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In The Company of the Courtesan
by Sarah Dunant
Exceptional historical fiction (2/18/2008)
I have to admit the only reason I picked up "Courtesan" was because it was a Bookbrowse "Favorite Book Nominee" for 2006, and I'd had very good luck with the site's recommendations. Once I actually received the book, however, I was convinced I'd made a mistake (yes, I DO tend to judge books by their covers). I was very concerned this would be a sappy romance, or historically inaccurate, or yet another mediocre novel based on an author's imagined story behind a famous painting. I am very happy to say I was dead wrong, and once again Bookbrowse was on the money.

Historical fiction novels can be rich on characterizations, but skimp on details of time or place. They can also contain so much detail that the reader ends up skipping paragraphs (or even pages) out of boredom. "Courtesan" walks the fine line between those two extremes. The reader is transported to 16th-century Venice, with all its sights and smells and sounds, but the author's descriptions are never so protracted that the reader loses interest. Her characters feel like real people -- people who have mixed motives, who make mistakes. I came to care for them deeply, and was sorry to leave them behind when the book ended. The plot also moves along at a nice clip.

This is one book I'll be recommending to my reading friends. (Even the guys.)
Nefertiti: A Novel
by Michelle Moran
Good Historical Fiction (2/11/2008)
If you liked The Other Boleyn Girl, you'll love this novel. It's very similar. Like Gregory's novel, Nefertiti is the story of two sisters, told from the viewpoint of the younger one. One is famous, the other unknown except to scholars. One marries a monarch, the other is swept into the political situation but would prefer to be tending her garden at peace with her husband. Nefertiti, however, is much better written and far less lurid. It's an old-fashioned historical fiction novel. I give it four stars instead of five because I felt the sense of place a bit lacking -- the author didn't draw me into ancient Egypt as much as I would have liked. It was a fun, quick read, however, and worth settling down with on a rainy afternoon.
The Ministry of Special Cases: A Novel
by Nathan Englander
2007 Favorite Book for a reason! (2/6/2008)
The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander, tells the story of a Jewish family caught up in the political corruption and upheaval of mid-70's Argentina. As one of BookBrowse's Best Books of 2007, it has all the things you'd expect from high-quality fiction: Great writing, deep characters, involving plot.

One of the things that makes this book so interesting, though, is that it changes character throughout, gradually shifting from a light tale that almost feels like a fable, to a serious family drama, to a tale that's ... well, much darker. Its intensity really sneaks up on the reader. It's rare that a novel takes me completely by surprise, but this one sure did!

It's a very powerful book, and one I highly recommend.
Tamar: A Novel of Espionage, Passion, and Betrayal
by Mal Peet
Not just for kids! (2/6/2008)
Tamar, by Mal Peet, is historical fiction at its finest.

Tamar is 15 when her grandfather dies, leaving her only a box of mysterious objects. She feels sure her grandfather has deliberately left her a puzzle to be solved. In doing so, she uncovers secrets about her family and her grandfather's past.

The book bounces back and forth between Tamar's quest and her grandfather's experience as a fighter in the Dutch Resistance during WWII, with most of the narrative focusing on the earlier time period. The WWII sections of the book are well-researched and wonderfully written. This is obviously the part of the story the author put his heart into. The modern-day text is well-written as well, but not as entertaining - more like filler than an essential part of the story. It felt rather contrived, as if the author was trying too hard to find some literary device to attract more readers to what is primarily a historical fiction novel.

Still, given the overall high-quality of the book that's a minor quibble. Overall, Tamar was very enjoyable and quite difficult to put down -- a real page-turner.

It's unfortunate that Tamar has been publicized primarily as a young adult book. There's nothing juvenile about the story or the writing. It doesn't surprise me at all that it's one of Bookbrowse's favorite books of 2007. I will unreservedly recommend it to my reading friends.
Seven for a Secret: A John the Eunuch Mystery
by Mary and Eric Mayer Reed
Great historical mystery (1/31/2008)
While not a great work of literature, Seven for a Secret is very well written, particularly for the genre. It provides everything a good mystery novel should – suspenseful plotting, nice twists, interesting characters. It kept me entertained & guessing until the end. Although at some point I was pretty sure I knew what was going on, there were still a couple of surprises at the end. It wasn’t perfect – it depended a bit too much on coincidence. The protagonist’s detective work, however, would have made Sherlock Holmes proud. It was overall a well-constructed mystery, and everything wrapped up nicely in a very satisfying way. Although the seventh book in the series, it stood on its own just fine. I enjoyed it enough that I’m planning to read more books in the series.
Into The Wild
by Jon Krakauer
Overly long magazine story (1/12/2008)
I've read everything Jon Krakauer has written, and have always enjoyed his books from the point of view of someone who spends a lot of time playing in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. His style always strikes me as a bit overblown however, like he's trying too hard to create great literature.

Into the Wild feels like an expanded magazine article. There's a lot of filler in this very short book. This is one of the few cases in my experience where I'd recommend the movie over the book.
The Time Traveler's Wife
by Audrey Niffenegger
Beautiful book (1/12/2008)
I read this book early last year and still think about it often.

