Tag: General Fiction

by Sheri Reynolds

I was skeptical about reading this book because I thought it would have a strong religious bent, but found that once I started it, I simply couldn\’t put it down. It is about religion, but not the way I had guessed. It reminded me a lot of Witch Child– by the tone, and how it\’s about a young girl who doesn\’t quite fit into a secluded community.

Ninah belongs to the Church of Fire and Brimstone and God\’s Almighty Baptizing Wind- invented by her grandfather who gathered his family members, their spouses, offspring and cousins as his followers. There\’s about eighty people in the congregation and they live together on a communal farm. (They raise tobacco as a cash crop and the leader divides the profits among the members, but seems to keep most for himself). In this group, strict obedience is required, it seems like any kind of pleasure is forbidden, and harsh punishments are meted out. Infractions such as talking back to elders, drinking alcohol, or women cutting their hair are met with punishments like wearing barbed wire under your shirt, sleeping on nettles and thorns in the bed, having to lie in a freshly-dug open grave all night, or being locked in the cellar for weeks. The followers are taught that they must be pious, constantly pray and wait for the rapture when the righteous will be lifted up to heaven. They speak in tongues during some wild-sounding church meetings, really unlike anything I\’ve read about before. It was something to see- how the author wrote this character made me finally comprehend (a little bit) how a person could get caught up in that kind of belief system.

Ninah isn\’t sure she believes, though. She\’s afraid of the punishments and wants to feel close to God but also questions some things and finds herself growing attracted to James, her prayer partner. She\’s allowed to have private prayer sessions with James because the older folks see them as making a good match someday, and counsel the young people to seek out their hearts in prayer together. This goes in another direction, when Ninah and James convince themselves that their growing feelings for each other are a manifestation of God\’s love, so thus it can\’t be a sin when they express those feelings. Ninah ends up pregnant. The community does not react positively, to say the least. What follows is not at all what I expected, and I was gripped to the last page to find out what would happen to Ninah and the baby. Some parts of this story made me scratch my head, or roll my eyes- it\’s really weird in a few parts- and I wasn\’t too taken by the weaving metaphor- but the voice is lively, and the story compelling, of this young girl trying to find her way and lift her voice above all the strictures she lives with. (Especially as she sees how other kids are different, because she attends public school). The ending felt rather abrupt, but not enough to make me actively dislike the book. I would have liked to know more about how things worked out, but at least the community was starting to turn in a different direction by then.

Rating: 3/5                        320 pages, 1995

A Novel in Letters 

by Mark Dunn

I’ve had this book on my shelf for some two years, but hesitated reading it because well, from some reviews it just sounded too gimicky. It was- and it wasn’t. Very clever the wordplay, plenty of charm and humor throughout and yet how sobering the underlying message. The premise starts out with something rather ridiculous- there’s a small self-governing island where everybody loves language and letter-writing. It was founded by the man who created the famous pangram (a sentence using all the letters of the alphabet) the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. He’s so revered there’s a statue to him with the sentence below in tiles. One day a tile falls off: the letter Z.

The ruling Council declares that this must be a sign from their dead founder, who now wishes them to all quit using the letter Z, whether speaking or writing. The citizens don’t see that as much hardship and go along. But then more letters start to fall, and one after another is banned from use. The Council puts in place serious punishments for those who don’t comply. As the story is told in letters written between some of the island inhabitants, you can see how the restrictions of language starts to make things fall apart. At first people just choose different words to avoid problematic ones- making for sentences full of interesting word choices- I had to look so many up! Then their sentences get less prosaic and descriptive, more brief and to the point. Eventually so many letters are banned they have to substitute numerals, or use creative phonetic spelling (which was a bit tricky to puzzle out in the final pages). Some people outright give up and quit writing at all. Also as the governing Council tightens its control on people you see how they all respond- some quickly report each other for infractions, others band together and help those in need. The library is shut down, schools soon close, people deliberately leave the island, or are forced out- and so other business start to fail as there are fewer customers. Suspicions abound.
However there’s a possible solution- as the original revered pangram was presumed divine simply because it was so unique, if someone can come up with a new sentence using all the letters (without anything superfluous), it will prove the founder wasn’t godlike. (Because at this point, most of the Council were treating it like a religion and getting fanatical about things).
I thought the solution just so clever as the rest of the book- especially how it was discovered (made me laugh though, because the detail it came from was something I’d wondered earlier why it was in the book at all). I didn’t really get a sense of any characters in this story told through letters though- my focus first being what they were saying (especially when I had to figure out the meanings of invented or oddly phonetic words), and the second being what the letters told me about what was happening to the society at large. The individuals, I kind of just glossed over them.

