Euphoria

EbyLK

After a few lackluster reads and putting down two books in a row, I really needed something good. I settled on Euphoria despite it not being something I would usually be interested in. Nell Stone and her husband Fen are anthropologists studying tribes in New Guinea. After they come back to civilization battered and failing to connect with their last tribe, they meet Andrew Bankson, a fellow anthropologist who instantly connects with them. This strong link between Nell, Fen, and Bankson both helps and hurts everyone involved.

It took me some time to get into this novel. That may be because I had such trouble with the things I had been reading lately. However, once I did get into the book, I had a hard time putting it down. The tribal New Guinea setting for a historical romance was an interesting choice, but I think it worked. There was a good mix of anthropological events and romance. I would not say I was blown away by the romantic connection between characters, but it was believable. If it were any more “sappy” I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much! I think I could have been a little more invested in the outcome of the love triangle if the characters were just a touch more fleshed out. Still, they were pretty realistic with many believable reactions and expansive lives that went beyond the plot of the novel.

This isn’t just a romance either. The parts centering on anthropology and society were interesting. The novel brought up some intricacies of human nature and relationships that I haven’t seen explored before, but I do not think it gets overly philosophical. The novel left me questioning if any of it was based on a true story. Were the tribes mentioned real? If not, Lily King did a great job of coming up with cultural elements for each tribe. I definitely plan on doing a little research on the inspiration behind Euphoria and I’d be interested to find other novels in a similar vein… just maybe not another romance. Four out of five stars!

The Namesake

TNbyJL

Newly married Ashima and Ashoke Ganguli leave India to become Americans. Less than two years later, the birth of their first child brings even more changes to their lives. The Namesake follows Ashoke, his wife Ashima, their son Gongol/Nikhil, and their daughter Sonali as they figure out how to fit into American life without leaving their heritage behind.

This is a very good immigrant story, but it left me wanting a bit more. This is really my own problem, but I’ve read a decent amount of immigrant stories from people around the world. I am dating an immigrant in the process of naturalization. I would say that I already have some idea of what challenges they face, but I am still not an immigrant myself. I felt like The Namesake only scratched a little below the surface of the immigrant experience. Though I did learn about a few cultural differences I feel like the Gangulis adjusted to America fairly well. They found many other Bengali people to befriend during the 60’s and 70’s, which surprised me. Speaking of the time period, it would have been interesting to know more about the immigrant experience specific to the time. I didn’t feel like the story took place in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, etc, except for a few passing references to American fashion or technology.

What really kept me from connecting to The Namesake was how it was written. The writing itself is good. The problem is the perspective. For example: although I liked the characters, I always felt distanced from them. The author tells us many things. She tells us about the history of a character. She gives us a detailed description of certain events, but I never felt like I was “there.” I’m not sure if it qualifies for the “show, not tell” mistake some writers make, but it did hurt my connection to the characters.

Despite my gripes, I enjoyed the novel. It is full of emotion and it highlights the struggles many immigrants face when they are far from home, must adjust to a new culture, and raise children who do not quite fit in. Especially if you don’t have much experience with this kind of story, you’ll find a lot to love in The Namesake.

Brothers

BbyYH

China’s history is sad. I am sure the same could be said of many other regions’ histories, but still… Brothers is an epic tale of (you guessed it) two brothers. Baldy Li and Song Gang are half-brothers that are united through hardship. Baldy Li (his nickname because he always has his head shaved) is the mischievous one who uses his smarts for both good and evil. Song Gang is the soft spoken and honest brother who is loyal to a fault. Brothers follows them through their childhood during the Cultural Revolution up until nearly present-day. China changes so much during these decades, but can the bond of brotherhood withstand it?

