Monday, May 31, 2010

The Miracles of Prato by Laurie Albanese and Laura Morowitz - 400 pgs

Book CoverWhen the beautiful Lucrezia Buti and her sister Spinetta arrive on the doorstep of the Convent Santa Margherita, they are admitted with open arms and ushered into the simplicity of cloistered life. But for Lucrezia this new life is one of sadness, for until her father's unexpected death, she had been expecting to marry a handsome merchant and live her life as a wife and mother. As Lucrezia comes to fully understand the sacrifices demanded of her, she meets the monk and painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Fra Filippo is also the chaplain to the convent and during one of his routine visits he comes across the stunning Lucrezia and is immediately captured by her beauty. Wishing to use her as a model for several commissions of the Madonna that he is to paint, Fra Filippo inveigles an arrangement for Lucrezia to visit his home and workshop so that she may model for him. But Lucrezia's visits are not going unnoticed by others with great power. As Fra Filippo begins to paint the young woman, he becomes hopelessly in love with her, a dangerous situation for a monk and a novice to find themselves in. As the two become conspirators in art, unseen hands begin to threaten both of their futures, and Fra Filippo and Lucrezia begin a frightening downward spiral amidst the wondrous paintings that their forbidden union creates. In this lush and dark creation, two people long to give their souls to each other but find heartache for they have already given them to God.

When I was offered the chance to review this book for my site, I was surprised to discover that it had in fact been written by two bloggers! I know there are probably a lot of bloggers out there who are working on novels of their own, or wish to, but I have never had the pleasure of reading something written by a member of my own community. I was pretty excited about reading the book, and in the end, I felt like the collaboration between Albanese and Morowitz made for a wonderful and engrossing read.

When I began this book, I had a feeling that I would already be familiar with the story it tells. A pair of young girls is brought to a convent against their will after their father dies and leaves them penniless. I thought back to Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a story that had a very similar beginning. But as the story progressed, I found that this was a very different story indeed. First of all, though Lucrezia did not want to be held as a captive in the convent, she starts to conform into a chaste and virtuous woman very early on. She is humble about the situation that she finds herself in, and instead of fighting with all her might, decides to pray for enlightenment and acceptance. I found this to be a rare attitude, for I can imagine that being placed in a convent and watching your prospects dwindle away would probably be maddening and upsetting, but Lucrezia takes it all in stride and acts with grace.

Fra Filippo was a different creature entirely. As a monk, he is forced to live a chaste life. This is very hard for him to do, and the reader is led to believe that the monk has had several indiscretions with easy women, problems with his finances and a lot of trouble actually completing the commissions that he has been hired to work upon. Fra Filippo is a lover of beauty, and upon seeing Lucrezia for the first time, his soul is rapturous. He has trouble concentrating on his duties as the convent's chaplain due to his hypersensitivity to Lucrezia's face and body. Though he doesn't dare dream about breaking his vows, he has trouble controlling his excitement and ardor for the young girl and works out his own arrangements to have her model for him. Though things begin in innocence, the two are quickly led astray when they realize that their interest in each other is not merely platonic. During these early scenes, I found a lot to admire about Fra Filippo. He had some slightly loose morals at times but he strove to keep himself in check and do what was expected of him as a monk and chaplain.

When an unexpected attack blackens Lucrezia's honor, Fra Filippo is angry and livid. He wishes to protect the young girl from further dishonor and finally reveals his love for her. Though he is a monk, he discovers that his heart's desire has been sitting right in front of him and he is willing to do anything to keep her. There are mounting dangers and pressures for Filippo. Because of his habit of always being behind on his commissions, he is drawing anger from the high placed officials in the church, and various others begin to threaten him about his inappropriate relationship with his young model. These sections were filled with drama and suspense and I found them to be the most interesting of the book. As the monk dodges and weaves out of harm's way, he never suspects that Lucrezia could be in danger as well. Forces mightier than the two are working furiously against them and are beginning to create situations of great danger for them. There is wickedness coming from all directions, and try as they might, the two have a hard time keeping it at bay while still managing to care for one another.

The writing style of this book was extremely atmospheric and easy to become enmeshed in. It portrays this time period very skillfully, and within its historic framework, it also deftly captures and describes the art of its time. I found that while I was reading it was easy to get lost in the place and time that the novel is set in and it was almost as if I could see the sun-soaked streets of Renaissance Italy and smell the gesso that the painter used to capture his detailed paintings. At times the book was darker than I had been expecting but this was not really a hindrance to me. I also loved the look at the internal politics of the convent. Much like the convent portrayed in Sacred Hearts, this was a place where ambition was clothed in the habits of the women walking through its halls. There was a lot of intrigue going on within the convent walls and it was fascinating to discover that these women, who were so far removed from society, were really not all that different from the ones that were free. I think that this was a marvelous aspect of the story and it captured my interest in a lot of ways. I am fast becoming a lover of convent literature and this is one of the books I have to thank for that!

