can’t even claim to be indifferent to him.  The fact is, his appearance through out the book is almost random.  He shows up in each chapter, but almost as an afterthought.  In actuality, there is no character development, in relation to Tor Baz.  If this were a movie, he could at best be called an extra.  But, in a strange way, he does tie the disjointed mini-stories together throughout the book.

One thing I can say about Tor Baz is that there is little redeeming value in his character.  After witnessing the horrifyingly brutal execution of his mother, at the hands of his father; the shooting of the family camel; the gruesome stoning of his father and the murder of his alienated grandfather (and no, I wouldn’t call this a spoiler, as this all happens in the first chapter of the book), this boy finds himself launched into a life of nomadic instruction in the arts of questionable morality.  To say he is without redeeming character is not exactly accurate.  But he does surface as a spy, the pupil of an insane mentor, an orphan from not only his parents but many adoptive relations as well, an illegal guide across sealed boarders, and a swindler to name just a few.  I guess it would be more appropriate to view this character as a chameleon, rather than a character.  But he is an excellent character study in addressing the question of how we define morality, and how do those various definitions shape our perceptions of the world.

But the stories that move across time and the many changes of this strange borderland present a interesting, if sometimes challenging plot to follow.  What did intrigue me about this book is that it gives the reader a true appreciation for the oral tradition of story telling, which appears so predominately in this Middle Eastern cultures — particularly among the nomadic tribes-people.  This book is actually easier to get through if you look at is as an oral presentation of many different story tellers, rather than a novel for reading.

The stories, themselves, give a great deal of depth and insight into the cultural interactions in the borderlands between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.  It gives the reader an on the ground perspective of the historical evolution of these countries, but with very little awareness of the major events that shaped the culture.  Rather than focusing on the major events as a linear story — the history is presented in small snippets of individual lives, that help portray the changes forced on the people of the region.

I wouldn’t say that I disliked this book.  In fact — I actually found parts of it quite interesting.  But, it is a different read.  At times disorienting, due to the apparent disconnection between the various storylines, and at times completely off the wall — this book would make a great literary exploration of voice, perspective and cultural literary influences.  But if you are looking for a traditional, fictionally based, linear story — this isn’t the book for you.

 

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Skeletons at the Feast by: Chris Bohjalian

Ok — there are some books that you really want to love — and the author just doesn’t quite deliver.  And yet — they aren’t bad enough to put down, but frustrating to continue on through the end.  And then there are some books that you really don’t want to like — and they turn out to change your perceptions dramatically.  And while like isn’t the right description for these books — they will impact at various levels.  This book has been on my too read list for quite some time.  It is one of those that I always look at and decide no — I don’t really want to read it.  And then every time I am in a library, bookstore, or browsing audible or Barnes and Noble’s website — I just keep coming back to it.  It crops up in strange places, and lots of people recommend it. So, I finally had to relent and read it.  There is probably one description for this book — graphically disturbing.

For those with significantly conservative leanings and strong opinions about the concept that some material just doesn’t belong in print — this is not a book for you.  This book stays with you partially because of the graphic shock effect that Bohjalian uses.  Most people, when they think of World War II think of the Holocaust.  They have almost become synonymous.   However, this book takes a different approach.  This one looks at it through the eyes of those who belong to the rapidly dying Third Reich.  Boxed in by the Russians on the East and the British and Americans on the West — the German general populace is trapped in the middle.  And Bohjalian paints this hunted people in the most graphic of detail.  From horrifying rape scenes to the hopelessness of a defeated army in battle — this book haunts the reader through exposure in the most horrifying of ways.

There are strange issues of rage that come to the surface in this book as well.  Everyone is angry.  And yes, I understand this is a book about war torn Europe — and the defeat of the German nation.  But the anger, while not unjustified, seems misplaced somehow.  It is hard to describe.  I get some of the anger — like the women in the forced death march, after untold horrors of the various concentration camps.  And I get the manifestation of Callum’s righteous indignation of the atrocities — as this is an expression found time an again among the allies, as the camps were slowly, one by one, liberated.  But this isn’t about the magnitude of the atrocities, so much as about the defeat of Germany’s army and the strangely superior animosity of the German people, which manifests as anger.  It just seems misplaced to me somehow.  And yet that anger is both latent and impotent — which eventually breaks down to the point of putting the struggles and tragedies of the Germans on a par with that of the Jews.

The characters seem really strange in their development as well.  From Urry’s overwhelming anger and contempt for the Germans who inflicted so much pain and eventually finds its express by ultimately driving him to become what we would define today as a serial killer — war or not; to Callum’s apparent disinterest in the war effort, or even being the paratrooper he was trained to be.  This of course results in his strange disconnect from most of the story — while still playing a leading role.  Anna’s naivete becomes absolutely irritating throughout the entire story.  Where everyone moves towards the recognition that the Germans are not innocent victims in this horrifying situation — Anna just can’t get to that realization.  She seems to float on the insulated perception that the allies are completely unjustified in their actions throughout nearly the entire book.  And when she does finally wake up — it isn’t a sudden ah ha moment, so much as a passive acceptance that yes atrocities have occurred but the response of the opposing armies is completely out of proportion in comparison to what may have occurred.

