Tag: General Fiction

by Abraham Verghese

I finished this sprawling tome yesterday, and it’s hard for me to find what to say about it. It’s not one I would have picked up on my own- my family is getting together for the holidays and we’re going to do a book discussion on it. This novel is about three generations of a family in southern India, an area inundated with water- canals, lakes, streams. We meet the family when the first main character (there appear to be several) marries into it, an arranged match to a much older man. I found that initial segment interesting, but just when I felt I was starting to get to know the young woman, her personality and the difficulties she faced, the extended family she was getting to know- it switches to a different character, a completely other viewpoint for the next dozen chapters or so. The narrative does this many times throughout, weaving a story of many various people, how they are related to or become part of this family, or touch it only seemingly from the edges but then become much involved later on. The story involves mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, friends and acquaintances, people who work for the household and so on. It has many characters in the medical field- from midwives and nurses to general doctors and surgeons.

Some are admirable people and others not. Some do what is expected of them and no more, others break the strictures of society to try and help in ways that are frowned upon. There’s a leper colony. There’s an artist who feels constrained by her family duties (at least, that’s what you think at first- later on finding out her departure was for other -heartbreaking- reasons). There are layers and layers of hidden meanings and hushed secrets, in particular about this affliction shared by intermittent members of the family- they suffer from an aversion to water and an odd proclivity for drowning. My first guess was this must be some neurological disorder triggered by the sensation of water on the skin- I had no idea if such a condition exists though- and I wasn’t too far off. Those in the family with “the Condition” did their best to avoid traveling over or going into water (though one was oddly drawn to it) but at the very end, one individual trains to be a doctor in order to find out what the Condition actually is, and can they cure it. And she gets pretty darn close. It was all very interesting, and certainly well-written, and a lovely glimpse into the culture of this part of India, which I knew very little of before. The caste system, the beliefs and suspicions handed down, the elephant that visits the household! I just had trouble feeling invested in any one character because it moved through so many, though I found most of them intriguing and some quite easy to relate to. The differing story threads all connect in the end, though I do admit I had forgotten some of the earlier parts that were alluded to then, even with helpful reminders from the characters themselves.

I’ll probably come back here and relate more, after we have our discussion. Right now it’s hard to think what to put down about it all. It was kind of overwhelming! I appreciated that at the end, the author included an explanation of where some of the stories in the narrative came from- many out of her own family history- and names for some of the diseases and medical conditions suffered by characters in the book (when they had no name for it themselves).

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
724 pages, 2023

by Sara Gruen

Sequel to Riding Lessons. Things seem to be in a better place in this book- the main character is in a solid relationship with her boyfriend (but frustrated that it doesn’t seem to be moving towards a marriage proposal), the teenage daughter is showing a keen interest in horses that might help keep her out of trouble, the grandmother is a bit easier to get along with, having more to relate to now that her daughter’s grown and dealing with adult issues. I have to say, she still didn’t always handle them well, but didn’t strike me as quite so wrapped up in herself this time around. The horse that was center of the last book’s drama, is in the background now- he’s only in a few scenes, and then mostly standing in his stall when the woman comes to groom or speak to him for solace. There’s a tense incident near the beginning of the book, when a badly treated horse is rescued from an awful situation, but then he doesn’t feature much in the rest of the story. And another scene where protagonist has to attend a mare giving birth- on her own- and is freaked about about handling it properly- things get dicey but turn out alright. I think that was just to show her character growth, but dang it was the best scene in the book (if you like reading about animals). Teenage daughter gets accepted to a prestigious riding school, and goes off against her mother’s wishes- because she wants to compete as a jumper, and mother is terrified due to her own past accident. Most of the novel is about that- the mother struggling to overcome her fears in seeing daughter progress further in competitive riding. I have to say, I still felt her reactions to things like the rebellious teen going out with boys or getting a small tattoo a bit of overreaction, but I was full on board with how she responded to her daughter’s sometimes risky decisions with the horse.

