Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This is historical fiction. 532 pages of it. It follows the life of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to first, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and then Henry VIII of England, as the king struggles to annul his marriage to Katherine of Spain and marry instead Anne Boleyn. It is a very sympathetic treatment of Thomas Cromwell (and consequently an unsympathetic portrayal of Thomas More, whom many consider a martyr).

General rating: 3 out of 4, with a warning for some bad language

1. Is it plausible? Yes. I found it interesting, though, that Thomas Cromwell never seemed to put a foot wrong. I was also impressed with Hilary Mantel's writing: she made an essentially cold man seem very lovable to the reader. He felt like a good man to me. Was he? I wonder.

2. Is it thought provoking? Oh yes. Particularly since I just read another book ("The Instance of the Fingerpost") that was set in England 100 years later than "Wolf Hall", after the dissolution of Oliver Cromwell's (were Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell related, I wonder?) Protectorate and during the restoration to the throne of Charles I (I think it was Charles I). So in "Wolf Hall", set in and around 1533, I read about the beginning of the transition from Catholicism in England to Anglicanism. In "Fingerpost"--100 years later--England was so firmly Anglican that Papists (Catholics) were looked upon with disdain and even persecuted and killed. Interesting how things change. AND in that mystery I read awhile ago, "Her Highness's First Murder", Henry VIII and Anne's daughter, Elizabeth, is our main character. In "Wolf Hall" Elizabeth is a newborn, and the declared heir to the throne. In "Her Highness's First Murder", Henry VIII has beheaded Anne Boleyn, declared Elizabeth illegitimate (as he did to his first daughter with Queen Katherine of Spain, the very Catholic Mary) and she, Elizabeth is our main character. Confused yet? Well, it's been very interesting to have all these fictional viewpoints of events that happened so many years ago.

3.Is it engaging? Yes, very much so.

4. Is it uplifting? Well, it's not depressing, but it's not uplifting either.

Language: There's some crude language in here. Several characters that make a brief appearance use some very foul words. They are not a regular occurrence, though.
Sex: Well, there are multiple references to it (can't write a book about Henry VIII without references to sex), but there are no descriptive scenes.

My recommendation: I really liked this book. I can see that some might find Hilary Mantel's writing style irritating--it's not always clear who is speaking or who is acting in her writing. But I liked her rather abbreviated style. I found her narrative point of view interesting also. Sometimes it seemed like first person, sometimes 3rd person omnicient, sometimes limited omnicient.... maybe it actually was a consistent narrative style, but it didn't feel like it (and I'm too lazy to look back and actually check!). And I really liked her characters. I could see they were sinners, I could see they were hypocrites too, but I liked them! Interesting. It made history come alive to me. If you like historical fiction (and if you can overlook a few scattered "f-words"), you'll like this one!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

She Walks In Beauty by Siri Mitchell

This book is about Clara Carter and her debut in New York Society in the 19th century--a time when corruption at Tammany Hall was at its apex and when a well-to-do woman's best hope of a secure future was marriage to a man of means, no love required.

General rating: 3.75 out of 4; lightweight, entertaining with a good message

1. Was it plausible? Yes, I suppose so.

2. Was it thought provoking? Yes, in a mild way. Some themes the author touched: love, corruption, gossip, fame, God, family... and in particular, being loved and accepted for who you really are.

3. Was it engaging? Yes, it was.

4. Was it uplifting? Yes, it was.

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: This book felt like it was aimed at young adults. The writing was a little stilted and the whole story, while entertaining and good, felt a little juvenile to me. The serious issues are glossed over, the difficulties are miraculously solved, the bad things looked at through a veil. I actually like books like that mostly, but I like it better when I don't notice that that's what's going on. (Contradictory of me, I know). But I think the sign of a good writer is when the reader gets lost in the story without noticing writing style or writing devices. If the aim of a book is to tell a story--and in fiction I believe it is--then the "perfect" story experience is what I want to have, without distractions (and a beautifully wordy author is just as likely to create these distractions with flowery prose as is an author with a more stilted voice). Siri Mitchell's style is just a little distracting because of it's obvious soft-pedaling. Mitchell is labeled as a Christian writer too, but she does not have the heavy hand that many Christian writers do. I appreciated that. Overall I really enjoyed the book and I like that I could confidently recommend it to anyone--there is nothing offensive here and there is a very sweet message in the book as well. AND I always like to support a good Christian writer. Thank you, Siri Mitchell!

