Reviews by Kim

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What Was Lost: A Novel
by Catherine O'Flynn
Well-written debut novel (11/1/2008)
What was Lost is a very non-standard mystery novel. It’s truly a story in two parts. The first half is a light, enjoyable tale from child’s perspective, reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It’s very well-written, with O’Flynn capturing Kate’s thoughts and actions with dead-on accuracy.

The second half of the novel occurs twenty or so years later, but it’s really not about Kate’s disappearance. The mystery is an excuse for O’Flynn to create detailed character studies of lost, lonely, damaged individuals. This part of the book is also well-written and insightful, but in a completely different way than its first half. In my opinion, this part of the book was far superior to the initial section about Kate; perhaps not as entertaining on some levels, but definitely containing more depth.

My only criticism is that the novel wraps up too neatly. Life is seldom so tidy.

I’m sure that because of the very mixed nature of this novel, its reader reviews will be all over the place. Those looking for a standard mystery should probably pass on this one, as they’re likely to be disappointed. The mystery itself just isn’t that compelling. Those in search of marvelous writing, however, need look no further.
White Blood
by James Fleming
Excellent novel of the Russian Revolution (11/1/2008)
There are many things about White Blood that make it a remarkable novel. Fleming focuses on how Russia’s upper middle class were affected by the Revolution, as opposed to writing his novel from the point of view of the revolutionaries, which I found unusual. It’s taut and well-written, conveying a huge sense of time and place, particularly in the second half of the book. The reader can almost feel and even smell the Russian winter. The novel is brutal, but the violence isn’t indiscriminant. These scenes don’t have the feeling of being inserted for the shock value – they feel “real.”

One of the things I found most impressive was that the author portrays a true sense of how people experience large-scale historic events like the Russian Revolution. There’s an awareness of a growing issue, but it’s distant, not something that touches you directly or really interferes with your life. It gradually grows, however, creeping ever nearer until you’re enveloped and it’s too late to escape. Fleming puts his characters in just such a situation. It’s both illustrative and frightening.

My only criticism would be that I found the first part of the novel superfluous. I found the writing and the story to be enjoyable, but completely unnecessary to the real heart of the book. It wasn’t boring, mind you, just out of place.
The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Charming ghost tale (11/1/2008)
I've been a Gaiman fan for years, with American Gods and Anansi Boy perennially on my ever-shifting "favorite books” list. I thought I’d give The Graveyard Book a try, even though I knew it was a children’s book. I was not disappointed. Although certainly lighter than his adult books, The Graveyard Book is quite entertaining. Gaiman is a consummate story teller, whether it be for kids or adults, and he does a fine job here. I’d think older children (say, over the age of 10) would find this novel very enjoyable (despite its occasionally gruesome content) -- as would any of us older kids just looking for a couple of hours of escapism.
The Black Tower
by Louis Bayard
Excellent historical fiction (10/18/2008)
I read a lot of historical fiction, and I have to admit this was one of the more enjoyable novels I’ve chanced upon in awhile (thank you, Bookbrowse!). The plot revolves around a young doctor who, through chance, becomes involved in a mystery pursued by Eugene Francois Vidoq, historically considered the father of modern criminal investigation.

Bayard deftly weaves these characters into the real-life mystery of the fate of Louis XVII. The author does a marvelous job of characterization, as well as providing a clear sense of time and place. Additionally, the novel is very well-paced, never becoming dull. I looked up the facts behind the book after finishing it, and was pleased to note that Bayard took few, if any, liberties with what is known about Vidoq and the disappearance of Charles-Louis.

My only disappointment in Bayard's writing was that at times the dialect seemed too British, particularly early in the book and when relating the comments of lower-class characters (e.g., at one point a character complains of being “peached” – informed upon – which to me sounds more like Dickens than Dumas). Overall, though, this was a fine novel that I won’t hesitate to recommend to my reading friends.
Atmospheric Disturbances: A Novel
by Rivka Galchen
Exceptionally creative & well-written first novel (7/22/2008)
This novel isn't your run-of-the-mill missing person mystery. It's a very complex portrait of a man's descent into insanity -- from the viewpoint of the madman who thinks himself sane. Galchen's writing is amazing, and this is a "must-read" for people who simply enjoy good prose. As is indicated by the critical reviews posted elsewhere on Bookbrowse, this novel is sure to garner a lot of praise from those who read books for the writing quality as much as for the plot.