Despite how sad the novel can be I was surprised at the amount of humor in it as well. Yu Hua has a way of keeping a good balance of humor and sorrow. Without the humor the book might have been an emotional chore to read through. Humor is sometimes difficult to convey through text and I am sure it is even more difficult to convey it through a translated work, but for the most part it works. The terrible things that happen to the brothers and their family isn’t for the weak-hearted, but there are also some rather vulgar (at least by American standards) scenes not pertaining to the Cultural Revolution. The first fifty pages focuses a lot on peeping at women’s butts in a public latrine for example. The latter half of the novel has an obsession with hymens and virginity. It can be jarring and a bit sexist to western readers, but it shows a raw side of humanity.

I would not say I enjoyed reading this novel, but I appreciated it and learned a lot. I was lucky enough to read an English translation alongside my boyfriend who read the Chinese version. He was able to point out things that I either did not understand or that was lost in translation. As a westerner I found quite a few scenes disturbing or overly dramatic, but, at least according to my boyfriend, there is quite a bit of truth in Brothers which is both sad and a bit unsettling.

Perfume River

PRbyROB

Robert Olen Butler is an author that I have never read from before despite him having sixteen novels under his belt. Perfume River is a book about the past. Robert and Darla are a comfortable married couple. They met when Robert returned from the Vietnam War, but today their marriage has lost much of the passion that it was built upon. They have both mellowed with age, but the secrets Robert has carried with him since the war have really taken their toll on him and his relationships.

The Vietnam War missed my family completely. My family members were either too old or too young to take part in much of the controversy and, being from the middle of nowhere, big things like this often pass us by without much fanfare. I mention this because I believe the book would have meant more to me if I had a stronger connection with the Vietnam War. However, I did find the book to be engaging and thought provoking nonetheless.

I will say this: Butler knows how to write characters. I was impressed by the interactions between his characters. The dialogue is quick and sharp. The smallest actions the characters make are written down and carry a lot of extra meaning. Darla and Robert frustrated me because I could read their actions “correctly,” but they seemed to miss important things in their interactions with one another. They miscommunicated like real people and made a good case for why communication in a relationship is of the utmost importance. That being said, I always felt like an outsider. Even though I spent a lot of time in their heads I didn’t feel like I knew them completely. There was a distance that made me feel like I knew them as acquaintances, but nothing beyond that. Perhaps this distance was intentional as many characters– despite being close family– often kept one another at bay.

This is a novel where not a whole lot happens. The action happened years ago for Butler’s characters, but they are still dealing with the consequences today. Although I found many parts of the novel and its writing to be impressive, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted. I am sure other people would enjoy it much more than I did, but it wasn’t quite for me.

The Wonder

twbyedA little girl in a small, 19th century Irish village has become a sensation. People travel for miles around to see the Wonder- a girl who does not need to eat to live. To verify the accuracy of this spectacle a council has hired a nun and a nurse named Lib to watch the girl, day and night, for an entire week. Lib imagines this will be an easy job. She’ll find the girl out as a fraud in a few days at most. But what Lib actually finds is a bit more sinister.

I’m still debating on whether or not this was a five star read for me. It is best described as part historical fiction and part mystery. It is also very, very slow. I enjoyed the pace as it builds some suspense but it also allows for a lot of time to build up the characters. We’re inside Lib’s head as she tries to get to the bottom of things, but we also get to know Anna- the Wonder, her family, the townspeople, and the deliciously Gothic atmosphere. I found myself as skeptical as Lib about the whole ordeal, but later I flip-flopped between believing in Anna and calling her a fraud. The novel kept me on my toes even though it outlined every day of the watch. Somehow this was a page-turner for me, but it may not be for everyone.

This House is Mine

thimbydhI received this as an Advance Reader Copy (releasing November 15th 2016 in the U.S.) from a Goodreads giveaway so take all my opinions and observations with a larger grain of salt than usual.

 What does family mean to you? Does it mean related by blood? Related at all? Does family mean more than just people- what about homes, animals, friends, or places? How can one word mean so much? This novel tells the stories of Vera and Anne. Vera has always been a refugee. She feels out of place, but clings to the home and family she comes to know. Anne finds herself adrift with her son with nowhere else to go. Together these women discover what it truly means to be a family.

