Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wives of Henry Oades by Johanna Moran

Johanna Moran's father brought home an abstract he found in a law journal about a man in the early 1900's who was tried three times for bigamy, and Moran has spun the details of the abstract into a fast-paced novel that's very hard to put down.

Really, The Wives of Henry Oades is a strange, heart-wrenching tale (though if there were laws and precedents, maybe it wasn't so very strange at the time) about a man whose family is kidnapped by the Maori of New Zealand and he's compelled to presume them dead, so he moves to San Francisco and slowly starts a new life--which eventually includes a new wife. Except that his family isn't dead, just captive, and when the escape, they come to find him.

You can imagine the circumstances of his being charged with bigamy. In Moran's telling, Henry is a dairy farmer and when his first wife and their children show up, the self-righteous Bible-thumpers in town take up arms. And though I know of zealots of the time who would have persisted in their persecution of Henry and his wives with the same fervor with which they preached temperance, after all was said and done with the story, I did feel that something was missing. Henry was too likeable.

When I explained the premise of the story and the not-one-but-three bigamy charges and ensuing harassment of and threats against the family, he said, "Who do you suppose he pissed off?" Which totally makes sense to me--it's hard to believe that kind of relentlessness being pitched against the kind soul Moran describes.

I really enjoyed this book, but in the end it feels a bit sugar-coated. Things just couldn't have been that simple, and I wouldn't have minded a more complex book that detailed more of the setting and gave perhaps a less rosy presentation of the characters.

Many thanks to HarperCollins for this ARC.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

A weapon does not decide whether or not to kill. A weapon is a manifestation of a decision that has already been made.

You'd think The Cellist of Sarajevo, being set during the siege of the city back in the 1990's, would be a hard book to enjoy, but it's really not. The pages of the story pass easily into a few hours and the war setting is bearable because it's creating the characters, who are so easy to care about, so easy to empathize with.

One day a shell kills 22 people who were waiting in line to, they hoped, buy bread. The cellist from the Sarajevo Symphony was practicing by his apartment window and saw neighbors and friends killed, and determined that he would play in the crater the explosion made one day for each of the people killed.

This, of course, makes him a target for the forces holding the city, and so the city's defenders position a sniper of their own to protect him from the snipers their attackers would certainly send. Arrow is a young woman who is practically a legend in besieged Sarajevo. She questions, constantly, her motives for killing the enemy; one of her biggest fears is becoming like them.

But the story also follows a man fetching water for his family and his neighbor; he makes this dangerous trek every four or five days. And there is also a man who works in a bakery; he's one o the few men still employed in the city. He sent his wife and son to safety in Italy before escape was impossible.

I see why this book has received so much acclaim. Galloway takes great care to make readers feel as if they are there, describing the sections of Sarajevo and positions of buildings and bridges and frequented roads but managing not to overwhelm readers with the unfamiliarity of the place or irrelevant details .

Though in Galloway's afterword, he says that he "compressed three years into under a month" in his book, it didn't feel that way. Rather, it felt like was a few snapshots of sometime in the middle of the siege. Nothing about the beginning and end of the book indicate that the beginning or end of the siege is represented.

The Cellist of Sarajevo explores, above all, the identities of its characters. Are they victims? To what extent do their choices re-create who they are in this new, besieged city that no longer resembles the city they once loved? And to whom does it matter?

Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Fire by Kristen Cashore

I know everyone said they liked Fire as much as Graceling, but I was a little skeptical. I adored Graceling's characters and I wanted to read more about them, not other characters (well, one character overlaps the two stories) set in the same world (though a few decades earlier).

Fire, a monster human who can control people's minds--as can most monster creatures--is a young woman whose main goal in life is to not become like her monster father (monster in the traditional sense as well), and when she's called upon to help the king protect his kingdom from traitors, she consents--with many, many reservations.

Kristen Cashore, I eagerly await all of your forthcoming books; just let me know when to expect them. I'll make sure my bookstore gets them in for me on their release dates.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Twisted Heart by Rebecca Gowers

Unless she was positively unwell, Kit liked to rush down this staircase one step at a time as fast as possible, giving her a buzz akin to riffling her thumb through a 900-page paperback.

In a book, she thought, her decision not to go back to the dance club would be the hilarious prelude to her going back to the dance club. But not even in her worst nightmares did she behave like a girl from a hilarious book.

The Twisted Heart
happened to me at a most opportune time; I quite liked this quirky story of Kit, a reclusive English doctoral student at Oxford and her relationship with Joe, a man she meets at a dance club on a night that she decides to do something out of the ordinary.

If I had been reading this last week or maybe next week, certain elements might not have settled well with me--the lack of details about Joe and precisely what's wrong with his brother Humpty, or even Kit's background. This is a story that takes place almost exclusively in the present, and very little about pasts--or futures--is considered.

The dialogue in The Twisted Heart was similar to the dialogue that drove me so batty in The Truth About Love (and caused me to quit it). There was enough narrative to keep the dialogue from causing that level of irritation. I do feel I missed out on quite a bit of the humor because the book is so solidly British; it might have been easier to appreciate what I suspected were funny parts if I'd had this as an audio book.

Still, I enjoyed Kit's funny attempts at protecting her heart and stepping outside her shell. Like the heroines' of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Kit's embrasure of the academic endeared her to me. I expected her obsession with Dickens and Sikes's murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist would spin into something more insightful about her character, but neither hers nor Joe's character developed in leaps in bounds--just in ways subtle enough to keep my interest.

There was plenty of material left undeveloped to make me interested in a sequel, if Gowers were to write one.

Thanks to HarperCollins for sending me this one.

Now I'm being whisked off to a romantic Valentine's Day evening with my amazing husband, and tomorrow I'm leaving for Vancouver to take in some Olympic events.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart

I'm sure there are people who will think The Truth About Love is wonderful. However, even at 80 pages in (about 1/3 of the way through), I had to do some heavy-duty self-convincing to pick it up (every time!) and while the German neighbor proves a little interesting, I can't say that he's interesting enough to make me want to keep reading.

The Truth About Love promises to be sad (it follows three people deeply affected by the death of a teenaged boy in the first chapter); Hart's story follows the boy's neighbor (The German), the boy's mother and the boy's sister. I didn't manage to get as far as the parts following his family.

I find the dialogue (not dialect) difficult to read, and though it may or may not be true to an Irish manner of speaking, the frustration of trying to follow it along--and how much of the book is dialogue--was the foremost reason for calling it quits.

Thank you to HarperCollins for sending me this ARC.