If you are a reader of historical fiction and enjoy books with blended settings, I think this would be a great addition to your collection. Those who love stories about art history or the very intricate life that goes on behind the convent walls would also enjoy this book. Between the intense story it tells, the great attention to detail and the incredible aura it captures, this book made for a wonderful reading experience. A terrific work of historical fiction.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Garden of Ruth by Eva Etzioni-Halevy - 293 pgs

Book CoverIn this work of Biblical fiction, a young woman named Osnath, who is also the niece of the prophet Samuel, arrives in Bethlehem. Upon perusing the scroll room belonging to the relatives she is visiting, she discovers a scrap of parchment with a most interesting love poem written upon it. As Osnath soon discovers, this parchment is only a fragment of the life story of Ruth, who became the wife of Boaz and was the great-grandmother of the man known as King David. While trying to uncover more of the parchment scraps that tell Ruth's story, Osnath discovers that Ruth, a woman highly esteemed for her piety and grace, had once been caught in the throes of an illicit relationship with a man other than her husband. But as Osnath begins to dig for more clues into Ruth's life, she comes to arouse the suspicion and anger of Ruth's great-grandson Eliab, who is desperate to keep his ancestor's reputation from being tarnished. Osnath, trying frantically to uncover more information about this tantalizing story, becomes genuinely surprised when she finds her feelings of disgust for Elaib turning into feelings of desire. Now Osnath must reconcile both Ruth's past and her present to finally restore harmony to her life. In this surprising and evocative story, Etzioni-Halevy takes one of the most famous stories in the bible and turns it in fresh and unexpected direction.

About a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of reading my first book by Eva Etzioni-Hallevy. It was called The Song of Deborah and I had a great time with it. When the author contacted me about reviewing one of her other works, I was very excited to see what her other stories might have to offer me. I was greatly pleased with this book and ended up being very satisfied with its story. I think this was perhaps my favorite of the stories I have tried from this author and am excited that she has another book out for me to enjoy as well.

Though this book ostensibly had two stories woven into one, the story involving Osnath was the principal focus. Osnath was a very headstrong young girl at the beginning of the tale, and only as the story progresses do her attitudes and behaviors begin to change. From the outset, she is extremely caught up in the search for Ruth's tale and it seems that she will do almost anything to discover the truth surrounding it, even if it means angering everyone around her. I found her diligence to have a curious effect on me. I also wanted her to find out Ruth's tale and was invested in her search, but I thought that she sometimes came off as a little brazen in her tactics. As she struggles to worm her way into the scroll room, she seems to be making enemies all along the way, but surprisingly, the people she is offending offer her friendship and, in one case, love.

Osnath also has to contend with the desires of her heart. At her first meeting with Elaib, she discovers him to be crude and coarse and really wants to have nothing to do with him. After a flagrant affront takes place between the two, Osnath's heart is set against Eliab in the most heated of ways. She will never love this man and will learn to live around him. Instead, she prefers David, a starry-eyed youth who spins endearments from thin air, much to Osnath's delight. As the story begins to take shape, Osnath's feelings for David become tangled by the deeds he commits and she is left feeling exploited and rebuffed. In anger, Osnath wishes to leave Bethlehem after she uncovers Ruth's story, feeling that her time in the city fits only that purpose and no more. Surprisingly, Osnath begins to discover that there is more to Eliab than she once thought, a revelation that seems to come a little too late, forcing Osnath into a position of suffering that breaks her body and spirit. The only way to reconcile her situation is to do the unthinkable, which for Osnath, is a tough order indeed.

Towards the middle of the book, Osnath's persistence pays off and she is rewarded with Ruth's story in all its sordid detail. This section prompted me to perk up while reading, for the story of Ruth and Boaz has always been a favorite of mine. This book takes a slightly different direction with the story and tells the fictional tale of the man who seduces Ruth immediately after her first husband dies. I really liked Ruth and found her humble yet knowing. In this tale, she was placed in a very difficult situation and had only her wits and character to pull her through it. These passages were evocative and humble, painting a vast and far-reaching picture of the trials that Ruth faced. I must admit that these sections were my favorite parts of the book and I hungered to hear more about Ruth and her situation. She was a winning character, filled with shame at her situation but strong enough to do what was required of her.

In the end, the story of Ruth is revealed in its complete form, as is the tale of Osnath and her difficult road to maturity. The two sections of the book dovetailed at the end, and despite the trials that the two women faced, they are able to find a happiness that stretches across generations. Though Ruth and Osnath were very different women, I was happy to see their lives reconciled and their fates sealed, so for me, the story came full circle in a wonderful way.

