Monday, December 22, 2008

A Dark-Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendell writing as Barbara Vine - 288 pgs

Book CoverWhen a journalist contacts Faith Severn in the interest of writing a book about the execution of her aunt Vera Hillyard, Faith slowly reveals and unravels the story of the Hillyard family complete in it's complicities and claustrophobias. After her parents' death, Vera leaves her young son and military husband in the care of others and undertakes the role of mother to her younger sister, Eden. Vera and Eden's relationship is extremely close and secretive, often excluding all other parties. Living in virtual isolation during World War II, Vera makes Eden her top priority and constant concern, and becomes a profoundly obsessive and controlling woman. It's here that Faith spends many vacations and holidays, enduring Vera's casual cruelty and myriad insecurities while secretly idolizing the young and beautiful Eden. As time moves on and Faith grows older, she witnesses multiple changes in Vera and Eden's relationship, the return of Vera's son, Francis (a merciless young man), and Eden's eventual flight from the nest. Even so, things are not what they seem in the Hillyard house, and the family secrets will eventually spark an explosive, painful conclusion that leaves the reader sorting through the myriad clues to find a definitive answer to this intensely satisfying psychological thriller. Is Vera's madness really self-induced, or does it come from a more sinister direction? What are the circumstances behind her execution, and what part does her family truly play?

This was a fascinating and, eventually, quite devastating book. The author has a way of laying out the story and prose in a quietly thorough way, keeping the more disquieting elements couched within the normal everyday attributes of a wartime family. Knowing that a murder had occurred but not knowing the circumstances surrounding it, nor even who the victim was, was a particularly interesting way to tell this story. The technique had me reading with trepidation to discover where the cracks would appear, and how the murder would eventually take place. The story has an aura of foreboding attached to it, it was ominous from it's skeleton to it's details, haunting in a wonderful way. Because Vera was not a particularly pshycopathic person, the murder behind her execution seemed all the more interesting. Yes, she was restrictive and cold, and it was very clear that she was also repressed and secretive, at times she could be embarrassingly hysterical, but her character also seemed to be very controlled and conscious of propriety and modulated. Reading along I became convinced that this murder was an act of desperation and madness, instead of an act of calculated cruelty.

In fact, all the characters in this book were exquisitely portrayed. From the obnoxious and perverse Francis to the furtive and beautiful Eden and the reluctant and inquisitive Faith, each character was finely detailed and and exceptionally rendered. It felt like I knew these people, knew how they would react, where their buttons were and could see what would push them. There was a tremendous amount of exposition given over to these characters, a lot of time spent on the mundane and everyday, but it was far from boring. In fact it was a very illuminating and clever way to get the reader invested in the drama of the storyline, and the eventual destruction of a family.

The story dealt with many sensitive issues, and without giving away the mysteries of the story, it would be hard to touch on and identify them all, but the one that stuck out was the repression and emotional constraint of those in England during that time. It was evident in Vera's entire character, in her sister Eden's choice of lifestyle, and eventually in Faith's reticence to tell the story of her aunt. Repression ran like a thick vein down this haunting and dark story.

Another thing that I liked about this story were the atmospheric touches. There was much discussion of war time rationing and the procurement of luxurys items, such as food and cosmetics, during the lean times of war. I thought this was an interesting touch that gave the story believability and flavor. It seemed that the author accounted for all the variables in this time period and those minute touches really amplified the credibility of the story.

The conclusion of the story was also handled brilliantly. It skipped the exposition and definition and instead recounted and laid bare all the facts for the reader to deduce the motives and culpability of this murder. By doing this, it refrained from passing judgment on the killer and let the reader see that there was more to the story than just the black and white of the slaying. As in some real-life murders, the details were murky, the facts sometimes cloudy. One could almost discount Vera's madness and responsibility, could see from the facts alone that she was vindicated. Almost. And in the end, that is what this story came down to. The confusion and reaction of a somewhat normal woman, spurred into to a hideous act that forever changed the landscape of her family's life.

