Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter

Don’t judge a book by it’s cover? For this novel I certainly did.

The gorgeous photo of  Manarola, a city belonging to the infamous and spellbinding Cinque Terre, is what did me in. I was lucky enough to travel to the Cinque Terre last summer and so seeing such a beautiful image made me want to read the book.

In reality this book had nothing to do with the Cinque Terre. Talk about misleading!

The novel jumps from time period to time period (I’m really getting tired of this style) and is basically about a young man from Italy who lives in a small town close to the Cinque Terre (but never actually goes there) and his love for a mysterious American movie star who has arrived in his town to die of cancer. Back in America an old washed-up producer is trying to find his next big hit. Somehow the Italian man and the American man are acquainted and bond. And that’s about it.

Throughout the novel I felt as if it was leading up to an unwinding mystery. But no, there was no mystery and the book really didn’t build up to anything. The characters did not develop because each new chapter took place in a different decade. The characters were difficult to relate to. Nobody fell in love. And in the end, the resolution was neither interesting nor satisfying.

As I write this review I get more and more frustrated that I allowed myself to struggle through the novel for over 2 months. I should have quit the first time I put it down, just after a few pages, not to pick it up for another few weeks! Sometimes it is a sign that a book isn’t worth it if it isn’t devoured within the first or second week!

Moral of the story – don’t judge a book by it’s cover! I did and guess what? I now have 2 months of reading time that I can never have back!

Question: What’s one book that you wish you never read?

– Natasha

And now for a shameless plug: read about my time in the Cinque Terre (where I was in reality, not just in imagination) on my travel blog: www.arestlessnomad.wordpress.com!

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote a review. To be honest it’s been even longer that I’ve actually gotten through a good book!

A still from the 2005 Rob Marshall film.

I watched the movie adaption of “Memoirs of a Geisha” years ago. I remember thinking that it was a beautifully filmed movie and that I really enjoyed watching the special features to find out how the movie was made. I couldn’t remember much of the story line though, and so when I read the novel it was completely new to me.

The novel is set in Japan before and after WWII and tells the story of Chiyo Sakamoto, a young girl from a poor fishing village. She is sold by her father at the age of 9 to an okiya (geisha boarding house) where we learn about her journey to become a geisha and all that happens in between.

The art of being a geisha was completely unfamiliar to me. In fact, I didn’t really understand what a geisha actually was before reading the book. Becoming a geisha is an extremely difficult, emotional, and important process that requires years of training in order to succeed. Geishas lead unique lives in which they are judged based on what they look like, how they act, and most importantly, how they are able to interact with men. Through their interactions with men their path of life is determined a success or a failure, leading them towards the future.

Vintage, 1998, 428 pages (paperback)

It is clear that Golden did a lot of research in for this novel. Furthermore, he is an eloquent and captivating author. Through his research he was able to convey scenes with amazing clarity and emotion, making the book come to life in the process.

WWII history is one of the genres I enjoy reading about most but I always seem to read about WWII from a European perspective. Although “Memoirs of a Geisha” isn’t exclusively about WWII, it is interesting to read about the impact of WWII from a Japanese perspective. It was also interesting to read about Japanese culture, history, and daily life, something that I wasn’t familiar with before reading the book.

Now that I’ve finished the book I’m looking forward to watching the movie once more. The book was interesting, moving, and informative and I hope that this is portrayed well in the film. It’s one book that I would highly recommend. Definitely one of the best books I’ve read all year!

Juliet, Anne Fortier

Ballantine Books, 2011, 461 pages (paperback)

Sigh. Sometimes all a girl needs is a proper romance novel. And you’ll remember this one from my fall TBR, meaning I had high hopes for it. The good news is that I wasn’t let down. While Juliet definitely falls  into the romance category, it could also easily be called a mystery, thriller, or historical fiction, which is what I like most about it.

Both plots – yes, there are two – are twisty and complicated. One follows our modern-day American heroine, Julie Jacobs who, along with her twin sister Janice, was orphaned by shady circumstances roughly twenty years ago when their family lived in Italy. Upon the event of their great-aunt Rose’s death, Julie is let in on a family secret, leading her back to Siena, Italy to do some major digging. Breaking up the progression of this plot line, is that of Giulietta Tolomei, a young country girl living in Siena in 1340, and her quick and ill-fated romance with one Romeo Marescotti. Six-hundred years apart, the two story lines nevertheless begin to intertwine in the most fascinating and page-turning ways.  To quote an interesting character: “Everything we say is a story. But nothing we say is just a story.” What’s real and what’s legend are frequently conflated.What follows is a lot of intrigue, treasure hunting, chase scenes, not quite knowing who to trust, and plenty of gasping and shouting from the reader (that is, if you’re as interactive with your novels as I am). With chapters flip-flopping back and forth between the two ‘Juliet’s, I was kept on the edge of my seat for the entire 450-or-so pages. I have a few minor complaints, but on the whole this is prime escapist fiction, perfect for anyone who enjoys a modern departure from classic Shakespeare. Without giving away endings (because you will be guessing till the end), the story, while feeling comfortingly familiar, is at the same time new.

