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Archive for August, 2011

The Postmistress

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sarah Blake.  336 p.  Published 2010 by Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam.  Listened to audiobook published by Penguin Audiobooks and narrated by Orlagh Cassidy.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Historical Fiction

Short Bio (from publisher):

Those who carry the truth sometimes bear a terrible weight…

It is 1940. France has fallen. Bombs are dropping on London. And President Roosevelt is promising he won’t send our boys to fight in “foreign wars.”

But American radio gal Frankie Bard, the first woman to report from the Blitz in London, wants nothing more than to bring the war home. Frankie’s radio dispatches crackle across the Atlantic ocean, imploring listeners to pay attention–as the Nazis bomb London nightly, and Jewish refugees stream across Europe. Frankie is convinced that if she can just get the right story, it will wake Americans to action and they will join the fight.

Meanwhile, in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on Cape Cod, Iris James hears Frankie’s broadcasts and knows that it is only a matter of time before the war arrives on Franklin’s shores. In charge of the town’s mail, Iris believes that her job is to deliver and keep people’s secrets, passing along the news that letters carry. And one secret she keeps are her feelings for Harry Vale, the town mechanic, who inspects the ocean daily, searching in vain for German U-boats he is certain will come. Two single people in midlife, Iris and Harry long ago gave up hope of ever being in love, yet they find themselves unexpectedly drawn toward each other.

Listening to Frankie as well are Will and Emma Fitch, the town’s doctor and his new wife, both trying to escape a fragile childhood and forge a brighter future. When Will follow’s Frankie’s siren call into the war, Emma’s worst fears are realized. Promising to return in six months, Will goes to London to offer his help, and the lives of the three women entwine.

Eyewitness Account:

Although this was simply the next book that appeared on my audiobooks hold list from the library, it is strikingly similar to the last book I read – the main characters are women, set during World War II, full of rich historical detail, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy . . . the titles are even similar, each the occupation of one of the main female characters.  However, I was struck by the fact that where The Piano Teacher had a very strong plot with weak characterization, I felt like The Postmistress was the opposite with incredibly sympathetic characters and a slightly weaker plot (though still not bad!).  The pages didn’t turn quite as easily for me this time as the story seemed to drag a bit.  Overall, though, Blake’s writing style was more than eloquent and a pleasure to read (or listen to, as the case may be!).

I loved the three women who formed the core of the story, each one so vividly constructed with personality and strengths and struggles;  they held the story together for me, because even when the plot seemed to drag and I wondered when Emma would ever get her deserved news, I held on because I cared about them.  Perhaps I cared less about the plot because the overarching setting of Americans in pre-World War II is something I’ve read a lot about and didn’t give me something new like The Piano Teacher did.  Those who don’t mind a slower moving plot if they get great characters in return, or who haven’t read a lot of WW II fiction, will probably enjoy this book.

Other Books Read by This Author:  none

What are other people saying?  New York Times, She is Too Fond of Books, Literary Corner Cafe

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★★★★ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★

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The Piano Teacher

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts:  by Janice Y. K. Lee. 328 p. Published 2009 by Penguin Publishers.  Listened to the audiobook published by Penguin Audio and narrated by Orlagh Cassidy.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Historical Fiction

Short Bio (from the publisher):

In the sweeping tradition of The English Patient, a gripping tale of love and betrayal set in war-torn Hong Kong

In 1942, Will Truesdale, an Englishman newly arrived in Hong Kong, falls headlong into a passionate relationship with Trudy Liang, a beautiful Eurasian socialite. But their love affair is soon threatened by the invasion of the Japanese as World War II overwhelms their part of the world. Will is sent to an internment camp, where he and other foreigners struggle daily for survival. Meanwhile, Trudy remains outside, forced to form dangerous alliances with the Japanese—in particular, the malevolent head of the gendarmerie, whose desperate attempts to locate a priceless collection of Chinese art lead to a chain of terrible betrayals.

Ten years later, Claire Pendleton comes to Hong Kong and is hired by the wealthy Chen family as their daughter’s piano teacher. A provincial English newlywed, Claire is seduced by the heady social life of the expatriate community. At one of its elegant cocktail parties, she meets Will, to whom she is instantly attracted—but as their affair intensifies, Claire discovers that Will’s enigmatic persona hides a devastating past. As she begins to understand the true nature of the world she has entered, and long-buried secrets start to emerge, Claire learns that sometimes the price of survival is love.