If you are the type of reader who enjoys biblical fiction, then this book is probably something that you would enjoy. The author takes great pains in fully realizing her characters and the dramas they face, so this novel would also be of interest to those who love character driven books. Though there are certain liberties taken with the tale of Ruth, I think that in this case, they were very well done and believable and they gave the story a profound sense of drama and insight. The complexities of the two stories being interwoven was also done with a lot of style, making this a very pleasant reading experience.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Coop: A Family, a Farm, and the Pursuit of One Good Egg by Michael Perry - 384 pgs

Book CoverMichael Perry has his hands full. With a new farm to manage, a baby on the way and various writing projects on his plate, Michael shares with the reader his trepidation and joy over the changing circumstances of his life. Drawing backwards towards the stories of his childhood, Michael reflects on his younger years on the farm. Raised by a pair of honest and generous parents, Michael often found himself sharing the house with dozens of special needs foster children and shares his memories of growing up in an obscure Christian fundamentalist sect. We learn about his early life on the farm, where his family spent quality time together baling hay, herding sheep and milking his father's beloved cows every evening. These days, Michael is trying to become self-sufficient and live from the land, which often makes for hilarious reading. From his amateur attempts at building a chicken coop to having his hind quarters bitten by a hound dog while wrestling a pig, Michael douses his stories with liberal doses of humor while also managing to be reverent and humble about the life he now leads. Coop is Micheal's memoir of his family's first year on the new farm, with all of the blunders, missteps and triumphs recorded for all the world to see.

It's so refreshing to read a memoir that is not filled with whining feelings of self-importance. By far, most of the memoirs I have read in the last three years have left me feeling dissatisfied and disheartened because they all just seem like a platform from which to complain and self-aggrandize. Coop was just the opposite. In Perry's gentle and friendly tone, he shares his year of farming and animal husbandry with the reader. One of the things that really impressed me was the way Perry speaks about his life. He is so clearly in love with the existence that he has created for himself; and that love extends to his wife, step-daughter and unborn child, as well as the animals he owns. There is no doubt that he relishes his time on the farm, and often, he describes his travails with a sense of wide-eyed wonder at the world and all that he has dominion over.

I must say that the majority of this book was highly amusing. Often, I would catch myself running from room to room after my husband, reading passages aloud in order to share the humor. Whether he is talking about his disabled chicken or spouting fortifying lectures to his six-year old daughter, Perry is always entertaining. I liked the sections where he chronicled his attempts to buy a couple of feeder pigs and the ensuing story of their care. I had no idea that pigs could be so beastly and grisly. It was a surprise to Perry too, I think. He speaks with aplomb about his intentions on raising sheep and tells of heavenly days spent mowing the fields on a tractor. The best thing about Perry's humor was its gentleness and absurdity. He is sometimes self-mocking but never makes the reader fell sorry for him; instead, he laughs along with us.

At times, the book takes on a more somber tone, such as when a friend from England passes away or when his young nephew drowns at the pond near his home. In these sections, Perry grapples quietly with his grief, spinning remembrances from the past into his present heartache. I read with tenderness during these sections and felt that Perry really wrote from his heart and soul. He put the words to the page in an effort to cleanse his heart of grief, and make his way stolidly forward any way that he could. It was clear to me that although these were painful times, Perry was grateful for his memories and the times that he was able to spend with these loved ones before they were gone. He also speaks openly about his parents' decision to take in foster children with severe disabilities and tells how the whole family came to be involved with their care, from feedings to making sure sutures were healing properly. Due to the fact that his childhood was not of the ordinary variety, Perry mentions that he is often comfortable in unusual situations and circumstances and that this has enabled him to see the world without judging it in the way others do.

Perry also speaks about how hard it is to care for a farm while having to make public appearances for his book tours. Though he knows that he needs to spend more time with his family on the farm, he has to leave in order to support them. Often, he shies away from his writing responsibilities to build more sweat equity and puts off the writing in favor of more back-breaking chores. He knows that he shouldn't do this, but at times he can't help himself and often feels that when he finishes a chore on the farm, the fact that he can tangibly see his effort makes him proud in a way that writing can't. He mentions the fact that his wife takes on the brunt of the responsibility when he is away and that he doesn't feel that it is an equal distribution of labor, but that is the way it has to be. I find it amazing that he can be so honest about this, and it makes me admire this man that is caught between two worlds.

There is a lot of life packed into this book. Perry encompasses the joy and sadness that life brings him out on the farm and in the city, far from home. He is grateful and serious and at times overwhelmed and silly, but all of this comes across with a feeling of wonderful forthrightness in everything he does. Whether he is lost in the fog of nostalgia or dealing with the everyday chores around the farm, Perry does it with an amiable disposition and a supreme amount of pluck. There are times he doesn't have the slightest idea of what he is doing (which he readily admits to his reader) and there are times when he is stepping back into a role he has played since childhood, sharing and expounding on things I have never heard mentioned before. It is the gentleness of his sharing that wins me over every time. Michael Perry is a man unlike others.

If you are the type of reader who loves memoirs but is tired of the woe-is-me quality of most of what's out there now, I would definitely recommend this book as a remedy. Those who would like to get a good look at farm and family life would also be enriched by this book. I would even recommend this book for readers who want a good belly laugh, because Perry can sure deliver on that front. It was a very charming read and I will now be heading towards his back catalog to find out more about this very funny man and his very interesting life. A great read, highly recommended!