If you can't tell by now, I thought this book was superb. It had an intensity and control that I truly appreciated. I loved the meandering way that the story was fleshed out, and felt that in this way the suspense was built into an almost unbearable measure. I had heard so many good things about this book, and was so excited to read it. In no way did it disappoint. Though it is written by a mystery writer, this book is more of a psychological suspense story. A very intelligent and thought provoking read. Strongly recommended.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Jewel of Medina by Sherry Jones - 432 pgs

Book CoverA'isha bint Abi Bakr has known the prophet Muhammad all her life; in fact, he was present at her birth. When her father, a close ally to Muhammad, decides to cement his loyalty and friendship to the prophet by betrothing A'isha to him when she is just 6 years old, her fate as his "child-bride" begins. Though A'isha will not be married to Muhammad for three years, her betrothal to the prophet brings many unusual changes into the life of the young girl. Beginning with an unusually early purdah (forced segregation from the opposite sex), A'isha discovers that life as Muhammad's favored wife will not be an easy task. Not only must she give up her freedom and taste for adventure, she must navigate a path to her husband's heart among a plethora of other women who also call Muhammad "husband," and forsake the man who is her true heart's desire. As A'isha grows from child to woman, the new religion of Islam, under Muhammad's care, grows with her. The Jewel of Medina is the little-known story of the woman behind Allah's chosen messenger; Here are A'isha bint Bakr's desires, disappointments and dreams for all to see, woven amongst the inception of one of the worlds most formidable and misunderstood religions.

After hearing all the hype surrounding this book, I was expecting a tome filled with controversy. I wasn't sure what it would deliver. Would it be a blasphemous portrayal of the foremost man of Islam? Would it be slanderous or rife with sexual impropriety? What could possibly be so contentious about this book? So, I read it, and what I found was a bit disappointing. The book, although interesting and timely, was a bit heavy-handed and trite. It seems that the elements that were most upsetting must have been Muhammad's taking so many wives. His appetite for women and marriage seemed at times almost comic and unbelievable. If a new woman was described in the narrative, chances are that in a few pages Muhammad would take her as a wife. This portrayal made Muhammad seem like an unscrupulous and lewd old man. I believe that was one of the reasons it was so hard for me to see this character as a great leader to many people. I just couldn't believe a man who had such tremendous sexual appetites was a holy and revered man. In a way, this depiction made Muhammad look manipulative and crafty. For example, when he heard the voice of God commanding him to take more wives, he claimed his need for more women only had to do with strategic alliances for Islam. But tied up in these protestations was the story of a lusty man amassing a harem of women. Which brings me to my next point: This unabashed parade of new wives seemed to be the center of the story.

Instead of character or story development, it seemed that the story was about many women fighting over one man. The story had no other underlying plot than the jealousies and competitions of A'isha and the rest of the women. Instead of relating the story of one woman's love and relationship with a charismatic leader, what I got instead was a novel full of infighting, insecurity and envy. When I realized that this book was not going to be the serious piece of semi-history that I had hoped for, I was able to take it for what it was and begin to enjoy the ride. As far as historical romance goes, this wasn't a bad book. The problem is that with all the attention surrounding this book, readers may be expecting a more factual or enlightening interpretation of Islam and it's first lady, when in fact this is more of a book filled with unrequited romantic intrigue.

I also felt that the book contained a weak interpretation of Muhammad. As a reader, I never saw him as a forceful personal leader. In fact, he seemed a bit wishy-washy and irresolute. Without belaboring the point, the fact was that he was so busy with all of his wives that he was never seen in any other capacity. Another thing that I noticed was that the book also had almost no atmospheric touches, so it seemed that there was a scarcity of historical or cultural flavor in the narrative. The effect of this void was that it made the story more bland and forgettable than other historical novels that I have read.

Although this review paints a somewhat bleak picture, The Jewel of Medina was not a terrible book. At times it was entertaining and exciting, if only to answer the questions of the romantic quandaries in the story. The book also had a nice flow, with little to no awkwardness in the elements of the storytelling. Though I felt that the story was a little common and corny, I also thought that it was executed fairly well. While I did end up somewhat enjoying it, that was only after a huge adjustment in my expectations. The main problem was that I just couldn't lose myself in the story because it seemed farcical and unimportant. I thought the book would be inspirational and moving, but in the end it wasn't. I think that is one of the problems with books that are just so hyped: there is bound to be disappointment unless the book is absolutely brilliant. After all this, I would still recommend this book to those who like historical romance and wouldn't mind taking a chance on a first time author.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Key West: A Comprehensive Guide to Florida's Southernmost City by Sarah Goodwin-Nguyen

Book CoverOrganized in a neatly compartmental way, this comprehensive guide to Key West, one of the Tourist Town series of guides, is an informative and useful guide to finding the area's attractions, accommodations and dining spots. In addition to being a one-stop guide for anyone traveling to Key West, the book also contains a section devoted to area orientation and an extensive chapter on the history of this popular destination.