Wherefore Art Thou, Perfect Screen Adaptation?

Romeo and Juliet through the (recent) ages.

I await the day that Fortier’s Juliet will be turned into film. The book, being so cinematic, is a natural candidate for a major female-driven blockbuster. And, forgive me if you disagree, but haven’t we enough straight-forward film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet? In tenth grade my English class was introduced to the 1968 version, already begging comparisons to the modernized Leo-tastic version of ’96 which we were more familiar with. Now, apparently with a new generation arose the need for yet another, and so we have the 2013 version released last month (which, I’ll admit, I will watch and probably love). To me it’s puzzling and a little pathetic that, even despite all these versions turning out the same, I always hope for a less-tragic ending. Does anyone out there feel the same way?

Into the Wilderness, Sara Donati

Note: This review contains spoilers of the oft-cited Diana Gabaldon novel Outlander. Read that review, too!

I thought my Outlander days were over. Then one day I picked up a little 900-page historical romance called Into the Wilderness, and I quickly realized that history repeats itself.

Into the Wilderness follows the adventures of Elizabeth Middleton as she makes the shift from a spinster’s life in England to life on the American frontier, circa 1792. Her simple role as teacher pf the village children is complicated by her burgeoning feminist leanings, conflicts with slave owners, and increasing “entanglement” with the mysterious Nathaniel Bonner. Nathaniel, despite being Scottish or something (I wasn’t really paying attention), has been raised Mohawk. This automatically makes him appealing in a dangly-silver-earring, rough-around-the-edges, knows-how-to-scalp-someone sort of way. The story follows their exploits, as unpredictable and far-flung as the wilderness itself! (Spoiler: They fall hopelessly in love. And we all know how love leads to such standard scenarios as inter-familial feuding, plots to break into jail, and secret meetings involving waterfalls and bearskins. Classic.) Continue reading

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Cloud AtlasWhat a story this was! There are many thoughts to compile for a book like this, so after giving them a few weeks to figure themselves out, I think we may have a coherent book report on our hands. No major plot details will be related here, so read on!

I’d never heard of David Mitchell before, though his previous books have found critical acclaim. I was hooked once I saw the movie trailer for Cloud Atlas, and knew this was going to be a book I would love.

Adam EwingThis unconventional novel follows six main characters through different eras in the past, present and future. Beginning in 1850 with Adam Ewing who is sailing across the Pacific Ocean, we have a tone that seems very Melville. Through his diary entries we learn that Ewing is a good, Christian man who falls very ill on his journey home, during which he befriends a doctor and a former Moriori slave.

Robert FrobisherThe next chapter introduces young Robert Frobisher in 1931. A musical prodigy, he leaves his lover, Sixsmith, in London to travel to Belgium to study under a famous composer. Pretentious, despite his struggles and disinheritance, Frobisher works to find recognition and success, as we see in his self-absorbed letters to Sixsmith.

Luisa ReyThe story really begins to pick up in the next chapter, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, which follows Rey, a journalist in 1970’s California. Read like a novel within a novel (and a lot like Grisham), Rey believes she is on her way to uncovering a good scoop about a nearby nuclear power plant, which she is pointed to buy a now-aged Sixsmith. The plot has some great action, and Rey is easy to cheer for. Continue reading

Joint Review: A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray

Kaite: Time for a joint review! You’ve probably seen our book from this post in every bookstore and library around, which is precisely why we had to see what all the fuss was about. But, if I may be so abrupt, I have to say I was disappointed with this one, and I have a feeling my compatriot feels the same.

Deborah: Yup. Not the best book ever written, that’s for sure. It held my attention, that much is true. I was actually pretty into it for the first hundred pages or so. Starting off in colonial India was sort of interesting, but then things very quickly became wacky…and very dark and creepy.

Kaite: I think we’ll be agreeing on a lot of our points today. To give our readers an idea of what is going on in this novel (because you won’t be picking it up after you read our review), on the day Gemma Doyle turns 16, certain events make her life in India change forever. She ends up at a boarding school in England where she makes ‘friends’, and together the four of them end up exploring the magical realms Gemma has found she is able to access. Oh and this mysterious teenage boy from India follows (stalks) her to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble (?). The question mark is there because there is no clear reason why he follows her. He doesn’t give her useful information about her power, and is really just a sullen creep that is supposed to become a love interest. How did you find the rest of the characters in the book, Debs?