About Michael

Michael Perry is a humorist and author of the bestselling memoirs Population 485: Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time and Truck: A Love Story, the essay collection Off Main Street, and the upcoming memoir Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting. Perry has written for Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, Backpacker, Orion and, and is a contributing editor to Men’s Health. His essays have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, and he has performed and produced two live audience recordings (I Got It From the Cows and Never Stand Behind a Sneezing Cow). Perry lives in rural Wisconsin, where he remains active with the local volunteer rescue service.

Visit Michael at his website,
Michael Perry

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, May 17th: Tales of a Capricious Reader
Wednesday, May 19th: Book Nook Club
Thursday, May 20th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, May 26th: Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, May 26th: FIMBY
Thursday, May 27th: Chefdruk Musings
Tuesday, June 1st: Dreadlock Girl Reads
Wednesday, June 2nd: Book-a-rama
Thursday, June 3rd: Book Club Classics!
Monday, June 7th:  Find Your Next Book Here
Tuesday, June 8th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Thursday, June 10th: It’s All About Books

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benetar - 240 pgs

Book Cover Rachel Waring is a middle aged woman working at a dead end job and living with a caustic and slovenly roommate. When her estranged aunt dies leaving her a beautiful but rundown mansion in Bristol, Rachel decides to pack up her life, quit her job and move in. As she sets about repairing and replenishing the house using her small savings, Rachel's outlook is one of hopefulness and vigor. Soon she is interacting with the small community, making friends and considering a literary project. As the days turn into weeks in Rachel's new home, she strangely begins to lose touch with reality, becoming increasingly odd in both her personal habits and in the eyes of her friends. Rachel has a plan, it's just not a very realistic or plausible plan, and as she slides further and further into a jolly type of madness, those around her can't help but notice and become fearful for her. Both frightening and at times funny, Wish Her Safe at Home documents one woman's tragic spiral into the unknown recesses of madness.

My awesome friend Aarti, from the wonderful blog Booklust, has been raving about this book for a really long time, and since I trust her opinion on books implicitly, I went right out and bought a copy after reading her review. I am pretty sure that it was one of her best reads of the year, and after reading it, I can certainly see why!

Rachel is your typical downtrodden woman. Living with a roommate she barely tolerates and working at a job where she is almost invisible, she has become very morose and unhappy. Though she ties to put on a brave face, she can't help feeling a bit resentful at the turns her life has taken, and though she does not know how to escape her situation, she longs for a better life for herself. The past has not been kind to Rachel and it was easy for me to see just why she wanted to escape it and move on to better things. When the news of her inheritance comes to her, her attitude shifts completely and she begins to anticipate the life she will now be able to move on to. I felt a little sorry for her in the beginning of the book because she seemed like a really good person who had been dealt a raw hand at life, and I was really excited that she would be able to leave her confining life for something more fruitful and advantageous.

But almost from the minute she steps off the train in Bristol, Rachel begins acting in strange ways. First of all, she seems to take liberties in her conversations with others, peppering her speech with unlikely asides and seemingly personal revelations. The strangers she meets are good humored about these conversational faux pas, but while I was reading, I became a bit uncomfortable for her and wondered if all these unlikely things that were running through her mind were running out of her mouth as well. It was embarrassing and heart-wrenching to watch her cast about with conversational weirdness and see the reactions that this brought. As a reader, I sympathized with her and thought that maybe her new and exiting life had somehow made her a bit more exuberant and forthcoming and chalked up her behavior as eccentricity. I thought that perhaps Rachel was so excited about her new life that she felt she had to share her joy with others. I really felt like she was a kind and convivial woman, and that perhaps others just didn't understand her jovial attitude.

As Rachel begins to settle into her new home, she decides to begin working on a novel charting the life of a mysterious man who once lived in the very house that she now owns. She makes a ritual of her writing and also begins a long slide into mental uncertainty. Though her new friends at first don't seem to notice the oddness that overtakes her, she harbors secret delusions about the subject of her novel and at times her madness seems to have a deep sexual component. Soon it is evident that there is something not right about Rachel and the others around her begin to wonder about her mental faculties. She begins to create a new past for herself, one where she is both recognized and loved and where it is safe for her to dream and hope. Rachel is not troubled in the least about herself, for hers is a frivolous and joyous type of madness that always leaves her heart and spirit buoyed.

As the book reaches it's stunning conclusion, Rachel, once the master of her own destiny, is now at the mercy of others and forced into a horrible situation by her friends. I wasn't sure what to make of these friends and was very uncertain about their motives. Oh, it all seemed on the up and up, but I couldn't help but have ominous feelings about them and their plans. Rachel, at once lost, afraid and alone, is left to fend for herself, a situation that tore at my heart and made me very uncomfortable, for I had grown fond of this lovable and unpredictable woman. I felt that for all her instability, she deserved to be recompensed in a better way than she had been.