I was hoping this book would be more about the horses, the difficulties of competition, the skills they worked on- but actually it was more about the family. Two-thirds in, there’s a sudden accident (not on a horse) that brings into sharp focus the need for family, and they drop everything to deal with that. The horses only come back into the picture near the end, and then it’s mainly figuring out: will the daughter still ride? how can she balance the rigors of training with her desire to be closer to family? will the mother finally let go of her reluctance to see her daughter participate in a dangerous sport? It ended well, I just wasn’t quite so keen on reading all the stuff about family tragedy when I thought it was going to be a book about competitive jumping. That’s okay, though. It was still a good story.

Rating: 3/5
371 pages, 2003

More opinions:
Bermudaonion
Book Addiction
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by Barry Hines

This is the book I long wanted to read, fictional story by the brother of Robert Hines, with the details of hawking closely based on what the younger brother had experienced as a boy. It was a bit slow for me to get into (in spite of being a relatively slim book) but then some scenes started to really get me with the emotions, and when the passages describing Billy’s work with the kestrel appeared, I knew I would hold onto this book forever. I can well see why it’s considered a classic in the UK.

Story is about Billy Casper, a boy growing up in poverty in a mining town. His mother is hardly ever home, his older brother works in the pit -and bullies him when he isn’t down there- his father is an unknown entity, having disappeared early in his life. Billy isn’t a bad kid at heart, but he is thought of as a troublemaker, messing around as kids always do. Smaller than the others (I was surprised when finally learned from one small comment dropped by an adult that he was fifteen!) he gets picked on at school- a place that sounds dull and tedious, with exasperated teachers that often thump (literally) the kids. At home there’s hardly ever enough to eat, and it’s often cold and uncomfortable. But there’s one part of Billy’s life that shines and brings out a softer side of his nature- being out tramping around in the wild overgrown places on the edges of town, then later caring for and working with a kestrel fledgling that he steals from a nest. He teaches himself from a book, how to train and fly it to a lure. When the class has to share a real-life story, he tells about his hawk, and for once everyone listens in fascination. One of his teachers starts to take a particular interest in what he’s doing with the hawk. But sadly, when he’s interviewed for job possibilities, he never brings up his interest in and skills with animals- even though from some other dropped comments it’s apparent that long before the hawk he raised fox kits, magpies, crows, and more. He simply thinks nobody would value that at all. Two parts of this book really got to me emotionally- one where another kid in class tells about an incident collecting tadpoles with a friend, made me laugh so hard and then I had to read it aloud all over again to my twelve-year-old (who thought it was great). The other passage was about when Billy had to write his own short fiction for an assignment- a “tall tale”- some wild imaginative fantasy. He wrote simply about waking up in a warm house, having plenty of good food to eat, and a loving family around him. It practically made me cry. The ending is terribly sad too, when Billy’s rocky relationship with his older brother takes a disastrous turn- he fails to do something his brother asked, loosing him some money as a result, and the older brother strikes out at the only thing he knows Billy really cares about. The little falcon.

I’m so glad I read this. And also glad that I saw the closely related film not that long ago. For once I appreciated that the film already put images in my head- it was made in the same town where the author and his brother lived- and it was so faithfully depicted, following the story very closely (except I don’t remember the tadpole scene being in the film. Disappointing!) However I kind of wish I’d read the book first, as I recall struggling to understand and follow the dialog when I watched the film. I’m sure there were plenty of scenes where I really didn’t know what anybody said just vaguely followed what was happening- whereas in the book it was very clear, even with a lot of local vernacular that I just skipped over, reading in context. (When I re-read this one someday -which I’m sure I will- I want to note down all those unknown terms and look them up to see if my guesses were correct).

In tone and depiction, something about this book reminded me of Stephen Hero, by James Joyce. Which I haven’t read in so long it isn’t even on this blog- but now I want to again, to see where that glimmer of familiarity came from.