I must say, however, that there will be a large number of readers out there who will not like this book, and I have to admit I'm among them. The protagonist spends a lot of time analyzing his situation, including tying complex scientific priciples to what is going on around him. While interesting, the book's non-linear plot where nothing seems to make sense will frustrate those like myself who prefer a more traditional novel.

So, in short, I think it's a brilliant novel, but in truth not one I enjoyed. 5/5 for the writing; 3/5 for the plot.
All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well
by Tod Wodicka
Disappointing (7/22/2008)
I really wanted to like this book for a variety of reasons. From the jacket it sounded like it would be exactly up my reading alley. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my hopes & expectations. I think the biggest problem I had with it was that its main character raised no sympathy in me whatsoever. I thought the problems he faced were, for the most part, unremarkable and of his own making. There were some scenes that were well-written, but I didn't find the novel all that humorous for the most part (more sad than funny, in my opinion). I thought the ending was weak. Finally, I felt like the author tried too hard to make the book a work of fine literature. Its prose was overblown and unnecessarily ostentatious, the narrative overly affected.
Harriet and Isabella
by Patricia O'Brien
Good historical fiction (7/22/2008)
There were several things that surprised me about this book. The first that struck me was the way the author chose to structure her narrative. Its beginning scenes take place as Henry Beecher is dying, but flashbacks soon take the reader back to the infamous trial and -- flashback within flashback -- to earlier family history. (I found this a bit disturbing at first, but soon got so wrapped up in the various plot-lines I found I no longer cared.)

Surprise #2: Much of the book is back-story with very little to do with the trial or with Henry's death. O'Brien instead concentrates on the lives of Henry's sisters, Isabella and Harriet. While not as compelling as the other two story lines, I found it to be good, solid historical fiction.

Finally, surprise #3: Most of O'Brien's narrative concerns Isabella, the least famous of the three main characters. It was fascinating to read about this amazing woman's life. I was a bit disappointed that so little text was devoted to Harriet Beecher Stowe, as I would have liked to learn more about her as well, but I still found the novel worthwhile.

Overall, I'm glad I read this novel. It provided an entertaining look at a time period about which I know little. I felt it was well-written and well-researched.
No Country For Old Men
by Cormac McCarthy
Still not sure if how I feel about this one! (5/6/2008)
I'm giving this book a 5/5 because it meets my criteria for a "good book": The characters are interesting & complex; the writing is excellent; the plot kept me (very) involved; and it's one that will stay with me for a long time. As the Bookbrowse page says, all the critics agree this is a "page-turner." I had a very difficult time putting it down.

McCarthy's lack of punctuation and grammatically incorrect syntax were at first challenging, but I think it forced me to pay more attention to the text, thereby really wrapping me up in the plot. It is, however, very violent. People who are squeamish or find no entertainment value in senseless violence will want to give this one a miss. In addition, much of the book is a "monologue" of sorts. This works initially, but I felt it went on a bit long, kind of beating me over the head with McCarthy's message ("OK, OK, I GOT it already!").