Deborah: Well let’s see, we’ve covered the protagonist and her lover boy, and that pretty much just leaves us with the terrible friends. Why are they terrible, you might ask? Because they’re the 19th century version of these:

Oh no she didn’t.

Continue reading

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern

First hardcover edition by Doubleday (2011)

Every time I walked by this novel I picked it up, looked at the price then sighed and walked away. The title of it was captivating, the story compelling, but I just couldn’t bare to hand over $20+ on a book I’d probably only read once. Thankfully softcover novels are not nearly as expensive as hard covers, which is why the moment I saw it as a softcover, I knew I needed to have it. Fortunately this story did not fail my expectations.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a beautifully-written tale that incorporates both magic and reality, often blurring the line between the two. Celia and Marco are protégés of two famous rival illusionists in the early 20th century. Together they are responsible for a circus that travels throughout the world, only coming out at night. The people involved in the circus are unchanging, never growing old, and the magic that happens in the circus appears to be real, drawing audience members to the circus for decades.

Morgenstern is a gifted writer, carefully laying out the plot in order to captivate and allure those reading the story. A picture was painted in my mind and I was drawn to the characters as well, even though we didn’t have anything in common. I particularly liked Morgenstern’s ability to write from different perspectives and different time periods. In other words, the novel was not one dimensional. Within the novel different complexities made the story alluring and made me want to read more.

Despite being a well-written and original story, I feel as if the writer struggled to conclude the novel. I think that combining fantasy and reality can be difficult and can be confusing to the reader as it is not always clear when the line is drawn between the two. Within the very last chapter, I found that Morgenstern began to flounder. How could she wrap up the story into a nice little package? Well, I don’t believe she could. Morgenstern had developed such a complex story that it was almost impossible to conclude the novel and so, as the reader, I was left confused.

Unfortunately I cannot go in to much detail regarding the end of the book without ruining the story completely,  but what I will say is that, despite the confusing ending, the novel is worth picking up. Maybe you’ll disagree with me. Maybe there was something about the end of the novel that I missed completely. Let me know, okay?

Overall, The Night Circus is a book that deserves to be read. If you like magic, adventure, history and romance then this is the book for you!

The Time in Between, by María Dueñas (translated from the original Spanish by Daniel Hahn)

Culture and history are two of my favourite subjects in the world, and historical fiction is my favourite genre to read.

“The Time in Between” by María Dueñas incorporates culture and history seamlessly, bringing to life completely new events that prior to reading this book I was completely unaware of.

Set in the 1930s Dueñas writes about Sira, a simple dress maker from Madrid. As the years pass she goes through numerous extremes, first gaining riches, then loosing it all. She moves from Madrid to Morocco in order to chase love but is unable to always keep up. The civil war in Spain creates unrest and then WWII brings its own series of issues to Spain and Northern Africa. Sira creates a life for herself, gaining strength and confidence from nothing while adapting to the turmoil and unrest of war.

“The Time In Between” is a long book to read and has many story lines. I sometimes found myself thinking that this book would be better off split in to two stories. What kept me going and what kept me intrigued to read more was the way it was written. Dueñas is clearly a gifted author, but so is her translator Daniel Hahn. There were some points in which there were pages of dialogue but despite the exhausting length, the author, along with the translator, was able to use witty and strong language in order to completely capture my attention.

Until this novel I had never before read a book that had been translated into English. It is always a gamble reading translated novels as one can wonder if the translator was able to capture exactly what the author was trying to convey. After reading “The Time In Between”, I think that Dueñas can be very proud of Hahn’s work. This book truly is a written masterpiece.

I know what I’m saying sounds exaggerated but it is truly what I think. As I was reading the book all I could think about was how amazingly every thought was delivered and every subject was written. Though the topic already fascinates me, it was the delivery that stuck out.

Overall I would highly recommend this book. Through it I was able to learn more about the civil war in Spain, Spain’s relationship with Morocco, and about the WWII resistance movement in Spain. Reading this book also convinced me of my desire to travel to Spain and Morocco where I can learn and see much of the history I read about first hand.

I am looking forward to reading another book by María Dueñas, translated by Daniel Hahn. I know that I can expect great things from this duo.