 

Rating: 4/5
153 pages, 1968

More opinions:
The Octagon
Arukiyomi
anyone else?

by John Vaillant

A young man from Oaxaca travels all the way to the United States border, where he pays a coyote to seal him, along with other migrants from various parts of Central and South America, into the tank of an old water truck. Sealed as in, the metal is welded so there’s no exit. Eludes detection, but when the truck breaks down just after crossing the border, and the coyotes take off -saying they’re going to find a mechanic but who knows- all the migrants are left inside in the dark, just waiting. It’s stifling in the day, cold at night, and soon the situation becomes unbearable- water runs out, tempers are frayed to say the least. Will someone come back? will they ever get out? In desperation, our narrator starts sending messages on his cell phone, hoping to reach the only contact he has in the States. And then he starts telling his backstory. It becomes a story of his country and his people as well, melding family history with political turmoil, cultural disintegration, agricultural reform that threatens everything, and mythology like a shadow in the background. Very strange, to encounter stories of the Aztec sacrifices and the Oaxacan beliefs in Grandfather Jaguar, near the very end of this book. Such a very different context from the last. This one really has you on the edge of your seat, wondering if the people in the truck will survive, reading with consternation (and some humor) the historical retellings, the stories within stories. Some of it is very hard to read. And I liked the appearance of an actual jaguar in the end, but dismay is what I felt most. Especially at what happened to the corn.

Rating: 3/5
280 pages, 2015

More opinions: Pages of Julia
anyone else?

by Patricia Weitz

When I finished Fangirl, I remembered I had this other book on my shelf about college experience. It’s likewise about a girl living in a dorm for the first time- in this case she’s a bit older, twenty- and has just transferred into a larger university for her final two years, so she feels a bit out of place. But so much of the details were similar it felt odd- made me wonder if Rowell had read College Girl and subconsciously or otherwise was influenced? or is it just what we expect to hear, as readers. In both cases, there’s dorm life. There’s a somewhat brusque roommate. There’s a love interest who’s very tall and lanky, with light hair and a friendly face, always smiling. There’s hours spent in the beloved library, studying or just avoiding people. There’s insecurity and awkwardness around peers, and one professor in particular who tries to be a guiding element but meets with conflict from the student.

Much else is different, though. In this book, the protagonist Natalie isn’t much of a reader, at least of fiction. She studies Russian history, finds delight in memorizing all the minute details about events and historical figures. Just like the other character, she starts off not knowing many other students and only gradually makes friends. Her studies begin to suffer partway through the book, and then take a serious downward slide- but in this case, it’s due to becoming overly focused on a boy she becomes involved with- in an unhealthy way. He seems nice upfront, but it soon becomes obvious to the reader that he has just one reason for being interested in her, and she takes that to mean a lot more than it does. Even when the red flags start flying, she makes excuses to herself and continues to meet with him, though he treats her worse as time goes on. Natalie is kind of desperate to gain the ubiquitous college experiences, so she goes to parties, drinks, takes up smoking, and eventually sleeps with her uncaring boyfriend. It was starting to feel very dismal to the reader.

Then she goes home for a holiday break- and suddenly a lot comes into focus when the family is revealed. They’re all blue-collar workers, sneer at her attempts to gain a college education, constantly insult and criticize her. Now the insecurities and self-doubt make sense. Add to that her struggles to makes sense of loosing a brother to suicide years earlier (which no one in the family will talk about) and I started to really feel sympathetic for her. Warning: there’s talk of self-harm and suicidal ideation in this novel. I was really glad at the end to see Natalie finally give her icky boyfriend the boot, find a better roommate, get back on track with her classes, discover some direction for her future and then meet a decent guy. The ending again felt a bit too quickly wrapped up, but I was satisfied that it put this character on much better footing than she’d been for most of the novel. Reading this was like watching someone nearly wreck their life- akin to She’s Come Undone or The Book of Ruth. But it has a much more hopeful feel and I rather liked it in the end.