Finally, I object to the ending, which positively screams "sequel in the works." I would have liked more subtlety there. Overall, I am recommending it to my friends with the above caveats.
The Serpent's Tale
by Ariana Franklin
So-So mystery (5/2/2008)
I absolutely LOVED Ariana Franklin's first book in this series, "Mistress in the Art of Death," and couldn't wait to read "Serpent's Tale." Unfortunately, Franklin's second book is just kind of average. It dithers around a lot without moving the plot along much. There's nothing terribly surprising about the mystery. Many of the non-recurring characters are cardboard cutouts. Too many coincidences occur in the plot (something I've always considered to be sloppy writing). Some of it could be just me; I had big expectations that weren't met. Still, the main characters are very appealing, and I'm looking forward to reading a third - and hopefully better - addition to the series.
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
by Ishmael Beah
Great story, so-so writing (4/13/2008)
I’m always uncertain how to “rate” books like A Long Way Gone. Do you base it on the importance of the story, or the quality of the writing? Those of us in the U.S. tend to be fairly isolated in our comfortable lives, and need to be reminded that the type of events that take place in the book are still happening in other parts of the world. Ishmael Beah’s story is therefore an important one, and one I’d recommend to anyone with even the remotest interest in current events. While fairly well-written, however, I did find myself wanting more from the book. Events are related somewhat dispassionately, without a lot of depth. In addition, I felt the book ended too soon – I wanted to know the rest of Beah’s story.
Bee Season
by Myla Goldberg
Good writing, annoying characters (4/13/2008)
I picked this book up used, on a whim, as I’d seen it listed as a well-reviewed book in a number of places. It’s one of the few times I’ve been disappointed when relying on book reviews to choose a novel. Granted, the book is relatively well written, with wonderful characterizations. The problem is the characters and situations are just flat-out annoying. The term “dysfunctional” doesn’t even begin to describe this family. One character does exhibit a bit of growth by the end of the novel, but overall the characters end up the way they started: Totally messed up. I thought this novel was definitely over-rated.
Origin: A Novel
by Diana Abu-Jaber
Not your typical mystery novel (4/13/2008)
There are two mysteries in “Origin,” one concerning the murder of infants, the other the “origin” of the main character. While the mysteries in the novel are compelling, the pace is slower than what you’d find in traditional mysteries. I also found one mystery rather predictable, with the tie-in to the second to be weak. Yet – I really liked the book! Abu-Jaber’s writing is rich with sumptuous descriptions and extremely strong characters. I highly recommend this book for readers who enjoy lush writing, who can appreciate a book simply because the author turns a beautiful phrase. “Origin” is likely to appeal to readers who enjoyed “Christine Falls” and “The Savage Garden.”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: A Novel
by Junot Diaz
Deserving of the hype. (4/13/2008)
What an odd book! It’s without doubt one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever read. I think I did like it, more or less, and I recommend reading it. It’s so different, though, that it left me unsure for awhile as to how I felt about it. I’m sure, though, it’ll stick with me a long time, and it motivated me enough to read other works by this author.

The book’s description doesn’t provide a good idea of what it’s actually about. The jacket makes the reader think it’ll be a coming-of-age story, with the protagonist being a nerdy New York boy from the Dominican Republic. Some of it is, in fact, just that. There’s a lot more to this novel, however. There’s quite a lot of Dominican Republic history here, as well as the stories of Oscar’s mother and sister, as narrated by another individual (who isn’t revealed until about halfway through the book). The plot jumps around a lot, although the divisions are clear enough that it’s easy to follow the plot line. It was entertaining, and in places chuckle-out-loud funny.

The author slips in a lot of Spanish, and as someone who knows very little Spanish, I found this frustrating. He also included numerous fantasy references. If you’re not familiar with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and other classics of this genre, you may feel lost.