The sex scenes are both horrifying and completely out of place.  I get that people will turn to sex as an expression of extreme duress among other things — but this seems completely off the wall in its placement and occurrence.  Combine that with the complete inappropriateness of the timing for some of the characters, as well as the graphic presentation of rapes for others — and the reader simply comes away with a horrifyingly disturbed feeling about the whole thing.  It isn’t tawdry so much as downright creepy.

And if you are looking for closure of many of these story lines — you aren’t really going to find it.  That — or the closure will seem so pointless, and inane to tragic proportions, or they simply stop abruptly — as if jarring the reader out of the story and back into reality, in the most whiplash type of end.   And yet — this is the part of the story that Bohjalian got right.  The realization that for the majority of Europe, i.e. the Germans, the Jews, the displaced nationals of Poland, the Ukraine, France and myriad other countries, never found closure.  So many were left with no knowledge of what happened to family, friends and extended relations through the horror of the entire war that their lack of closure becomes that of the reader.  Bohjalian forcibly puts the reader into the traumatic experience of feeling loss and confusion about what is happening, how did we get here and how does one ever start to piece lives back together, when the entire face of the world has been so completely rewritten, so as to not even be able to recognize the remnants of what was?  Simply put — Bohjalian does have the ability to put the reader right in the middle of the end of the war — to horrifying effect and proportions.  That experience will haunt the reader to no end.  They will come away with an almost depressing feeling of fatality due to the complete pointlessness of war and the destructive wake it leaves behind.

This is not a read for the faint of heart.  Nor is it one for those that have weak stomachs or lean towards happy endings.  This is one you need to brace yourself going in — because it will leave scars behind, which will disturb and and stalk the reader for some time to come.

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The Lost Sisterhood by: Anne Fortier

OK — I admit it.  I don’t always adhere to the adage “don’t judge a book by its cover.”  There are a lot of reasons that a book will make it to my “to read” list.  The cover, the description, recommendations, book reviews and — as is the case with this one — because I have already read something of the author’s.  I loved Fortier’s previous book Juliet for a myriad of reason.  So, when I saw this one, I just had to read it.  It is also true that when you read books based on authors,  some books will be better than others.  This is one of those that didn’t quite live up to the first book.

Fortier’s writing revolves around old stories and myths and how those stories will compare to the historical theories that exist about their origins.  In this case, it is the various myths surrounding the Amazons and the historical record of the lost city of Troy.  Many of the Greek gods and heros make appearances in this work.  The story reflects the vast collection of the Greek and Trojan struggle, all leading up to the ultimate destruction of Troy, as well as the potential interconnection of the Amazonian theme throughout.

The first book of Fortier’s — that of Juliet, was pretty basic, as far as the story goes.  She didn’t look to capitalize on the story, other than to develop it into modern descendents of the original story characters.  But she demonstrated a writing style of developing dual story lines that are interconnected between the past and present, while at the same time having the present story mirror that of the past — with an alternate ending.  She also demonstrated a passion for stories based on star-crossed lovers themes.  This particular book is no different.  However, where her real strength rested in the first book — namely her development of setting — she didn’t quite succeed  here.

Foriter has demonstrated a real masterful ability to create settings that live.  In the first book, the city and localities really became an intricate part of the storyline.  She knew her historical setting and was able to make the setting live and breath.  I fell in love with that story because I fell in love with the setting.  (Something that is unusual for me.)  In fact, prior to Juliet I never gave much consideration to how a setting played into a story.  That is the one marked difference between this book and the first.  There really wasn’t a place around which this was grounded.

For a story set predominantly in the history of the Greek and Trojan conflict — there was remarkably little development of the setting of these two places.  The story actually moves through the Arab desert, Turkey, Crete, Greece, Troy (barely), Scandinavia, Germany, England, with even references to Russia — although they never quite get there.  I wasn’t sure if Fortier was trying to develop a historically based story, or a mystery tour of the world.

The characters didn’t quite come together for me either.  The power struggle between Nick and James — at least for me — almost became burdensome and frustrating.  And for all the presence these characters have in the story — they are surprisingly stereotypical in their depth and development.  I felt like Nick goes from enemy to lover in the space of about five pages, leaving me wondering how we got from hate to love with nothing in between.

Add in the conniving machinations of Al-Aqrab, Reznik, Kent, and the Amazons — and overall you end up with a cast of characters all thrown together, in an attempt to tie so much history into one story that you loose the depth and cohesion of the whole.  I enjoyed the premise of the book — but I felt like a lot of what I could see coming in the book came from my familiarity with Fortier’s first novel, and little to do with the actual story of this one.

One other problem I found with this book that really kind of irritated me was the Amazonian type main character of Diana.  Here we have a supposed expert in the Amazon lore — and everyone around her seems to know more than she does.  From the beginning her role as a philologist failed, as what was really needed — as Nick points out more than once — was an archeologist, with a passion for Troy and the Amazons.  She has her moments — but over all, she comes across as an academic wanna-be, who ultimately devolves into the proverbial damsel in distress.  For a book of over 600 pages — this can become painful, long before you will reach the end.

So while this might  make for a great summer vacation read — the story just didn’t quite live up to my expectations.  This is a case of it being a book that I really wanted to love — and just couldn’t quite make myself do it.