Rating: 3/5
328 pages, 2008

by Lisa Genova

I saw this one as a film long before I read the book. The movie really resonated with me, I was surprised to learn that someone in their early fifties could get Alzheimer’s disease, and then saddened to watch the main character’s inevitable decline. Unfortunately, I didn’t get nearly as much feeling out of the book. While it had far more details and incidents reflecting what patients and families of those with early onset Alzheimer’s go through, it lacked a sense of emotion for me. The writing style is very straightforward tell-don’t-show, which often leaves me feeling bored and uninvested. It’s not just me- lots of reviewers were very moved by this book, but a few on LibraryThing felt the same way I did.
For what it is, though, I read the whole thing through, interested to learn but feeling at a distance from the whole thing. The novel is told from Alice’s point of view- a university professor at Harvard, specializing in linguistics. What a horrific thing, for a person so invested in and deeply understanding language, to be aware she’s going to loose it, to watch and feel it unravel from her mind day to day. At first she didn’t realize anything was wrong. Anybody will forget a word here or there, miss an appointment, loose their car keys, especially as they’re getting older. But then Alice forgets to get on a flight for an important conference. She can’t recall what she’s teaching in the middle of a class. She gets lost in her own neighborhood, doesn’t recognize her grown daughter, and more. The inconsistencies in her mind and moments of confusion become more frequent and alarming, so she seeks help and a diagnoses, and of course is shocked and appalled at being told she has Alzheimer’s. She’s supposed to have so much ahead of her still- research to finish, students to mentor, grandchildren on the way . . . The story is just as much about how it affects her family too, though it’s seen through Alice’s eyes and as the disease progresses her account becomes somewhat unreliable. The reader is able to see what’s going on even as Alice forgets who people are and what she’s doing.
The ending was sad, but also heartwarming, at least in my opinion. Even when Alice lost her ability to teach and had to be minded constantly by family and caretakers, she became more content in small daily pleasures, and her relationship with one of her daughters actually seemed to improve, as she no longer criticized and held her daughter up to a high standard, but just accepted things. The husband did not seem nearly as understanding and supportive as the reader would hope, but I bet it’s a realistic depiction of how some family members react. Very much worth reading, though honestly I just did not enjoy the book much. I see the author has written other novels about brain injury and illness (one about Huntington’s disease, another about a woman who suffers a car accident and can no longer perceive or feel anything on her left side) that look interesting, but being aware of the writing style, I’d really have to be in the right mood for them.
Borrowed from the public library.
Rating: 3/5
294 pages, 2007

by Robin Sloan

If I had known what this book was like going into it, I probably wouldn’t have read, ha. So I’m glad I knew so little, because I really enjoyed it! Even though it’s about a conspiracy, a secret society, a giant puzzle to be solved by breaking a hidden code. It’s funny and quirky and weird, but also gets a tad nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek at the end. I loved it that the solution to the puzzle was something so simple and overlooked because everyone was expecting something far more complicated. I laughed out loud at how everything finally connected in the end. And of course I loved all the bookish references, especially (oddly enough) to a fictional fantasy series (which reminded me of the fictional series everyone loved in the Magicians books).

It starts out being about a guy in San Francisco out of a job, who picks up a night shift at a small bookstore. Almost immediately he notices something odd about this bookstore: most of the (very few) patrons don’t actually buy books. They borrow hefty tomes written in some kind of code, accessible only because they have membership in some private group. Our protagonist’s employer warns him to never look in the coded books in the back part of the store, or he’ll be fired instantly. But of course he is curious and when a friend eggs him on, he takes a look. And gets sucked into attempting to break the code. Which actually looks possible, because he doesn’t just throw old decrypting methods at the problem, but amasses all the scary powers of modern technology and computer brains, to crack the puzzle in just the blink of an eye (compared to the decades the secret club has been working on it). And what he finds- on practically the very last page- is a total surprise, which really made me laugh. All those people worked up over the wrong thing!