Overall, though, a fantastic novel. Very original.
Water for Elephants: A Novel
by Sara Gruen
Average effort (4/13/2008)
I’m not sure why, exactly, this novel has been so well-reviewed. It was OK, certainly worth reading, but I found the writing to be rather pedestrian. The word that most often came to my mind while I was reading it was “predictable.” While there were some nice twists in the novel, the reader could see too much of it coming. Most of the characters, too, acted/reacted true to type. I liked it enough that I’ll probably pick up the author’s next work, but it’s definitely not one of those, “You’ve just GOT to read this!” books.
Resistance
by Owen Sheers
Great first novel (4/13/2008)
I was reluctant to start this one because I usually don’t like alternative histories. I’m awfully glad I read it, though. This was one excellent book, one of my favorites this year. There’s little action in this novel; it’s more about relationships. It’s thought-provoking and moving. It reminded me a lot of “Bel Canto,” and I would highly recommend it to reader who enjoyed that book. “Resistance” has the same type of complex interplay between characters as that novel did. I can’t believe this was the author’s first book. Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next!
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time
by Greg Mortenson, David O. Relin
Inspiring story (3/28/2008)
It's a shame Greg Mortensen's remarkable and inspiring story ended up in the hands of such a mediocre writer. What Mortensen has accomplished is nothing short of amazing. This book tells an important story, and one with which people should be familiar. Be prepared, however, for over-blown writing that borders on hero-worship, as well as some truly tedious sections a good editor would have removed. My rating: 5 for story, 3 for writing, = a good, solid 4.
The Eye of Jade: A Mei Wang Mystery
by Diane Wei Liang
So-so mystery (3/14/2008)
This book suffers, I think, from trying to do too much. Is it a mystery? Is it a family drama? Is it a portrait of life in China in the early 21st Century? The mystery is very weak, and probably won't satisfy readers looking for a new mystery series. The family drama is somewhat stronger, with the author's characterization of the relationship between her main character & that character's family forming much of the book. The overall feel of the book as being set in modern-day China is perhaps the strongest part, with the author providing glimpses of a China with which most of us in the West are unfamiliar. Liang's writing is beautiful, almost lyrical, and I enjoyed reading this novel from the standpoint of the way Liang strings words together. She also did an excellent job of creating a strong female character with plenty of depth. I think she shows a lot of promise as a writer, and that it's likely her future books will be stronger.
A Thread of Grace: A Novel
by Mary Doria Russell
Top of my list! (3/14/2008)
I approached this novel with a bit of apprehension, since Mary Doria Russell's previous books are among my favorites, and I knew this one was a huge departure from both The Sparrow and Children of God. Well, A Thread of Grace not only measures up, but surpasses these novels in writing skill and depth. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time, and I'm sure some of the scenes and characters will remain with me for years to come. Ms. Russell's writing is beautiful and descriptive, but her strength is in her ability to create three-dimensional characters you feel you "know." She is very adept at not only describing these characters, but juggling their stories as her characters' lives intersect. The plot is by turns harrowing, heart-breaking and inspiring. This is one book I'll definitely be recommending to my reading friends. I would caution that it might not appeal to everyone, as there are a huge number of people to keep track of (it helps that a list of characters appears in the beginning of the book). The plot also takes some alarming jumps (e.g., in one chapter someone is alive & well, the next time they're mentioned, people are reminiscing about their lives over that person's grave.) Several times I found myself thinking, "What?!? Did they just say..." and having to re-read the paragraph; the event portrayed seemingly came out of nowhere. Those minor gripes aside, I still found this book to be Russell's strongest and most moving so far. I almost always pass my books along to others. Not this one. This one stays on my shelf so I can read it again! 5+++.
A Golden Age
by Tahmima Anam
A Golden Age (3/14/2008)
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam, is set during the Bangladesh War of Liberation. The protagonist, Rehana Haque, is just an average mother. Her interests revolve around her children's and her friends. She's got no interest in politics, and is taken completely by surprise when Pakistani troops occupy her city to quell the local revolt. Although Anam intersperses chilling, sometimes horrific details of life under Pakistani occupation throughout her tale, the main theme is about Rehana simply doing what she can to support and protect her two teenagers during this dangerous time. This is an absorbing book with an ending that will stick with the reader for many days.
Someone Knows My Name: aka: The Book of Negroes
by Lawrence Hill
Excellent historical fiction (3/14/2008)
When Memoirs of a Geisha was published several years ago, much was made of the fact that the author was male. Many found it difficult to believe that a man could write the story of a woman so authentically. I had that same experience reading Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill. Hill's narrator is an elderly black woman, telling the tale of her life, from her childhood in an African village to her slavery in American, and finally her struggle for freedom. The book truly feels like a memoir - more of an autobiography than a work of fiction. Some of the novel is brutal, as tales of slaves often are, but overall the book wasn't as gory as many novels in this genre. I was especially pleased that the author brought to light an important bit of black history with which I was unfamiliar. My only criticism would be that at times it felt a little emotionally detached, but that may add to its authentic feel, as pain does fade as one ages and this is a tale told from someone's old-age. I found this a very engaging and worthwhile book, definitely worth my time.
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