Eyewitness Account:

While the story gets kudos for having a complex, engaging plot and diverse characters, it was overall a “meh” for me.  I’m finding that I like stories with firm endings, and this one just kind of petered out for me.  I liked how the story was actually two stories, 10 years apart, told parallel with the narration switching from one time period to the other (although its odd how the older story is told in present tense and the more recent story told in the usual past tense.)  My favorite part of the book was the time period and setting of Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion of WWII – all the war literature I’ve read, and not one has been there!  It’s always nice to find something totally new to learn about.

In some ways, this novel felt a lot like The Great Gatsby to me, with all the high society parties and Claire being a newcomer who doesn’t feel like she belongs.  However, even though the characters were unique and different, I had a hard time really empathizing with them.  I couldn’t relate to their thoughts or actions or feelings, they always seemed to think or act or feel differently than I would have.  I probably would have liked this book more if I had connected with the characters more deeply.  The writing style and plot were really above par, so I would definitely try other books by this author.

Other Books Read by This Author: none.

What are other people saying? New York Times,  A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore, S. Krishna

Rating:

★★★★ Plot Development

★★☆☆☆ Characterization

★★★★ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆


Sweet Sanctuary

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Sheila Walsh and Cindy Martinusen-Coloma. 352 p. Published August 2011 by Thomas Nelson.  Advanced review copy provided by the publisher in electronic format through their BookSneeze program in return for my honest review.

Verdict: ★★★★

Who Cares? Adult Contemporary Fiction

Short Bio (from the publisher):

“Without the storm, how would we know the sweetness of shelter?” -Ruth

Out of the clear blue, Wren’s Grandma Ruth arrives on her doorstep, dreaming of a grand party to celebrate her 95th birthday. Wren and her young son Charlie love the idea, but it quickly gets complicated: Ruth wants Wren’s estranged siblings to attend and she wants Wren to sing her all-time favorite song: “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” It’s the very song Wren sang one fateful day during her childhood . . . and Wren hasn’t sung a note since.

Though she’s glad to have Grandma back in her life, Wren’s sleeping on the couch in her own house now . . . and worried about the expenses piling up. After all, her job at the community library is in jeopardy after budget cuts, and the fancy music program she wants for her son is getting farther and farther out of reach. What’s more, Paul—the guy she’s drawn to yet avoids—ends up being a major part of an important library project.

With family arriving and old wounds resurfacing, Wren’s about to fly when she discovers something special—a gift of grace beyond her wildest dreams.

Eyewitness Account:

Sweet Sanctuary is the story of a single-mom who fights all the usual battles – bringing home the bacon for her little family of two, delving into the ultra-emotional question of what role her ex-husband should have in their lives, moving beyond the relational failures of the past for new dating opportunities, and carrying the great burdens of parenthood alone.   Because no (wo)man is an island, Wren faces all of this on top of the emotional scars of her childhood.  The family tragedy of long ago not only created deep psychological wounds, but has left Wren without the support and presence of her mother and siblings.

Wren’s story is engaging and real, relatable even to those who aren’t in her particular situation.  She’s easy to empathize with, partly because she makes the same mistakes that we probably would.  I liked that her struggles were the usual daily life ones of figuring out how to help her son when he has trouble with his friends, how to handle the difficult family relationships in her life, and how to make life-changing decisions like where to live and what job to take.  I also liked that her journey of faith was authentic – there were times when she remembered to turn to God in faith and times when she didn’t.  Wren’s story emphasized the importance of having faithful friends to remind us to look toward God in all things instead of worrying.

I really loved the writing style throughout (see the excerpt below!) but the plot development at the end felt a little heavy-handed and was followed by a tidy wrap-up.  However, the characters and topics covered made it a worthwhile book to read.  This book had the definite plus of not being a solely “romance” novel – although Wren has a love interest, her potential relationship with a guy is not the crux of the story and blends in much more realistically than many contemporary fiction novels.  I’d recommend this anyone who likes contemporary Christian fiction.   

Sweet Sanctuary was not an incredibly original, fantastic, or mind-bending book – but it was definitely an enjoyable escape and a good reminder that God is into the fixing-up-our-messed-up-lives business. 

Notable Quotes:

(Excerpt)

Working in a library was similar to bartending or sitting in the confessional box. She’d see library patrons at the Friday film nights or around town and many treated her as if she knew all their secrets, based on the books they read, the ones they hated and the ones they loved.