This is a great novel. It is subtle, emotional, and beautiful. It is a family saga/drama with some big nods to historical events. The characters are all lively and well written. Weeks after reading this I can still recall their names and personalities. I laughed at their wit and I cheered them on in their endeavors. Even though the plot bounces between past and present it is not confusing. Every chapter reveals a little more about the characters and keeps the pages turning despite this being a rather slow paced read. Though this novel may not be getting a lot of media buzz I feel it is worthy of more attention.

A God in Ruins

agirbykaThis is a companion novel to Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. While Life After Life is about the character Ursula, who dies and relives her life differently each time, this is the story of Ursula’s brother, Teddy. During Life After Life we see parts of Teddy’s story, but this novel gives a full view of Teddy’s regrets and triumphs. Atkinson once again plays with time as A God in Ruins jumps back and forth during Teddy’s lifetime and memories. I don’t feel like you need to read Life After Life to appreciate this novel, but having read it does give you a broader sense of what is going on.

OK, now that we have all that out of the way, onto the review. I’ll start by saying that I liked Life After Life more. It had a more interesting premise. I was excited to find out how each or Ursula’s lives would turn out and eventually end. The book made me think and would be great for discussions. A God in Ruins was actually a bit of a struggle for me to finish. The magical realism wasn’t really there in this companion novel. It was just Teddy living his life. It was slow, quiet, and just like the previous book, very character driven. The problem for me was that I was not invested in the characters featured in A God in Ruins.

In Life After Life we are told how much everyone loves Teddy (teeny tiny spoilers here). He’s his mother’s favorite child, the neighbors like him, and his aunt even wants to adopt him. I never saw what was so great about Teddy. He was just a good kid and a nice person. The other main characters in A God in Ruins are Nancy (his wife), Teddy’s daughter, Viola, and Viola’s two children. Viola’s children are not given much page-time (especially Viola’s daughter) to feel invested in. Speaking of Viola, she’s awful. She felt like a realistic character for the most part (still don’t understand why she turned out as such a bitch), but I hated her.

Personally, I would have much rather had a book that focused on Sylvie (Ursula/Ted’s mother), Izzie (their eccentric aunt), or even Nancy. Their stories are spread throughout the two novels, but there are many mysteries and stories I’d like to hear from them. So in summary, this novel is very slow, focuses a lot on Teddy’s part in WWII, is a bit depressing, boring, and I disliked the ending. Still, it is written so well. I love Atkinson’s writing and her characters are very well fleshed out. I would still recommend this, but I just don’t think it was quite the right fit for me.

Life After Life

LALbyKA

So, I’m a few years late to the party on this one. If you don’t already know, this book is about a girl named Ursula who can do something very strange. Every time she dies she is reborn with a niggling sense of déjà vu at certain points in her life. These moments have usually resulted in something negative in her previous life and thus Ursula makes different choices during each of her lives to change the future for the better (hopefully).

I’ll start by saying that I like this book. But, as you might guess, I also have some issues with it. I can see why many people find it repetitive because… well… it is. We see the same scenes (like Ursula’s birth) play out nearly word for word at times. Other times scenes are slightly different with a different choice being made or seeing the scene from another character’s point of view. But how else can you write a book about multiple lives without having some scenes replay? I am OK with this for the most part, but it is something readers should be aware of going in because at times it does feel like Ursula takes two steps forward and one step back.

Now onto my big complaints! For starters, the multiple lives idea is really interesting. It is what made me pick this book. However, the multiple lives and scenarios begin to pile up as the book goes on. This can be confusing. Remembering the current timeline’s events can get muddled up in past lives. I read this novel pretty fast so that could be part of it? Still, something for first time readers to be aware of.

I really like many of the characters in the novel. Some are more interesting and fleshed out than others, but I would say that overall they are done well. My problem is with Ursula. In her first few lives she is naive and almost a bit simple. As she dies and comes back she gains more confidence and is better at certain skills. It bothers me that she only grows as a character because she can die and be reborn. I know that rebirth and new choices are kind of the point of the novel, but something about that irked me. Why can’t she grow a little like everyone else who (presumably) can’t die and come back again?

