Book Reviews

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Reader Review: "Cloud Cuckoo Land"

 

by Anthony Conty (Parkville, MD): "Cloud Cuckoo Land" covers a lot of ground from the past, present, and future. It has so much ambition that you almost feel it is unfair to criticize it. However, you feel more competent when it all comes together because you "get it." I think I got it. But, if you are the reader who begs for a structured plot and a definitive, happy ending, you may want to look elsewhere for your next novel.

Author Anthony Doerr wrote one of the most polarizing novels, "All The Light We Cannot See," eight years ago, and those who wanted a clear ending and well-defined plot hated it. If you value imagery as much as the plot, "Cloud Cuckoo Land" might be for you. I enjoyed the ride. If you had told me five years ago that I would want a book whose story was its biggest weakness, I would have said to go back to reading Nancy Drew.

Usually, a novel with different timelines enthralls you or bores you. Here, the one in the future has a ton of relevance for today, while the present-day tale will keep you on the edge of your seat. Unfortunately, the part set in the 1400s takes a little too long to get going. The message is strong, and it all comes together nicely, but it could have happened more quickly.

Your opinion of your IQ will differ considerably from page 300 to page 500 once you figure out how all the threads tie together. I could see many of my friends jumping ship before things made sense. But, for me, it was like a breath of fresh air upon discovering the significance of the "source material" and recognizing how multiple people interpreted it differently and perverted its message.

I recommend this highly to my deep-thinking, patient friends. I would understand if you lost momentum during the long periods of development as author Anthony Doerr tries to make his point. He states that this is a book about books and the power of timeless literature passed down through many generations. His previous work, "All the Light We Cannot See," polarized readers, and I expect something similar here. Read it if you want to think and immerse yourself.

Reader Review: "The Lincoln Highway"

 

by Techeditor (Romeo, Michigan): THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY is the story of a detour from a plan to travel the Lincoln Highway west from Nebraska to California. Of the three books by Amor Towles that I've read, RULES OF CIVILITY, A GENTLEMEN IN MOSCOW, and now THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY, this one is by far his best.

After Emmett's stint in jail and his father's death, he and his little brother Billy decide to move to California. But after two of Emmett's old bunkmates, Duchess and Wooley, show up, Emmett and Billy have to first take them to New York, in the opposite direction. And this is their story, an adventure told by each one of them, plus some chapters told by Emmett's and Billy's friend, Sally.

I loved their different perspectives of the same situations, I loved their dialogue, and I loved Towles' humor. Every bit of this is unpredictable, especially the end.

What a pleasure this book is! Its only negative is Towles' lack of quotation marks, which I think is rude to the reader.

Reader Review: "Someday, Maybe"

 

by Adeline (United States): Onyi Nwabineli's "Someday, Maybe" is an excellent book for those who have experienced loss or enjoy books that are emotional and thought-provoking. I picked this book up in the airport because the cover was appealing to me. Reading the inside of the book jacket and a random page encouraged me to purchase this book. I'm now entirely absorbed in Nwabineli's novel. I can't put it down except to take a drink. I'd highly recommend this book.

Reader Review: "Educated"

 

by techeditor (Romeo, Michigan): For about the first half of EDUCATED, Tara Westover's autobiography, she describes the circumstances she grew up in. Her father was a survivalist who did not trust the government. So he didn't do things like register his cars or send his kids to public schools. Westover's mother made a stab at home schooling her seven children, but, to say the least, it was inadequate. Luckily, Westover's older brother taught her to read. Her father was also careless with his family's safety and didn't trust doctors or hospitals. So, when they were hurt, often as a result of his carelessness, the family depended on their mother's homeopathic remedies, even for severe burns and head injuries. Westover also had a dangerous brother who was defended and supported by both her parents.

With this background, Westover sought education, beginning with Brigham Young University. She had never even gone to high school much less graduated. But she got in when she was 16 after (pretty much) teaching herself enough to pass the ACT. (Her explanation of this doesn't sit well with me. My college in Michigan would never have let me in without examining my high school transcripts and diploma.) She soon discovered how ignorant she was of even the most well-known history such as the Holocaust and Martin Luther King's civil rights movements. But she learned as much as she could on her own and ended up impressing her professors enough to continue her education in spite of not being able to afford it. Westover kept going to various schools in the U.S. and abroad and now has her PhD in (of course) history.

Throughout the years she devoted to her education, Westover made annual trips to her home in Idaho. She wanted her parents' approval, but her father and, therefore, her mother insisted she was siding with the devil and needed to stop sinning and accept their reality, not hers. They have tried (and have been successful in most cases) to convince the rest of her family to stop associating with her until she admits she is wrong and her father is right.