Wren especially enjoyed when a child carried off a new library card, holding his or her head high as if some rite of passage had just occurred, which was exactly how she saw it. The books the patrons borrowed told their stories for them. Wren wondered how the changing of the library would change the people who came searching for books.

In one year at the Cottage Cove Public Library, she had fallen in love with the community like they were the family she longed for.

There were layers here, stories alive in the patrons who visited the library and stories through the characters of the books. The books breathed love, places, stories, cultures, mysteries, evils, beauty, the divine, the humble . . . everything of life was found here.

Other Books Read by This Author: None.

What are other people saying? Small Kucing, Christian Fiction Addiction, Maria’s Handmade Love,

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★★★ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★★ Original Idea

★★★★ Page Turner

Overall ★★★★


Hyperion

Reviewed by Brittney

Just the Facts: by Dan Simmons.  481 p.  Published 1990 by Spectra.  Listened to audiobook, narrated by  Marc Vietor , Allyson Johnson , Kevin Pariseau , Jay Snyder , Victor Bevine.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

Who Cares? Adult Science Fiction

Short Bio (from publisher): On the world called Hyperion, beyond the law of the Hegemony of Man, there waits the creature called the Shrike. There are those who worship it. There are those who fear it. And there are those who have vowed to destroy it.

In the Valley of the Time Tombs, where huge, brooding structures move backward through time, the Shrike waits for them all. On the eve of Armageddon, with the entire galaxy at war, seven pilgrims set forth on a final voyage to Hyperion seeking the answers to the unsolved riddles of their lives. Each carries a desperate hope – and a terrible secret. And one may hold the fate of humanity in his hands.

Eyewitness Account: I tend to the enjoy the Fantasy end of the Sci-Fi/Fantasy spectrum, so my review of this book is a bit colored by the fact that I don’t find as much enjoyment out of the advanced technology-cool gadgets side of Sci-Fi.  I liked this book, but not enough to rave about it (perhaps I’d like it better if I finished the sequel, Fall of Hyperion, as these are really one long book published into two novels). 

Thumbs up:  the frame story format in which each person tells their own story (very Canterbury Tales-like), the gradual unravelling of mystery surrounding the Shrike and the motivation behind each character’s trek toward doom, the beautiful writing style, and the haunting nature of each individual story.  The strength of this book is that it’s composed as six short stories that fit together like a puzzle. The stories in and of themselves are each beautiful in a bleak, melancholic way.  This is no happy tale; each story is one of tragedy and sorrow.  However, they all explore (in the great Sci-Fi tradition) the ideas of what it means to be human – to love, to suffer, and to have hope.

Thumbs down: the book opens with a BARRAGE OF TECHNO GOBBLEDY-GOOK that left me wondering when the narrator would get around to speaking in English (this feeling drops off fairly quickly though, but not the best first impression), the first pilgrim’s story was agonizingly slow to get into (I finally looked up a synopsis on Wikipedia and read just the summary of the first pilgrim’s story before deciding it was worth ploughing through), and all the stories have a rather lengthier-than-they-need-to-be feel to them.  Not sure if the characterization really depended on the amount of detail that Simmons goes into.

If you like imaginings of our universe in the 30th century and all the cool techno-gadgets we’ll be using as well as the great lengths we will have exerted ourselves to destroy our limited resources, then you’ll love this book.  If you like Sci-Fi that explores the deeper underpinnings of our humanity through melancholic tales, then you’ll appreciate this book.  If you can’t stand Star Trek, then try Connie Willis instead.

Warning:  this book includes offensive language and some adult content (both violence and mild sex scenes).

Notable Quotes:

For those who do not write and who never have been stirred by the creative urge, talk of muses seems a figure of speech, a quaint concept, but for those of us who live by the Word, our muses are as real and necessary as the soft clay of language which they help to sculpt.”

“I now understand the need for faith–pure, blind, fly-in-the-face-of-reason faith–as a small life preserver in the world and endless sea of a universe ruled by unfeeling laws and totally indifferent to the small, reasoning beings that inhabit it.”

Other Books Read by This Author: none.

What are other people saying? Keeping the Door, Sandstorm Reviews, Inverarity is not a Scottish Village

Rating:

★★★☆☆ Plot Development

★★★☆☆ Characterization

★★★★★ Writing Style

★★★☆☆ Original Idea

★★☆☆☆ Page Turner

Overall ★★★☆☆