I really liked how this book meshed old knowledge and craftsmanship ways of doing things, with the blazingly fast and frighteningly powerful new powers of programming and crowdsourcing. It shows the best of both worlds, and also -perhaps- how they could mesh into something even better. There’s so much love of knowledge and things bookish in here- from how things are organized, to the vast storage spaces of museum collections, to the beauty of typefaces and the mastery of writing code. Not to mention all the odd people, and the coming together of great minds, and friends. It was great, and it all went by in a flash. There’s a prequel too, which piques my interest, though my library doesn’t have a copy of that, so I’ll have to look for it elsewhere. And of course, I loved the end message, that things written in books which are treasured and handed down from one generation to the next, are the real immortality.

Oh, also- the Google parts were weird. And I thought: maybe that’s just how the Google workplace is. But I gather from some other reviewers that it’s decidedly not. Doesn’t bother me, but it might bother people in the know.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
288 pages, 2012

by Margaret Dilloway

A book that was easy to read in my currently foggy state of mind: simple in style, a bit dry in fact. Straightforward enough plot. About a woman teacher who has a lifelong struggle with kidney disease. She has dialysis every other night to keep her alive, while waiting for a kidney transplant. Meantime determined to hold down her job teaching high school science, and spend as much time as she can with her real passion: growing and breeding roses. Her dream is to create the next new rose that will get her into the commercial side of things. I found this both an interesting and dull read. I liked, of course, all the parts about rose cultivation, which I’m sure is even more painstaking and detail-oriented than the novel lets on. I found it hard to connect to the characters, to read between the lines and understand reactions the main character’s acquaintances and students had to her- she was often puzzled by things, and so was I. Most times I feel like I can figure out what the character isn’t seeing, but in this case I usually didn’t. It did fit with her character, to have the writing so dry and understated, but it sure made it hard to feel engaged as a reader.

Then there’s the huge twist thrown in (quite early on) when her teenage niece comes to stay- basically dumped on her doorstop by an estranged sister who has, according to snippets and hints about the past, always been irresponsible and in trouble. Even as an adult. So most of the story is about our Gal (her nickname) trying to create the perfect rose, attending rose shows, interacting with her friend and co-workers, feeling perhaps attracted to a new male teacher at the school (but unwilling to admit it) and attempting to parent a teen who won’t let her guard down. Plus all the trials of her health issues. Which kind of hit home for me, because one of my own children was born with reflux, had infections with high fevers as a toddler, eventually outgrew the problem but left with scars on the kidneys. All through reading this book I kept thinking: it could have been far worse. This could have been what my child went through, too. I would have liked the gardening aspects more, but there wasn’t enough of it, and the interpersonal relationships more, but they didn’t seem to have quite enough depth or insight. I think it was mostly the writing style just was not my type.

Of course, this all could be due to my unclear thinking, and not fair to the book at all. I will probably re-evaluate later on. There were some odd incongruencies, though- like one mention in the middle of the book, that Gal was color-blind. Never another word about that, and plenty of words about her admiring the colors of the roses! Also, I swear two or three characters in this novel have green eyes. It’s an uncommon eye color so that made me laugh the second time, and scratch my head the third.

Novel’s writing style reminded me of The Winter Garden.

Note: this was quickly written, due to screens making me feel ill at the moment. I’ll return later and edit for clarity, add missing details, and re-write if it’s particularly bad. I reserve the right to re-write. Here to remember and not forget, on to the next book getting me through the dullness of recovery.

Later: Nothing rewritten, but do read some of the other reviews I linked to. Apparently I’m the only person who didn’t really care for this book. It must just be me!

Rating: 2/5
397 pages, 2012

A Fairy Tale with Benefits

by Jane Buehler

This is the second book I’ve gotten from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. It was really outside of my usual comfort zone, but I sometimes like to try something new! I think I’d classify this as a fantasy chick-lit romance, though I don’t know if that’s really a thing. It’s very light-hearted in tone, though the subject matter turns a bit more serious.