Although I generally suspect that memoirs are written by people who incorrectly assume that their life story is important, in the case of EDUCATED, you can believe that it is. Also, I call this an autobiography in my first paragraph rather than a memoir because she has convinced me through her footnotes, Acknowledgements, and endnotes that it's all true.

Reader Review: "Antoinette's Sister"

 

by Debbie C (Rochester Hills, MI): As a lover of historical fiction, I thought this was a really great read, The story transports you to the eighteenth century and gives you a seat at the tables of the Kings and Queens of Austria, Naples, and France. The lives and loves of strong women spill onto the pages and immerse the reader into a different time and place. I would highly recommend this book to readers who enjoy anything royal or who are looking for an escape.

Reader Review: "Cloud Cuckoo Land"

 

by Elizabeth: Understanding this complex novel was a challenge. I almost gave up, but decided to read it as four separate novels, using the chapter names. First I read Zeno/Seymour, then Omeir/Anna, then Aethon's story, and finally Konstance, and then the whole novel clicked! I am very glad that I did not pass on this gem. I opened this book, Mr. Doerr, and I am amazed.

Reader Review: "Honor"

 

by Bonnie Brody: I liked this book very much and was riveted from the beginning. The cross-cultural aspects of the novel were interesting and eye-opening. I appreciated the different perspectives and hoped for a good outcome. At times, I was close to tears, realizing the horrors that one person could endure. The difficulty of marrying outside one's religion in India was explored, along with the tragedy that ensued should this occur. Honor was so good that I immediately ordered another novel by Ms. Umrigar.

Reader Review: "Hamnet"

 

by JR: Rarely is a work of fiction so incomprehensibly so beautiful and so tragic in the same breath. The author embraces the known history and wonderfully tells the story of the heartbreak of loss and how each of us find the strength to overcome. The story broke my soul, the writer filled it up.

Reader Review: "Daisy Jones & The Six"

 

by Leslie (Albany): A trip back 50 years to the LA music scene sounds like a great adventure with all the hot 70s music groups. And it was that, and more. Weaving my way through the story I was focusing on keeping the characters and relationships straight. I was not aware that the author was planting more than a simple tale of a rock group beneath the surface of my soul while I was not watching. When I got to the end of the book I was surprisingly emotionally affected by the revelations and fond of many of the characters I thought I would not relate to. I'm going to reread several parts of the book now that the characters are under my skin. I'd recommend Daisy Jones and the Six to book groups and friends.

Reader Review: "Demon Copperhead"

 

by Marilyn: I can't remember many books that have nearly devastated me reading about this sweet, good child that goes through horrible circumstances most of his life. I grew up in Appalachia. I left. My brother is so tied to our hometown and his "football" life that happened 50 years ago that he can barely leave the area. About 25 years, I drove through that little part of western VA and actually remember thinking that this area has been forsaken. It seemed as if kudzu covered everything, it looked worn out. I looked up the geographic locations mentioned in the book and they exist - even Devil's Bathtub! I will continue to grieve for the lost children - real and in the book.

Reader Review: "Gilded Mountain"

 

by BuffaloGirlKs (Kansas): Set in the fictional high altitude Colorado towns of Moonstone and Ruby in the also fictional Gilded Mountains Range, this novel tells the story of yearning for a better life and the will to achieve that goal. Women's suffrage, the effects of slavery, and the labor movement also figure strongly in the story. Sylvie Pelletier is on the brink of adulthood when she, brothers, and mother join their father and husband in Moonstone. Living in the company housing of the marble mining business that her father works for and going to the local school, Sylvie first works for the female editor of the local newspaper in order to contribute to her family's finances. When the opportunity arises to work as secretary to the wife of the mine owner at their home in Ruby, she seizes the live-in position. There she comes to know and establish relationships with the owner's wife, formerly a French courtesan, the owner's disaffected college age son, and the Black cook and butler, who were formerly slaves of the southern born owner.

Part of the reason I chose this book was its stunning cover of a full moon rising over the mountains. Having seen these mountains several times, I knew them to be near Aspen, Colorado. My other reason is a love for historical fiction of the American West. The Author's Note makes clear that the setting is based on the history of real-life Colorado towns of Marble and Dearfield, which are also near Aspen. My family has visited Marble several times while driving the scenic byways of Colorado. The author's descriptions of the town, surrounding mountains, and the mining operation are perfect. With the term Gilded in the book title, it is obvious that the book deals with the haves and have-nots of the gilded age. That robber baron millionaires became billionaires on the backs of immigrant workers for whom they had no regard is a theme throughout the novel. I had previously read Cripple Creek Days by Mabel Barbee Lee and thought this book would be much like it. It definitely was not; Kate Manning provides an excellent social commentary on the struggle for safe working conditions, fair pay, and decent hours in the early 20th century.