Ella Minnow Pea has been reviewed all over the book blogs. Below is just a sampling:

Rating: 4/5                            208 pages, 2001

by Camron Wright 

     Based on a real place, but the story is fictional. About a family in Cambodia that lived on the outskirts of the largest waste dump in the country- making a meager living by picking through the trash for recyclables. Each day they barely earn enough to eat that night, and their young child is chronically ill. Sang Ly, the mother, despairs about the misery of her life- until she suddenly finds out that the short-tempered drunk woman who collects their rent (for a shack made out of tarps and cardboard on the edge of a cesspool) is literate. She convinces this woman to teach her to read- hoping it will somehow help her family improve their circumstances.

It does, but not at all in the way I expected. I thought- oh, they\’ll be able to read instructions on the medicines foreign doctors at free clinics keep giving them, that never seem to work, or they\’ll learn that having to pay rent for the crummy place where they live is a scam, or they\’ll be able to leave the dump and find better employment, thanks to becoming literate. Nope. Instead, woven through the whole length of the book are lessons on living true to yourself, making the best choices, rising above your circumstances, etc- all presented in the snippets of poetry and literature that the rent collector teaches to Sang Ly. Who, by the way, learned to read incredibly fast and was soon presented with summarized versions of Moby Dick and Romeo and Juliet by her teacher. I found that really hard to swallow the idea that her reading skills would have progressed so quickly. There are many Cambodian fables and myths as well- including their version of the Cinderella story- which I enjoyed and found very interesting. As the relationship between Sang Ly and her teacher grows more trusting, she starts to learn things about the rent collector\’s past- which makes everything start to appear in a different light. The ending has some very tidy connections, that are emotional but also a tad unbelievable. Through the novel there are glimpses of other aspects of life in Cambodia- a bit about the horrific history of the Khmer Rouge (which I know a little of from watching The Killing Fields), a look at life in the countryside when Sang Ly visits family, mention of child trafficking when an orphan girl in the dump faces the threat of being sold into prostitution by her older brother who\’s in a gang. I was puzzled when Sang Ly\’s child was given a traditional cure by a healer- and then afterwards seem miraculously better. My western brain tried to figure out how this worked- and my best guess was that the healer fed the child charcoal mixed into paste which absorbed some toxins the child had in its body from living in a waste dump his whole life. But really, who knows. I don\’t have to have an explanation, it\’s a story.
I really liked the parts about literature, even if they stretched my sense of belief somewhat. Aspects of the story- how learning to read opened up the world for this young woman and her family- reminded me somewhat of The Book Thief. Totally different setting and circumstances, but similar message about how books and knowledge can change lives. But- reading some other reviews (especially on LibraryThing) and finding out how about the author\’s inspiration for this story- how much he appropriated from a poor family who probably never saw any benefit- makes me feel uneasy about liking it. 

Rating: 3/5           271 pages, 2012
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by Kacen Callender 