The story is about a young mermaid who is on a mission to find the missing merking, but gets tangled in a fisherman’s net and looses her magic shell (it lets her communicate with a friend back in the mermaid kingdom). Determined to get it back, she goes to the island village where the fisherman must live, and starts to find out that everything she’d been told about humans was a lie. At first she’s afraid to be among them, confused by their customs and baffled by their need for clothing. She’s even more frightened to find that there are fairies among them, who recognize her for what she is (the mermaids’ tails turn to legs when they dry, so they can appear human for a while). Within just a day she’s begun to loose her fear and made a few friends. Then she falls in love with a handsome fisherman (who doesn’t know she’s a mermaid), finds the merking- who isn’t at all the fearsome proud ruler she expected to encounter- and starts to realize that the society she grew up in is full of oppression and brutality. She only recognizes this when she starts to see how kind and understanding the humans can be, and how they work together.

Of course a huge part of this story is the romance- so even though I was surprised that on her first day of knowing somebody (one of the fairies), the mermaid was discussing “human courtship rituals” and not long after she was having her first kiss with the hunky fisherman, and that led to more. But in between the steamy scenes (which thankfully didn’t have too much profuse flowery language or ridiculous euphemisms for things) there’s a strong storyline about the mermaid learning to stand up for herself, confronting the desposed merking, finding out some secrets, and returning to her kingdom to see if she can instigate some changes. Which comes with a hefty dose of danger she has to face alongside her new lover. And there’s also a serious bump in their relationship when he finds out her true identity- the shock, fear (humans have misconceptions about merfolk too) and sense of betrayal. However it all turns out well in the end. It was kind of sweet, although the constant refrain of mermaids getting manhandled by the mermen, and her having to learn to fight, and what would happen with the friction over the sea kingdom throne, and how would they set up the new merfolk society, got a bit tiresome. I did really like how some botany and understanding of weather patterns (which the fisherman figured out for himself) were woven into the story. But the writing style is not really to my taste- it was just a bit too much told, not shown. It was a nice story, and I’m a little curious about one of the precursors in the series which looks like a beauty and the beast retelling, but not quite curious enough to go seeking it out. That all said, for someone who enjoys this kind of genre already, I’m sure this book is a good read. It’s very much a romance, and very much about women finding equality.

Rating: 2/5
294 pages, 2023

by Barbara Kingsolver

In rural Appalachia, the story of a boy who’s always down on his luck, but keeps trying to make the best of it. Damon (soon nicknamed Demon) doesn’t get a good start in life, at all. Teenage drug-addicted mother, deceased father, abusive step-father. Living in poverty and soon shunted around between dysfunctional (not to mention exploitative) foster homes. He’s surrounded by people both good and bad. He and some friends seem to make poor choices simply because their options are so few. What looks like bad choices to others, might simply be better than the worse ones easier to reach in front of them. So I thought. Midway through this book things are looking a bit up for Demon- he finally gets into a better home and starts exploring some talents that could lead to a future. Then a football accident ruins his knee and drags his life down. An operation is a months-long wait that turns into never. He succumbs to addictive painkillers- so gradually you hardly see it happening. Slides into all kinds of bad situations. Somehow you keep rooting for this character. He seems good at heart, deep down. Maybe it’s the humor? I have to say, this book took me by surprise. I felt like this author wrote a young male voice pretty well- crude jokes, foul language and all- sometimes it had me cringing a bit, more times admiring. I’ve read all over the place that this novel is a patterned after David Copperfield but I haven’t read that so can’t compare. However the voice and circumstances reminded me of several others- The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. What it did not remind me of, was Kingsolver’s other books. This one is so different. I’m not sure if I actually liked it? as in, would I avidly read it again. So much of the story was just dismal things happening. It really kept me turning the pages, though.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 4/5
560 pages, 2022

More opinions:
Book Chase
Sam Still Reading
anyone else?

DISCLAIMER:

All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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