I really liked the last segment of the book which is comprised of a few sample itineraries to get you started on enjoying what Key West has to offer to its many visitors. Although the book is small, it's filled with information packaged in bite size snippets that encapsulate all you will need to know when visiting these spots, including addresses, phone numbers, and pricing references. The only thing the book was lacking was a selection of color photographs detailing the islands attractions. Instead there are a few black and white photos of the most notorious locations and aspects of Key West, but the book had such a conversational and flavorful tone that it was easy to overlook this small flaw to appreciate the greater aspects of the guide. In a charming aside to the book, the opening pages contain a few tips on how to be as ecologically friendly as possible while vacationing. I found the tips to be very simple ways to be socially responsible while not being too complicated or onerous. Living in Central Florida, the Keys make a great weekend getaway destination for me and my family. Having this book for future vacations will be a great way to maximize our enjoyment in all that the area has to offer.

The publishers of this book have several other guides in the same vein, for areas such as Myrtle Beach, Atlantic City, and Jackson Hole. If you are travelling to a popular tourist destination in the near future, make sure to check out the Tourist Town series. They make a great traveling companion.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay - 320 pgs

Book CoverSarah's Key is the story of one young girl's experience during the roundups of Jews in France during 1942, while also telling the story of Julia Jarmond, the journalist who pulls Sarah's story out of obscurity and finds the girl's connections to her own life. The story begins with the terror that Sarah and her family face as the French police begin to scour neighborhoods in order to gather the Jewish residents for deportation. During the frantic visit by police, Sarah's four-year-old brother hides in a secret cupboard, refusing to come out. Sarah convinces little Michel to stay put and be quiet, locking him into the cupboard, with hopes that the roundup will be a short affair. The rest of the family are then taken to an outdoor stadium to wait for deportation to various death camps, leaving little Michel helpless and alone, locked in a cupboard to which only Sarah has the key. As the small family faces the horrors of the roundup, Sarah is haunted by the loss of Michel and vows to return to her home and rescue him. Her journey through the war and her eventual fate take her to places that even she would never expect. The other half of the story focuses on journalist Julia's marital struggles with her husband Bertrand. Though they love one another, their lives seem to be going in separate directions, and Bertrand is far from a doting partner. As Julia begins to realize that her path in life is slowly diverging from Bertrand's in almost every way, she discovers that Bertrand and his family share a personal connection with Julia's new story: the Jewish roundup of 1942. And it is this story that draws Julia closer to the existence and struggles of Sarah.

Although this story began as a parallel narrative between Sarah and Julia, about halfway through the author dropped the alternating viewpoints and began to focus solely on Julia's story. I think this weakned the story and sacrificed much of its urgency. Sarah's struggle was poignant and moving, and when it ended the whole rest of the book took different direction, a more soap-operaish flavor. Although I was interested in Julia's marriage woes, I found Sarah's story more compelling and was a bit non-plussed that that thread had been lost. Some bits of the story seemed a little far-fetched, such as Julia's all-consuming passion in finding out what had happened to Sarah and her family. At times it seemed that her reasoning for this was slightly melodramatic, and that made it harder to buy into as a reader. Julia had a myriad of problems going on in her personal life, yet she shoved everything away to focus on an unknown girl's fate in wartime France? It just didn't ring true.

Although some parts of this story were awkward, there were some great aspects of the book as well. I found that the shorter, alternating chapters created a palpable tension in both story lines. It seemed that the author gave just a little in each section, teasing out both story lines to their fullest effect. I also liked the character portrayals: there were a range of personalities to get to know, and they were all multi-dimensional. For example, though Julia's husband Bertrand was an insensitive brute, he had sides of him that made him at least a little sympathetic to the reader. Julia wasn't painted with the "perfect" paintbrush either. She had moments of unlikablity and I found that this endeared me to her character more readily, as she seemed like more of a real person. Though this story had its ups and downs, Sarah's portions were handled expertly. In attempting to give these lost forgotten children of history a voice, the author did wonderful work through the story of Sarah. I read with tension and disbelief the atrocities that were forced on these people, and cried, realizing that for many, this was their reality and their demise. The cruelty of the perpetrators of these acts amazed and saddened me, and I found myself caught up in the dread and fear that marked their fate. Sarah's remarkable story was the lifeblood of this book, and though at times it was painful and penetrating, it was also told very impressively.

Though I wish that this book would have remained a parallel narrative and that more of the story would have been told from Sarah's point of view, I did like Julia's portions and found myself getting emotionally invested in her story. Both stories, though very different, were engrossing in their own ways. Despite the fact that I struggled with issues of believability in the Julia storyline, I did eventually begin to care for her as a character and hoped that her story would end satisfactorily. On the other hand, Sarah's story grabbed me from the first page and never let up all the way through, and it is because of this brilliant bit of storytelling that that this book was ultimately a winner.
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