Sylvie, the main character, was strong and competent. I loved her "silent comments" on what she thought of or wanted to do to many of characters she had to deal with. Yet Sylvie's relationship with the son of the owner left me cold. I found him to be weak, spoiled, without loyalty, unable to see anything, etc. and simply could not understand how the author thought it was a good move to pair him with Sylvie. The story progressed nicely, but there were times that I hoped for better, more descriptive writing. Overall, I do recommend this book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction of the American West or who wants to learn something of Colorado's mining and labor history.

Reader Review: "Stories from Suffragette City"

 

by Tony C. (Parkville, MD): October 23rd, 1915: "Stories from Suffragette City" has the ambitious goal of telling you 13 different stories that take place on this important day in Women's history. Think about what this meant across the span of social classes. The first entry, "Apple Season" by Lisa Wingate, shows us why not everyone agreed with this noble mission.

The works of fiction feature real people in imagined situations, as in "A First Step" by M.J. Rose, a tale in which the family that gave us Tiffany & Co. struggles with providing to the cause of suffrage. "Deeds Not Words" by Steve Berry shows us how many detractors had and, more importantly, gives us a glimpse into how men rationalized that way of thinking at the time.

The best anthologies have subtle connections among the stories but spin yarns that could function well by themselves. You feel a sense of satisfaction when you see the link between the second and third entries. New York works as a setting for the novel since so much occurred. The characters live ordinary lives but seem overwhelmed by their surroundings, and the reader feels that claustrophobia.

Stories like "Boundless, We Ride" by Jamie Ford take the historical aspects as a central role. For example, seeing suffrage through the eyes of Chinese Americans shows the types of prejudice that people assumed back then. "American Womanhood" by Dolen Perkins-Valdez asks us what Americans did when confronting one form of oppression by getting in touch with others that still lie beneath them since American still allows them.

Some people would rather gloss over parts of history that they would rather forget. Still, we must remember when politics allowed people to deny fundamental rights and rationalize that this exclusion existed for the greater good. Every segment has a similar message, but I am confident anyone who borrows the book from me will find one they love. We are downsizing, so I would be happy to pass this on to someone who could receive the same joy.

Reader Review: "The Sweetness of Water"

 

by Tony C. (Parkville, MD 21234): "The Sweetness of Water" by Nathan Harris continues the tradition of emotionally moving novels based on the Reconstruction. It weaves together two stories, one about formerly enslaved people and another about Confederate soldiers, both scary when you consider the context. Yet, as with any dark period, we as readers take comfort in acts of kindness and humanity; therefore, seeing newly freedmen find a relationship with a grieving father in Georgia will engross you. The story goes like this: Prentice and Landry recently achieved freedom and sought paid work on George Walker's Georgia farm. George and Isabelle mourned the death of their son in the war, but then young Caleb appeared on their doorstep in reasonably good shape. The kid has a major secret that led to his departure from the war. The flap warns us that this will lead to murder, but the tease leaves us wondering what will happen and how. Most books live or die on character development, and Harris does not spare details. He even gives a mute character an equal amount of humanity. In the land of former enslavers and Confederates, this quickly could have gone off the rails and does not. Instead, since the death occurs "on screen," we witness a crime story in which the readers genuinely care about the victim and even the perpetrators to an extent. At the halfway point of the novel, you do not know if you will be reading an adventure story, a morality tale, a crime drama, or a mixture. Harris makes all these threads interesting enough that you will follow, regardless. I had trouble reading about unfair treatment and justice, even though the author probably portrayed the assailants accurately. Our fights for victims' justice are not new. I did not see the ending; the deck was stacked against our heroes. One solution seemed too far-fetched, and the other too depressing Debut novelist Harris has some skills in achieving the appropriate balance. As a reader who subjects himself to alternating slavery and Holocaust novels, I did not go into this expecting to whistle as I closed the book and received a thorough emotional workout, as will you.

Reader Review: "The Forest of Vanishing Stars"

 