     Felix is a trans gay seventeen-year-old. He lives in New York, attends a special summer art school program, goes back and forth between his dad\’s apartment and his best friend\’s. He really wants to apply for a scholarship but can\’t quite get his portfolio together, and seems to spend a lot more time hanging out with his friends, talking about issues and messaging around on Instagram than actually making any art. But then, art wasn\’t really the focus of the story. It\’s relationships, and finding oneself, and coming to terms with how people do or do not see you, and how you see yourself. It\’s about feeling marginalized- Felix is also black- and honestly I was surprised at how often people within the LGBTQ community portrayed here cut each other down- for not being different enough, or for taking up each other\’s space. Felix is surrounded by friends who are gay or non-binary or otherwise gender non-conforming. He came across as a really emotional person, although we\’re inside his head so maybe it just appeared that way. He\’s upset with his father- who supports him in many ways but often uses the wrong pronouns and can\’t bring himself to say Felix\’s chosen name. He\’s shocked and horrified when someone hacks his online account, prints photos from before he transitioned, and displays them at the school. Felix is determined to find out who did this and get revenge- so he starts catfishing (a new term for me) another student on Instagram, pretty sure this guy is the culprit even though his friends warn him he could be mistaken. Things get awkward when Felix starts to realize he actually likes talking to this guy in his online persona, when in real life they can\’t stand each other. Meanwhile his best friend has started dating someone new, which hurts his feelings although he can\’t figure out why. 
I found this book a little hard to get into because well, it\’s not my usual type of read and the tangled mess of friendships, dating, and fake online identities (who knows what about whom?) kinda makes my head swim after a while. I was rather appalled at how quickly Felix jumped into his plan for revenge, but it also gave his character some realistic flaws, I admit. I also didn\’t like how Felix treated his father, or some of his friends later on in the story- but things get better near the end. Felix starts to do more painting, figures out some things about relationships, finds the bravery to speak honestly to his best friend, and bounces around New York attending LGBTQ support groups, going to the gay pride parade (although he hates the crowds and noise of parades- I\’m with him on that one!) and sometimes just loafing around the park with his friends. Some of the conversations in this book felt odd- especially in the support group- and some of the talks Felix had with his dad- I sympathized with the father a lot but on the other hand, found his advice to Felix regarding love rather strange. Because more than anything, Felix wanted to feel loved and have a strong connection with someone- he actually had that all along but didn\’t see it until the end. Well, it\’s a good story and I was eager to see if Felix would find the things he was looking for, but honestly I could have done without all the f-words and the characters were always smoking pot or drinking which also bothered me, but it made me feel so old

I sincerely thank Jenny for bringing this book to my attention and giving me the opportunity to read it.

Rating: 3/5                    354 pages, 2020

by Elmer Kelton 

     Liked this one much better than I had remembered. I\’ve read it at least twice before, though not in over a decade. Set in West Texas, it\’s about a rancher struggling to hold onto his land and his livestock through a drought that lasts seven years. His love is cattle, but it\’s sheep that pays the bills- so quite a bit of this is about sheepherding and shearing time. When things start to get tough, he has to face the bitter choice of selling off some of his livestock, eventually even his sheep herd dwindles and he\’s forced to make some hard choices. Ranchers around him accept government assistance but Charlie Flagg resents the idea of \”taking handouts\” and refuses to sign up for the relief program, sticking it out on his own, whittling away his outfit, letting go his hired help. Tries to get his son, who is into rodeo and sees no value in the dried-up land, to come back and help him keep the ranch going, but that doesn\’t work out. Watches how others around him attempt to keep things afloat- some of their decisions turn out poorly, and others just barely help them squeak by. Like burning the spines off prickly pear to use it as livestock feed. I had forgotten entirely about the angora goats, so the ending was a surprise all over again to me, even though I did remember it had a hint of coming hope in the final pages. More about the land use and animal husbandry, it\’s also about the local politics in a small town, the financial issues in running the ranch, the uneasy relationship between landowners, Mexicans, and those recently come from across the border- frightened of being caught but desperate for work. I had also forgotten how much of this story is about the younger people, some chapters entirely told form the viewpoint of Charlie\’s son, his neighbor\’s daughter, or his foreman\’s oldest boy. It gave a good perspective changes as things shifted from the hands of the older generation into the new. The book gets a bit preachy sometimes with long ranting conversations, but I didn\’t mind, I was in the mood for a slow read. It was worth keeping around all these years, I think.