I think that Benetar did a wonderful job in the creation of Rachel and her story. Not only was she a very sympathetic character that I could relate to, she had the ability to draw me close and dream for her. Her life was not what she wanted it to be, so she altered it, and really, is there any harm in that? Though it cost her a great deal to be unerringly positive and brave, she was all these things and more, and it was humbling to watch her fall. It was troubling to me to see Rachel scared and confused and at the mercy of those with questionable motives, all her carefree whimsy gone. I kept hoping for a different end for Rachel, and although I saw her careening towards destruction, I was not prepared for it when it happened.

I am so thankful to have had this book recommended to me, for I feel that it was a reading experience quite unlike any other I have had. I think that others who are led to this story really have a great ride ahead of them and I recommend this book heartily for not only it's particularly dogged heroine, but also for Benetar's wonderful portrayal of what it must be like to slowly go mad. A brilliant read and one that will end up in my permanent collection.

 I read this book as part of the Spotlight Series focused on NYRB Classics, a wonderful publishing house that offers some really great titles. If you haven't already, please check out the NYRB website and look around a little!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Winner of Glorious Giveaway!

A hearty congratulations to Marie over at Boston Bibliophile for wining the Glorious giveaway!
Book Cover
Thanks to everyone who entered, and stay tuned for a few other great giveaways coming soon!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chosen: The Lost Diaries of Queen Esther by Ginger Garrett - 304 pgs

Book CoverEsther is a poor young woman of limited means living with her cousin Mordechai after being orphaned many years ago. Living quietly as a Jew in Susa during King Xerxes reign, Esther's existence is a simple one, brightened only by the fact that she is in love with a local merchant's son named Cyrus. Though Cyrus and Esther have little hope of being married, both are committed to each other and long for the day that they will be able to break away and begin their lives together. This dream is unexpectedly crushed when Xerxes decides to banish his queen, Vashti, after a humiliating encounter in front of his subjects, and take a new queen. Xerxes' men are sent into the city to gather up all the available virgins, and against her cousin's protest, Esther is taken to the palace to undergo a year of beauty treatments so that she will be pristine and groomed for her night with the king. Upon entering the palace, Esther catches the eye of Hagai, the chief eunuch, and is quickly whisked away to a life of lavishness and privilege. Hagai harbors hope that Esther will capture the heart of the king and become the new queen to rule by his side. But as Esther and Hagai's dreams come true, Esther becomes embroiled in a plight that will take all her wits and fortitude to escape. And the danger she is facing will not only affect her but all the Jews of Susa under the reign of the king. Rich yet amazingly subtle, Chosen tells the biblical story of Esther, the mighty and courageous woman whose hand alone changed the future of the Jews.

I think I am becoming a connoisseur of literature about Queen Esther. I took a twelve week Bible study class that deconstructed this short yet powerful book of the Bible, and shortly after I read and reviewed The Gilded Chamber by Rebecca Kohn. When the opportunity came to review yet another book about Esther, I jumped at the chance to read a third version of the story. While I did definitely enjoy this book more than The Gilded Chamber, there were some spots that left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

First off, I really liked this version of Esther. She was vulnerable and soft, yet when the situation demanded, she became very resourceful and cunning in the extreme. I thought this Esther was very motivated by her circumstances and I could clearly see how she grew into the queen who changed a nation. During the early sections of the book, Esther begins to ask questions about her life that I feel many young women have asked themselves. Mainly she wonders if her dreams and desires are less important because she is a woman in a society dominated by men. She wonders if her life would be different if she had had the ability to make her decisions as she saw fit instead of being forced into uncomfortable roles by the people that claimed to have her best interest at heart. Esther was searching for herself in a world that was not of her making, and despite the lavish attentions and riches surrounding her, she found that she could never be satisfied with the material things that cluttered her life while the deepest desires of her heart were being ignored and swept under the rug. Eventually Esther is forced to do what many women are forced to do: be satisfied with what she has and learn to stop lamenting the things that she cannot change. She must sweep her dreams away and exist as others around her have shaped her to be and find her destiny in other directions.

One of the things that I wish had gotten a little more attention was the life Esther led in the harem of the king. There were little to no interactions between her and the other women and the only characters aside from the major players who got any page time were Hagai and the various servants that attended Esther. I would have liked to have seen more of the other girls in the harem and gotten a little more back story about them. Several times the story alluded to the fact that there were vicious rivalries and jealousies in the harem but they were never really elaborated on. It was too much of a case of telling not showing and I was a bit disappointed by that. It would have been nice to see these things get more page time and see the way that Esther dealt with her changed circumstances among the women who surrounded her.