by Tony C. (Parkville, MD): "The Forest of Vanishing Stars" by Kristen Harmel recommends itself to fans of "The Tattooist of Auschwitz" and "Where the Crawdads Sing." I had my skepticism, but that same book is killing it. I have read many slavery/Reconstruction novels and Holocaust/World War II stories and expect to experience a desensitizing one day. Today, however, is not that day. Little, naïve kids experiencing these horrors will soften the hardest of hearts. The story goes like this: an older woman kidnaps a little girl from her parents whom the lady calls "evil." The captor raises the girl in the woods, fearing the natural world's goings-on. When her woman in loco parentis passes away, the then-grown Yona learns about the atrocities occurring in Nazi Germany and teaches those in hiding how to survive on the land. Violence ensues, and Harmel blurs the line between paranoia and truth. A book checks many boxes that seem cliché, but Harmel throws in some action, intrigue, romance, and historical fiction. If you are handy or outdoorsy, the survivalist pieces will entertain you and challenge you to consider how you would do in the same situation. Since so many of Yona's decisions rely on instincts, I did not usually know what was coming but felt the sense of foreshadowing. I reacted strongly to Yona's nomadic tendencies since Jerusza, her de facto parent, taught her that staying in one place for too long led to danger; therefore, do not obsess over it. Nevertheless, the journey will have some unexpected stops. A killer twist happens just past the halfway point, and you do not see it coming, even though it should have been blatantly obvious based on the events of the first few pages. "To know the light, you must also know the darkness." Yona is inspiring as an individual who faces blatant atrocities but allows us to share her small victories and her pursuit of a better environment. Harmel is three years younger than I am but writes with much wisdom and knowledge about the Holocaust. I do not know how a forest dweller would have fared in those conditions, but this seems accurate. "Whoever saves a life is considered as if he saved an entire world."

Reader Review: "The Personal Librarian"

 

by Tony C.: "The Personal Librarian" by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray continues the tradition of "Gentleman's Agreement," "Focus," or the underrated "The Human Stain," in which a character hides their ethnicity in a discriminatory environment. For anyone tired of race as a topic, we have an educated bibliophile who certainly wishes that people would focus on her skill, not her complexion. Belle, our hero, has her character development based on two key features: she has keen negotiating skills and an eye for quality in literature and art. But would her boss, the wealthy (and authentic) J.P. Morgan, still acknowledge her prowess if he knew of her true ancestry? Conversely, can we blame her Black relatives for turning their collective backs on her family since the group has chosen to live as white folks? The most challenging part of reading lies in accepting the new universe's rules into which the author tries to engross me. Of course, people like J.P. Morgan do not qualify as relatable with infinite money and resources, but Belle's struggle with her racial identity packs a punch. As she infiltrates high society, the element of intrigue always exists under the surface about whether the dignitaries know her secret or, in 1919, how much it would matter. As historical fiction, the book describes a specific time post-Reconstruction and pre-Suffrage. Belle more than holds her own in her discussions and negotiations with wealthier and more powerful men, but she cannot escape the fears in the back of her mind. The inevitable happens when a subplot of romance appears; nonetheless, I was captivated enough with the story not to see it coming. I cared enough about the characters to feel sorry for them. When you reach the end and figure out the author's message, you will want to know more about our heroine. How did she achieve deception for so long, and, more importantly, why was it necessary in 1910? As the story progresses and the "big reveals" do not happen or occur differently than you anticipated, you recognize this as a singular work by one of Upper St. Clair's most excellent alumnae, Marie Benedict. (Note: I usually enjoy stories that create fiction from the kernels of truth in history. The story in the Author's Notes of how both writers united to make this happen is inspiring and not to be missed.)

Reader Review: "Africa Is Not a Country"

 

by Marna Napoleon: This is an amazing and valuable book! Everyone to whom I have given this book agrees. That said, we also agree that a map would be a helpful addition.

Reader Review: "Lightning Strike"

 

by Tony C. (Parkville, MD): "Lightning Strike" by William Kent Krueger has outstanding storytelling and suffers only from our knowledge of other similar novels: if Native American elder Big John's death is a suicide, we would have no story. Instead, we get meditation and explore a culture's opinion of the Afterlife and what mystical beings believe about someone who ends their life. A father and son investigate, turning up more questions than answers. As an SVU addict, I loved the way that this unfolded. Liam, the patriarch, tries to collect evidence while his son also involves himself. Since this is a prequel to novels involving Cork O'Connor, part of the adventure lies with a kid learning the craft. A good murder mystery involves just the correct number of characters so that we have enough suspects to keep it exciting but not so many that we do not know the perpetrator. We love and hate enough people here to make it work.

The brains of murder-mystery fans could serve as an exciting study. Novels like this must introduce facts and evidence slowly and efficiently to keep you interested without giving too much away. We have two apparent villains and the suicide explanation, but we anxiously await a few more details. The true sign of a successful whodunit is when you speculate about the guilty parties after putting down the book.

I "cast" the film version of books I read and have a few in mind for young Cork, his father, Liam, and his grandmother, Dilsey. Think Meryl Streep, Ethan Hawke, and Asher Angel. The villains would require more nuance. When the narrative changes based on a shocking murder, Krueger takes this from a murder mystery to a much deeper piece about social justice, prejudice, and history that will make you sad.

The 12-year-old lens frames the conflict nicely. Yes, we know from the previous novels that Cork will grow up to become a famous investigator, but he has trouble keeping evidence to himself or understanding why he must do so. When we arrive at the truth, we are sad, but the racism and prejudice we encounter along the way do the damage. The ending is satisfying, as in realistic, but disheartening, nonetheless.

 

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