This was an interesting read for sure and I would recommend it if my issues didn’t put you off. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending though. It felt a little hurried after such a long build up, but maybe I’m just being picky.

The Bonesetter’s Daughter

TBDbyAT

Back in high school I read an excerpt from one of Amy Tan’s books in my English textbook. I can’t recall what the excerpt was from, but I enjoyed it a lot and from then on when I heard Tan’s name I thought fondly of her writing. Years later I finally picked up one of her novels and I’m happy to say that I enjoyed it.

Ruth is of Chinese decent, but she is very Americanized. Her relationship with her very Chinese mother,LuLing, has always been tenuous. When LuLing shows signs of dementia Ruth finds herself having to come to terms with many things in her life like her feelings for her mother and boyfriend, her job, and especially her ancestry. Is LuLing mis-remembering her own past or has she been hiding secrets from everyone all this time?

This is a very beautiful and heartfelt story about mothers and daughters, but it is very characters driven. Ruth is obviously an important character, but the majority of the book (maybe just slightly over half?) is LuLing recounting her life from childhood. LuLing’s story evokes an array of emotions and gives readers a heavy dose of Chinese culture, but I can see how it might bore some readers. For what it’s worth, I gave the book three out of five stars on Goodreads because it was a little too slow in some parts, but your mileage may vary.

I like Ruth because I can sympathize with her a lot and by the end of the novel she grows. LuLing is a great character and the star of the show. I love seeing her change throughout the story of her past and then see her in the novel’s current timeline. The characters in China feel exotic to me as an American, but it is still easy to relate to them. Tan is able to give readers a wonderful window into the culture without alienating those unfamiliar with it. LuLing’s beliefs and superstitions are different from what I am used to and yet I can see so many similarities between her and elders in my own family.

I’ve heard others say that this isn’t Tan’s best work, but I cannot give an opinion on that claim. I enjoyed the novel and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Wayfaring Stranger

WSbyJLB

This novel was not quite what I expected, but that is definitely not a bad thing. Weldon Holland met Bonnie and Clyde when he was sixteen and grew up hearing stories of frontier justice from his lawman grandfather. Years pass by and Weldon serves in World War II. Afterwards he returns to America for what he believes will be a time of peace and prosperity for his up and coming oil business.What he doesn’t know is that the oil business is as cutthroat as the old west and as dangerous as the battlefields he survived in the war.

I would classify this novel as a historical fiction mystery, but it doesn’t fit nicely into any box. Beyond the historical setting and the mysteries, the novel comments on humanity, greed, perspective, love, guilt, and so much more. It is so gritty, but also has a lot of heart. Burke deserves the praise I have heard about him. His writing is very very good and his characters come alive. Weldon feels like a western hero in a more modern setting. He truly feels like a product of his past and upbringing. The other characters are fun to root for or to hate. They are complex, layered, and I want to know more about all of them.

I only have a couple of issues. One is the pacing at the beginning. It is quite a jump from Weldon’s young adulthood to the trenches in WWII then suddenly to peacetime and talk of oil fields. (Also, some of the details about oil drilling were lengthy and bored me, but that is hardly a valid complaint.) I enjoyed knowing about Weldon’s past, but the significance of including the scenes with Bonnie and Clyde did not fully hit me until about the halfway point of the novel. I knew very little about the plot going in so the drastically different jumps from setting to setting had me questioning why they were included the way they were. If you hold on most things will click into place, but I’m still not sure I was able to appreciate every subtle stitch of the carefully sewn together plot. My second issue I can’t really expand upon, but the ending is a little over the top and perhaps unrealistic. For me, it didn’t quite fit, but it did not ruin the novel.

I love historical fiction, but big oil businesses and the world wars aren’t topics that usually catch my interest. Through his well put together plot, insightful writing, and wonderfully crafted characters, Burke made me a fan of not only this particular novel, but of him as well.