While I did like the subplot involving Esther and Cyrus, I felt that there was an awful lot of time given over to the lamenting of their lost love. As it became clear very early in the book that these two lovers would not get the chance to be together, I felt that it might have been better to leave these sections alone. I would have rather seen more focus on Esther in her new surroundings, rather than having her constantly pine for something she could never have. I do have to conclude that these sections were more realistic though, as I can truly believe that dreams do not abandon the dreamer if left unfulfilled. I guess my main problem with these sections was that they seemed very unproductive, and the fact that Esther had such a journey to accomplish but had been lost in her dreams for so long niggled at me a little bit. Towards the end of the book, the subplot involving Cyrus became more pleasing and began to fit the story a bit better, which leavened my discontent a bit.

The sections of the book that were based on the plight of the Jews were very well done. These were the sections that were most biblically accurate, and I felt that the author did a wonderful job of melding the fictional elements of her story to fit the biblical sections. Here Esther does the unthinkable for her people, and here her courage takes center stage. She uses the only things she has available to her, namely her wits and her beauty, to ensnare the king's attentions and bend him to her will. Much of the danger in what she was doing was clearly reiterated for the reader, and as this contest of wills came into the full spotlight, it was evident that Esther was working in conjunction with the hand of God to save her people, to remarkable effect. Clearly she was no ordinary woman, a fact that the author both spotlights and downplays to wonderful effect. In this, the last section of the book, it becomes clear how much she has grown and matured and just how strong her faith has become.

If you have to pick only one book to read about the life of Esther, I would definitely say that this is the one to go with. Though there were some small points that I didn't care for, this version of the story was by far the most involving and thought provoking. Garrett's Esther was so remarkably human as to seem very familiar and endearing at once, and from the standpoint of biblical correctness, this book was most closely on the mark. For those that are curious about Esther, I would definitely encourage you to give this book a try, and also think this book would be a great read for lovers of biblical fiction. A really interesting read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman - 368 pgs

Book CoverMeg Rosenthal has just moved to upstate New York, finding work as a teacher at Arcadia Falls, a private high school that focuses on the arts. She brings along her troubled daughter Sally, who will also be attending the school. Meg and Sally have had a rough time of it in the last few months, as Meg's husband and Sally's father Jude has just unexpectedly passed away, leaving the family in serious debt. Meg, unable to cope with her daughter's new rebelliousness and the financial pressures bearing down on her, decides that life at Arcadia Falls is just the thing that she and Sally need to start over. Meg also hopes to be able to gather information for her thesis on the school's co-founders and their mysterious shared history. But life on the campus gets off to an unnerving start after the body of one of the students is found at the bottom of a ravine the night after a school celebration. As Meg becomes embroiled in the secrets of the students and faculty of Arcadia Falls, she also discovers the hidden diary of one of the co-founders and comes away with more questions than answers. Meanwhile, the emotional distance between Meg and Sally grows, and Meg fears for her daughter in light of the new circumstances of the school. As layer after layer of the school's past and present intertwine, bizarre and frightening facts begin to come to light, bringing Meg to the forefront of a very dangerous situation. A deeply atmospheric work of Gothic fiction, Arcadia Falls keeps the reader guessing until the final page is turned.

As I mentioned briefly in my summary, this book had a great atmospheric feel and an ambiance that extrapolated an incredible amount of surging darkness and mystery from the narrative. In some ways, the story was reminiscent of Possession by A.S. Byatt, for both books dealt with academia and the exploration of the past in relation to the present. I thought that the book had a really nice Gothic feel to it and at times it was both evocative and provocative. The author surely didn't shy away from touchy subjects and tackled the topics of both homosexuality and alternative religion in the tale with a clear and no nonsense attitude which imbued the story with a very modern and candid feel. One of the interesting things about this story was the fact that it did feel so modern and fresh when there were obviously some components of a historical drama wrapped within the narrative. I felt that part of this feeling was derived from the ability of the author to move back and forth between the present and the past with little to no awkwardness and fumbling, which gave the two parts of the narrative a great feeling of cohesion.

There were really several layers of storytelling going on in this book. At first, the reader is only privy to what is going on in the present, but as the story moves forward, other aspects of the past begin to be introduced and the tale begins to alternate between these two halves. In addition, a third story is thrown into the mix for a brief time which gives the narrative a great relevance and heft and genuinely ties both of the other stories together wonderfully. The writing style that Goodman uses throughout the book is one that is curiously inviting and warm, which sharply juxtaposes the story she tells. The writing really pulls the reader in, and this, in conjunction with the depth and resonance of the story, gives the tale a tremendous feeling of life and impact. There are elements of a ghost story combined with a mystery, all working within the framework of an academic novel in this book, giving it a well-rounded and full feeling to the plot.

I also liked the characters in this novel. Most of them were really complicated people whose motivations were hidden throughout the majority of the story. It was interesting to see the ways in which the characters changed as more and more was revealed about them. There were a few times that I had a character pegged as one thing, only to discover that they were really very different once the veils hiding them had been stripped away. It felt like a very complex maneuver for the author to attempt, making all of her characters so malleable and ever-changing and I felt that Goodman did it with a great deal of success. The characters in this book were not overblown at all and felt very genuine. In this type of novel it's easy for the characters to become parodies of themselves and for them to have a feel of phoniness about them, which, I am happy to say, the author avoided.