The Forgotten Garden, Kate Morton

It’s 1913, and a four-year-old girl is found on a wharf in Australia, having come across in a boat from England. All she has in her possession is a small white suitcase, and a curious illustrated book of fairy tales. She is soon taken in by a loving family, who fail to ever solve the mystery of where she came from. Years later, “Nell” goes on a journey to find the missing pieces of her history. Thus comes together a rich, complex story line featuring three prominent female voices, sprinkled here and there with delightful fairy tales and other’s points of view.

Quite honestly, though I enjoyed this book and would give it a solid 3 stars out of 5, The Forgotten Garden took a good 100 pages for me to really get into. Here’s the conundrum: sometimes the promise of a story, the feel and look of the actual book, don’t quite live up to the tale itself. I was confused by the back-and-forth narrative the author uses to tell her story – first we’re in 1913, then we jump to the ’60s, then we’re in 2005. And then there’s the innumerable cast of supporting characters to contend with! Once I got acquainted with these things, however, I was able to sink into the story a bit more. I loved the “scrapbooky” feel of the book as a whole. As a lover of folklore, myths, and children’s stories, I really appreciated the interspersed fairy tales. Not only did they help connect the three timelines running throughout the book (they were not idly placed); they were beautiful and symbolic in their own right. It was also fun to imagine the illustrations that were described as going along with them. I found myself wishing the book of fairy tales really did exist!

Now, the part of my review where I reveal my biggest complaint. Maybe this is just me, since I’m obviously a fan of The Secret Gardenbut there was something a bit cheeky about how Morton chose to rip off certain details of the original garden classic. Like The Secret Garden, The Forgotten Garden featured an orphan being taken into a big manor inhabited by her creepy uncle, and her subsequent discovery of a walled garden that offers healing to her sickly cousin. Incidently I would have no problem with the recycling of these plot points (even the robin that led her to it!), should a fictionalized version of Frances Hodgson Burnett herself not make an appearance in the book! As it turns out, the author is invited to a garden party at the manor, and gets all inspired. In fact, we’re led to believe that her experience at this party leads her to write The Secret Garden. In a word…audacious.

All objections aside, this is a good book. Despite the halted start, I don’t want to slam an author who’s skilled at weaving a good plot line and ultimately able to keep my attention for 500-plus pages. I’ll put in a good word on behalf of those people I know who adored this book – your adoration is not unfounded, and I will likely be reading other Morton books in future.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill

The Book of Negroes was released as “Someone Knows My Name” in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

It’s been a long time since I last posted a book review but between school, work and just life in general, reading, unfortunately, is sometimes pushed aside. This being said, over the past few months since school ended I’ve read a few books that I’ve enjoyed including “The Birth House” by Ami McKay (a book reviewed by Deborah quite a few months ago) and “The Island” by Victoria Hislop (an easy read about a leper colony  on the island of Spinalonga off the coast of Crete). Although I could rave for ages about how wonderful “The Birth House” was, it is “The Book of Negroes” by Canadian author Lawrence Hill that is deserving of my short but sweet review.

“The Book of Negroes” chronicles the life story of  Aminata Diallo from West Africa. At the age of 11 she is captured by slavers and is shipped to the Americas. Throughout the novel Aminata is introduced to many new things while experiencing the horrors of slavery and living in captivity. Despite her terrible beginnings, Aminata’s life takes unexpected twists and turns, and the story tells of love, migration, abuse, birth, death and culture all through the eyes of a black slave from Africa.

Starting a new book is not always easy for me but after reading a couple of chapters in this novel I was hooked. The writing alone carried the story while the excellent plot, thought provoking subject and well crafted characters made the novel a joy to read. “The Book of Negroes” is a novel that I’ve seen advertised every time I step into a bookstore and after hearing my mom, sisters, extended family and friends rave about it, this book did not disappoint.

What I enjoyed most about “The Book of Negroes” is that Hill exposed a lot of topics, some of which I hadn’t been aware of in the past. He acknowledged that African people were responsible for enslaving and shipping their own people to the Americas. He also wrote about the difference between “African” people and “Negroes” and the way the were treated, something that I had always wondered about. A lot of what Hill wrote was new information to me and I appreciated the historical information that I was able to learn through reading the book.

“The Book of Negroes” is long so when you begin to read it be prepared to sit for quite a while. This being said the book is worth it, taking you on a roller coaster of the past, incorporating American, Canadian, British and African history alike.

My sister once said that the only downfall of this book is that it is written like a memoir yet Aminata Diallo is a fictional character. I think that Aminata’s character, although not completely historically accurate, is a representation of the people that were in her similar situation over 200 years ago. Those people were heroes living in a nightmare, taken from their homes and treated like animals. Thus, by reading this book, Aminata’s character and everything she stood for can also be called heroic and I thank Lawrence Hill for making this even more clear to me through this novel.