OK, it's not a model of fine literature.
It's also not a well-crafted work of science fiction.

If those are the reasons you're looking at starting this book, never mind, you probably won't like it.

It's a love story (although not a sappy, bodice-ripping Harlequin Romance kind of thing). It a beautiful, involving, original tale that stayed with me for a long time. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's been one of only two books I've recommended to my reading friends in the last year.
Shadow of the Wind
by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Best book I read in 2007 (1/12/2008)
I'd put off reading this novel for awhile, since I typically have trouble concentrating on books that have been translated from another language. It sat on my shelf for about two years, until I got tired of my reading friends telling me to stop dallying & just read the darned thing. Well, my friends were right. I couldn't put this one down. The plot was original from the start, and kept me guessing until the very end. Definitely worth your time.
Indian Summer: The Secret History of the End of an Empire
by Alex Von Tunzelmann
Not my cup of tea (1/12/2008)
I tried, I really TRIED to get into this book, but after getting through just 50 pages in a week I had to give up, frustrated. Now, please understand that 80% of the books I read are fiction, and it does take an exceptional non-fiction book to hold my attention. It's probably just me, therefore, but I felt like Indian Summer read too much like a history text book. So, be warned: This book is for history buffs.
The Savage Garden
by Mark Mills
Wow! Everything a mystery should be (1/12/2008)
I picked up Savage Garden based on the reviews here on BookBrowse, and I'm delighted that I did. This is an uncommon and exceptional mystery novel. It's a bit different in that there really isn't any question as to who murdered whom. The book instead focuses on the "why" of the crimes. The characters are deep and well-drawn. The writing is quite good, heavy with references to literature and art. My only gripe is the inclusion of some very gratuitous (and rather dull) sex scenes that are jarringly unnecessary to the plot. (I'm not a prude. I'm fine with sex scenes. Their inclusion in this case simply felt awkward, contrived, and not particularly well done.) Aside from that, however, this is a wonderful book, and one that I'm very pleased to be able to recommend to my friends.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint
by Brady Udall
Entertaining read (1/12/2008)
As has been mentioned elsewhere, this author's style is similar to John Irving's -- lots of quirky characters, unusual circumstances, by turns very funny & deeply moving (More like the World According to Garp Irving than the Owen Meany Irving.) I found it a good, quick read, with characters I cared about. I had the same problem with Udall that I have with some of Irving's novels, however. I don't find any real sympathy with the characters, and the situations become a little too outlandish. I wasn't sorry I read it, but wouldn't list it as one of the best books I've read this year (and it's only January).
Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome
by Robert Harris
Historical fiction at its finest (1/1/2008)
This book won't be for everyone, but for those who relish historical fiction in all its intricate detail will love this book. It deals with a fascinating period of Roman history and politics. I found it very difficult to put down (but then, I like these kinds of books!). It's not on par with, say, _I, Claudius_, but I think people who enjoyed that book will like this one as well.

Warning: Don't compare this book to Harris's earlier work, _Pompeii_. That novel is much lighter, in my opinion, with more popular appeal.
Night Fall
by Nelson DeMille
Disappointing (1/1/2008)
I thought the whole plot was kind of silly, with an ending that made the entire book completely pointless. Granted, the novel is in theory based on an historical event, and consequently can't end the way the reader might want/expect it to, so I guess I should have known better. Still, some resolution would have been nice.
Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Not my cup of tea! (1/1/2008)
Now, I know this book has been wildly popular, but I just don't get it! This woman goes in search of herself, but never grows! She ends up in exactly the same place she started. It's more travelogue than a journey of self-enlightenment.
The Road
by Cormac McCarthy
5+ (1/1/2008)
I absolutely loved this book. It has haunted my imagination since I read it more than six months ago. It's beautifully written, spare, stark. I have recommended it to two reading friends to date, both of whom love it.

Now, I have to say, this book isn't for everyone. The style is very bare-bones, and I can see how it would be a problem for some people. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it.
Desert Cut: A Lena Jones Mystery
by Betty Webb
Didn't love it, didn't hate it. (12/28/2007)
Although Desert Cut by Betty Jones is the 6th in a series, for the most part it does a good job of standing on its own. I was conscious of having missed the “back-story,” but it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the novel. I found the main character quite likable and well fleshed-out. The mystery itself kept me involved, with many twists & suspects, keeping me guessing "who done it" until the very end.

With the exception of Lena Jones & her partner, however, Webb’s characters are flat and predictable. They're caricatures; they play "stock" roles. I found this aspect of Webb's writing disappointing.

Also, I'm under the impression the author's mysteries revolve around "issues" of which she feels the reader should be aware. I find this tremendously presumptuous and rather annoying. I generally avoid books that ambush me with a “message.”

If I have the opportunity to read another Lena Jones mystery, I'll probably do so, since I did find the character intriguing, someone I'd like to know better. I won't go out of my way to find one, though. C+.
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