The one niggle I had with the book was the feeling that the ending was too well-rounded. I felt that towards the end, the book got a little over ambitious and everything was tied up too nicely and a bit quickly. The reason this bothered me was because most of the book had managed to feel very sprawling and developed, whereas the end felt a bit formula and tame. The last section of the book felt a little tacked on and didn't have the same emotional feel or depth as compared to the rest. I didn't like the feeling that all the loose ends had been dealt with in such a brusque way and felt that the story could have left some things to the reader's imagination and still managed to sate the appetite.

This is the first book that I have read by Carol Goodman but I have read many favorable reviews of her work and think that based on what this book offered to me as a reader, that I will be searching for other books by this author. If you are the type of reader who enjoys a lot of meat in your fiction, both in its plot and its character development, then this would be the perfect book for you. I would also recommend this book to those who enjoy well-developed mysteries and those who enjoy books about academia. The tension and intricacy of the storylines will have you involved very quickly and keep you invested throughout. A very finely crafted tale; Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom - 384 pgs

Book CoverLavinia is only seven years old when she is orphaned while on a ship sailing from Ireland to America. Sold into indentured servitude to a family who owns a plantation, Lavinia arrives and is immediately whisked away to the kitchen house of the property, where she will be raised by the African-American house slaves. As Lavinia grows up surrounded by and secure with her new surrogate family, she becomes enmeshed in their everyday lives and the difficulties that they have with the cruel overseer of the property, learning also to work in the big house and provide for the Captain and his family. But Lavinia's future takes a dramatic turn when the Captain and his wife fall ill with the yellow fever and Lavinia is soon living a more upper crust existence in Williamsburg. Gaining an education and social graces in Williamsburg, she makes an unexpected and advantageous marriage and soon finds herself back at the plantation, albeit in a very different role than in years past. In her new life, Lavinia finds herself constantly at odds over what is expected of her and what is expected of the people that she once called family. Both haunting and provocative, The Kitchen House tells the heartbreaking story a girl's life lived on both sides of the divide between slavery and freedom.

I haven't read many books about slavery in America. I think it's probably because it's really hard to get over the feelings of shame that I have that a situation like this existed in my own country in times that are not that far removed.  It's painful for me to read and hear about slavery and its trappings and I often wonder when coming across books like this just what the ancestors of this great land were thinking in their practice of slavery. Though this book dealt with a very dark and malevolent period of American history, I found it fascinating, well written and sadly beautiful.

I think one of the main thrusts of this story was the differences between the indenture of white servants and the slavery of Black Americans. Though both were expected to do hard labor for their respective masters, there was a world of difference in the way they were treated and in the fact that the indentured whites were at some point able to return to freedom. This was never the case for the slaves. They were owned by their masters for their entire lives, sometimes traded and sold to pay debts, and only in special circumstances were they ever given the papers that would grant them freedom. These differences were ones that Lavinia struggled with almost on a daily basis, and although there was an undeniable love between her and her adopted family, these differences were hard for her to understand. Only Lavinia, out of all the servants, was able to pass time with the lady of the house and learn to read. Later in the book these differences became more pronounced and painful for Lavinia to bear.

The book puts forth a whole bevy of information about slavery. From the master's sexual cavorting with the women to the horrible starvation and beatings that the slaves endured at their master's hand, these sections were painful to read but also imbued the book with a piercing clarity and hubris. Grissom certainly doesn't shy away from uncovering all the gruesomeness that slavery entails and gives her characters room to muse on the unfairness and unhappiness of their lives, along with their simple joys. The chapters alternate between those in Lavinia's voice and those in the voice of Belle, a young African-American slave who is entrusted with Lavinia's care when she arrives at the plantation. Through the use of this shared narrative, the fullness of the story is magnified and both the story of the slaves and Lavinia's story are told with a great feeling of well rounded depth. There were times when the agony on the pages reached out and squeezed my heart and it was all I could do not to break down and weep with the unfairness and pain that the characters faced. The fear and sadness in the story were palpable but at times the narrative moved towards tenderness and beauty, particularly in the sections where Lavinia bonds and shares with her new family.

It's hard to put into words the beauty and power of this book. It's a tale that screams violence and unfairness, but also love, hope and redemption. It's full of bitterness and cruelty, but peeking between all of that there is love, respect and dignity. There were some truly horrible and evil characters within its pages, yet there were also characters who were gentle, loving and humble. The story was one of juxtapositions and contrasts, evil and generosity, hopelessness and hope. One thing I really admired about Grissom's writing was the understated elegance of her prose. It wasn't flashy or over-adorned but it carried a quiet beauty and power that I found irresistible. Once I picked this book up, I couldn't put it down, for the life of Lavinia and her family had me entranced.