Rating: 4/5                      373 pages, 1973

by Téa Obreht 

     This book was a mix for me. It\’s several stories woven together, told in patches, that interconnect in surprising ways. Set in some Balkan country recovering from a long period of war. The narrator works in the medical field, is travelling to an orphanage to administer vaccinations to children. At the same time trying to unravel the mystery of her grandfather\’s death, while he was away from home. And that of some superstitious people who are trying to find a relative buried long ago in someone\’s vineyard near where she\’s staying. There\’s stories from the grandfather\’s childhood, and then of people he knew, or people who knew of him, in villages around the area. Their suspicious beliefs and rumors that become larger than life. Most interesting to me was the subtle story of the tiger- he escaped from captivity during a bombing and wandered, striking fear into the villagers where he appeared, finally having a connection to a deaf-mute girl who was brutally beaten by her husband (he\’d been tricked into marrying her). In fact, there\’s a lot of brutality in this book, kind of akin to The Painted Bird in my mind (a book I long wanted to forget). There\’s also beautiful language. I happened to really like the way this author puts words together, very skilled and wonderfully descriptive in a precise way. However there\’s just too much going on, and I didn\’t always see the connections. I found the man who would not die tiresome in the end (and he was one of the central characters!) The final sentences about the tiger himself saddened me. I really would have liked to see more from the tiger\’s viewpoint, but there was far more about the people and their various backstories and how they came to be who they were- all interesting, but too many of them for me to care much about. In all, this book reminds me of One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it\’s far more accessible to the reader, still not as engaging as I would like. There\’s constant references to Kipling\’s The Jungle Book in here, and not just to the well-known story of Mowgli and the wolves but also the minor stories that I remember so well. Narrator\’s grandfather treasured that book since he was a child, used it as a reference to recognize the tiger when he first saw it roaming (the villages thought it was the devil). It was one of the more vivid parts of the story to me.  Mostly this seems to be about war, the disarray of people\’s lives in the aftermath, confronting death and grief and loss. About family and stories that get handed around and how they change or change the people who hear them. This is all quite a jumble- but then, that\’s how I felt about the book. 

Rating: 3/5                   338 pages, 2011
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by Gerald Durrell 

This is the first Durrell book that has disappointed me. It\’s about a fictional bird on a fictional island. The tropical island is just starting to work out its independence from British colonialism, it has a native king and two local tribes that are at odds with each other. The British have plans to build a military base which requires a dam to be built to provide electricity, part of the reef to be destroyed to open up the harbor access, and more changes. Some see this as progress, others as environmentally destructive. Then (I didn\’t get this far, but I read enough synopses to know what was coming) an endemic bird that was presumed extinct, is discovered alive and well in the forest. Planned construction projects will threaten the bird. There was already friction over the airstrip and dam project, but because of the bird tensions quickly escalate.

Unfortunately, I couldn\’t read this. I struggled thought the first three chapters and then started skimming. I really did not like any of the characters, and the only one who was tolerable (a visiting young man who\’s supposed to assist the king\’s political advisor) was also rather uninteresting. The rest were highly eccentric, to the point of being annoying or ludicrous. Presumably these are based on people Durrell met in real life, but I wonder how much he exaggerated their quirks. The made-up pidgin language used as communication between the natives and the Europeans felt cringeworthy, as did the native slurs casually tossed around, in particular wog was used so frequently I got tired of it. (I did see a similarity between the vociferous insults constantly spouted by the king\’s assistant to all his underlings, and the way Gerald addressed Lucy in Castaway– but although the king\’s assistant used very creative language in his insults, and G mostly just swear words, that\’s nothing to recommend this).
Not to mention, something about the prose (or lack of it) was a bit tedious. I found myself impatient wading through tiresome dialog hoping to get to something happening, and then bored. Sigh. Moving on.
Abandoned                      224 pages, 1981

by Judith Guest 

This was a re-read for me. A while back I decided I should read a handful of books in my permanent collection that I feel dubious about. If it turns out I don\’t care for them anymore, this becomes an easy way to cull. Last time I read this book I must\’ve been in high school.