Though this was a painful read at times, it was also delicate and touching. There was so much in the book to fall in love with and admire, and at its foundations, it's a story that needs to be told and heard. I could just go on and on about the haunting and lovely qualities of this book but instead I will just say that I truly loved it and that it's one that every reader should take a look at. Questions of conscience and responsibility are asked and answered, and the full impact of slavery and indentured servitude are laid out for all to see. The characters are easily some of the most unforgettable that I have come across and I quickly found myself caught up in their difficult plights. I was sad to see the book end but was very excited to hear that Grissom might be planning a sequel and I know I will definitely be reading it when it hits the shelf! A gorgeous and generous read, highly recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Sword of Medina by Sherry Jones - 432 pgs

Book CoverPicking up where her first book, The Jewel of Medina, left off, Sherry Jones invites us back into the life of A'isha bint Abi Bakar, the prophet Muhammad's favorite wife and child bride. Following Muhammad's death from the Medina fever, his followers are left bereft. When A'isha's father Abu Bakar steps into the role of Khalifa (spiritual leader of the Muslims), things are far from peaceful because various factions are not satisfied with this solution. Unhappiness and rumors rage throughout the camp, leaving A'isha caught in the middle. The unrest grows when tragedy befalls her father, for there are many wishing to replace him. One of the hopefuls is A'isha's hated nemesis, Ali, who was once a close companion to Muhammad. A'isha will do almost anything to keep the position out of Ali's hands, though she soon comes to find that the others jockeying for position are no more palatable. As various men try their hands at being Khalifa, rage erupts in the camp and it is up to A'isha and Ali to prevent their struggling religion from being destroyed by war, greed, and nepotism. Both intricate and timely, The Sword of Medina painstakingly exposes this most pressing and engulfing time in history.

Just over a year ago, I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing Sherry Jones provocative and thoughtful historical novel, The Jewel of Medina. Though I mostly enjoyed the book, I harbored questions as to the legitimacy of the prophet Muhammad's intense love of women. Sherry, eager to share her collected information regarding this subject, wrote me a beautiful post addressing my question and helped me to more fully understand Muhammad's interest in the fairer sex. I was both surprised and honored to hear from her again a few months ago when she asked me if I would like the opportunity to read and review her next work in the series, The Sword of Medina. I accepted eagerly because I was very interested in finding out what had transpired with A'isha after Muhammad's unexpected death, and I was pleased to become enmeshed in the continuing saga of A'isha Bint Bakar.

First of all, I felt that Sherry did a magnificent job of highlighting the political and religious turmoil that raged throughout Muhammad's encampment after his death. There were a lot of very unhappy people plotting and scheming during that time, and the author did a great job of canvasing the many groups who had their own ideas about the future of Islam. The tension that she created throughout these sections was palpable and it was clear to me why A'isha was so troubled by the direction that Muhammad's legacy had taken. A lot of A'isha's time and energy went towards smoothing the ruffled feathers of the people and trying to stay one step ahead of the roiling mass of unhappiness that was spreading over the camp. I felt that A'isha was torn between the desire to keep her people happy and her overwhelming urge to prevent Muhammad's wishes for his people to be tainted.

I also thought that the relationship between A'isha and Ali was written with precision and believability. Ali harbored much anger and resentment towards A'isha, just as she did for him, but there were moments when the ideals and beliefs of the two were very similar, which highlighted the contradiction between their feelings and their beliefs. Towards the conclusion of the book, A'isha's eyes are opened in regards to Ali and she is able to see that his wishes are not so alien from her own, a fact that does much to quell her fear for the uncertain path of Islam. I liked the scenes between these two characters because I felt that both characters were able to admire each other privately while still being headstrong and clashing every time they interacted, which gave a profound depth to their relationship.

In the first book, much of the action centered around Muhammad's wives and their struggles amongst themselves for peace. This book was much more focused on the path that Islam took after the death of its founder. There was much political intrigue in this second book, which I appreciated because it gave me a frame of reference and an insider's peek into the problems that plagued a religion without a strong leader. There were some very developed battle scenes in the book as well, which served to highlight the Muslim's quest for acceptance and honor among tribes of non-believers. The crux of the battle towards the conclusion of the book sharply delineated the power struggle between A'isha and Ali, and was, I felt, a very moving conflict between the two.

The only small quibble I had with the book was the abundance of characters that jostled for space among the story. There was a very large cast of characters, which I felt was a little overwhelming at times, but I really don't see how any of the players could have been excised from the story without creating a gaping hole in the narrative. At times it was a little confusing to keep all the players straight, but as I became more in tune with the story, it got a bit easier for me to sort things out.

This was a very satisfying conclusion to the story that I had read a year ago and I think Sherry created a very precise and detailed story that many readers have had little exposure to. If you enjoyed The Jewel of Medina I think that that this book would make a great read for you, though I might not advise picking up this tale without having read the first. I enjoyed this second book greatly and think that for those curious about the rise and spread of Islam, these books would make enlightening reading.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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