I remembered some of it, but most of the nuances and details had been forgotten- or had simply gone unnoticed by me at the time. I did remember it was about this kid struggling after the death of his older brother, how awkward family friends were about it, how unspoken most of the emotional burden he faced daily, how his parents were drifting apart under the strain. 
I\’d forgotten that part of it is told from the father\’s viewpoint, but the mother is always described in third person. She seems cold, sometimes indifferent, accuses the dad of being overly concerned and too involved with his now-only son. The kid- Conrad- is repeating his junior year of high school while all his friends are now seniors. He became severely depressed after loosing his brother- in what sounds like a very frightening, traumatic incident (when it\’s finally revealed at the end of the story) made a suicide attempt, and spent time in a mental institution. Very little is described of that, but what is firmly shows how old this book is- the diagnosis is clear yet he\’s given no medication although several times a teacher or friend of the parents asks if he\’d been put on tranqilizers. Nope, there\’s just mention that he received shock treatment, and when he comes home it\’s left up to him to take initiative to call a psychologist and go to appointments of his own accord. I found that surprising, honestly. 
What did feel very real and relevant no matter what the timeframe of this story- was how people struggled to know how to relate to Conrad now that he\’s home again. Things are the same- but also very different. Friends are awkward. He tries to meet and talk with a girl he knew in the hospital- there were quite good friends there- and that doesn\’t end well. He tries daily to beat down the anxiety in his head, to find the motivation to do normal everyday tasks, to focus in school. The therapist is odd and eccentric, but aside from that very good at his job as far as I could tell. I remembered from this part of the book the dramatic scenes when Conrad went in there upset and there was a lot of yelling- but during this read I noticed all the moments of careful guidance, of sound advice that wasn\’t too preachy, of how he helped Conrad figure out what he wanted to do and how to build himself up again as it were. And finally, in the end, to actually face the emotional turmoil he\’d shoved down inside surrounding the incident with his brother. There\’s also some very nice parts about him facing down kids at school who are unkind, standing up for himself when he realizes being on a sports team isn\’t what he wants, finding a few new friends and even getting brave enough to ask out a girl he admires. 
It doesn\’t have a perfect, happy ending. It\’s a normal family with some heartbreaking difficulties, and they don\’t come through it all in one piece. Some things are better, some are not. The realism of that is what makes this book such a strong read. (I was terribly bored with all the mention of golf, though). Liked this book much better than I expected to; turns out I\’m keeping it.
Rating: 3/5                                    263 pages, 1976

by Meir Shalev

I didn\’t realize this when I first picked it up (at the Book Thing), but it\’s a love story. Two love stories actually- past and present which have an almost too tidy connection, but also confused me at first keeping straight who was who. Doesn\’t help that the narrator sometimes addresses his mother in second person, other times referring to her in third. Not just in the same chapter or paragraph, but often in the same sentence. This is also a war story, and pigeons have a key role, because several of the main characters work in pigeon lofts. Two of them start as young people, boy and girl in different cities, sending love notes to each other via the birds (even though they\’re only supposed to carry official messages). I did like the parts about the pigeons and how they are kept, the symbolism quite strong as a lot of this story is also about home. What makes a home, what holds you there, what draws you back when you\’ve been away. And a large part is also about one character (present day) having an old house remodeled to suit his tastes exactly. Some parts were interesting and others bored me a lot and then a key event occurs which seemed so implausible (plus the pigeons start talking to people- and this is not a talking animal story- maybe they were delusional?) that I really had difficulty finishing the book at all. Well, it certainly was a romantic idea, but kind of ridiculous too. I did not like the ending. Characters did things that seemed really unlike them, made no sense, and even angered me. This one\’s not staying in my collection.

Rating: 2/5                  311 pages, 2007

by Eowyn Ivey

Suprised at how much I liked this novel, which is kind of like a modern fairy tale, haunting and grittily real at the same time. Tender and harsh, it is the story of an older couple who make a new start homesteading in Alaska. They have long been childless, and one day playfully make a small figure out of snow. The next morning the snow has been scattered, the scarf and mitten they\’d placed on it missing, and a single set of footsteps leading away. Then a thin, strange girl starts to show up near their cabin- flighty and shy yet fierce and wild. She apparently lives alone in the woods. Concerned for her well-being, the couple tries to draw her into their lives, while their friendly neighbors are frankly skeptical of her existence, wondering if the middle-aged wife has symptoms of cabin fever. Years pass with the girl coming and going when the first snow falls, disappearing all summer. Until finally one day the neighbors\’ son, a young man who\’s been helping out at the homestead, spies her in the forest and realizes there is some truth to the crazy tales. The story isn\’t just about this wild mystery child, it\’s also about their struggle to live in the remote wilderness, the toll it takes on the couple\’s relationship, and what turns to bring them together again. How they come to depend on the neighbors, and help each other out when times are hard. How the wild animals circle in the dark trees, admired for their beauty or hunted for their pelts and meat, but always with their own secret lives just offstage. It\’s an intriguing story that I enjoyed very much, in spite of some frustration that there\’s no clear answer at the end, with a broad streak of sadness through it all.

Rating: 4/5         391 pages, 2012

more opinions:
Page 247
Savidge Reads
You\’ve GOTTA Read This!
Things Mean a Lot
Don\’t Be Afraid of the Dork


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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