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

This is a historical mystery told from 4 points of view. In 1663 England, an Oxford don is murdered. Who did it? The solution is obscured by politics and religion and the perspectives of our 4 narrators.

General rating: 3 out of 4--a neat book with great characters and a fascinating narrative style.

1. Is it plausible? Yes. Well, mostly. Except the speculation that the Savior is reborn and re-martyred in every generation. That idea was a little too edgy for me. Urgh.

2. Is it thought provoking? Not in a philosophical way, but it is full of interesting historical information. Also the characters themselves are interesting and the way their different stories dovetail is fascinating.

3. Is it engaging? Very. I am the kind of reader who has trouble engaging if I dislike the main characters, and two of the narrators are pretty unlikeable. But! By the time I was reading their stories I was hooked on the mystery. I LOVED how each person's narrative told a completely different version of the same series of events.

4. Is it uplifting? No. It's just not. Life in England in the 1660s was hard. And the Anglican church was so powerful, so stifling. Not that the Catholic church was much better at that time. Anyway, it's an interesting book, but not an uplifting one. Not depressing either, though!

Language: none
Sex: Varied references to sexual encounters (including rape), but no sex scenes. This is the 17th century, after all, when all that was hidden, and rumors of immorality could absolutely ruin a woman's reputation (and a man's if he were hoping for promotion within the church).

My recommendation: A very interesting read. I really liked the ending. It was very unexpected (and parts of it a little unbelievable). It's a long book--692 pages--but extraordinary! I don't think I've ever read a book quite like this. I recommend it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson

This book is a love story between a retired Major (a widower) and a Pakistani shopkeeper (a widow). It takes place in a small town in England.

General rating: 3.5 out of 4 if you can overlook a few objectionable words and a premarital sexual relationship (with no bedroom scenes included).

1. Is it plausible? Yes, except for a bit of Mrs. Ali's behavior towards the end of the book.

2. Is it thought provoking? It is, actually. The major's valuing his Churchill guns over family and friends gives one pause. Then there's also the ideas of selfishness, death, racism, grieving, family, loyalty, hypocrisy, the Pakistani culture (and plenty of other themes too) to mull over.

3. Is it engaging? Yes.

4. Is it uplifting? Well, it ends happily and our main characters make some emotional discoveries about themselves and the others that they care about. BUT! I was very disappointed that the Major and his love consummated their relationship outside of marriage. That really compromised this whole book for me.

Language: all acceptable until 3 obscenities in the last 15 pages of the book.
Sex: no descriptions, but one of the relationships that works itself out in this book is one that has produced an illegitimate child--the double standard by many Eastern Indian cultures about sex before marriage--okay for men, unacceptable for women--is part of the story. AND our two main characters make love before they are married. This bothered me because both characters were so very moral in so many other areas of their life and I was so disappointed that they took the all too common exception to sex. AND I had trouble believing that a 58-year-old Pakistani widow would invite her "boyfriend"--whom she's never even KISSED--to make love to her. It just seemed out of character and I was so bothered by it. No details, no descriptions, no titillation... just the disappointing invitation and the jubilant morning after. Sigh. Are there any modern clean books in the world anywhere (besides the "Christian" ones)??????????

My recommendation: I really liked this book. I was so disappointed by the premarital sex thing, though, that I have trouble remembering how much I was liking it up to then! There was a lot to think about in the book. I liked the Major a lot and enjoyed watching his struggles and triumphs. I didn't ever feel I got to know Mrs. Ali very well--her character was not as completely developed as his. I thought quite a bit about the ever-present disconnect between the generations when parents leave their children to the mercy of the "philosophies of the world". The Major and his son exemplified this kind of relationship. The Major and his wife had tried to pass on their ideals to Roger without giving him any framework ("framework"=religion and its principles) with which to build upon. Therefore they raised a highly motivated, hard-working, completely selfish and amoral boy. Like so many other good people do. On the other hand, the Pakistani family exemplified good religion gone bad, with unbalanced and irrational actions taken all in the name of religion. Sigh. Interesting contrast. Hm. I'm getting sidetracked. This book was a good one. Can I recommend it? Kind of.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Mud City by Deborah Ellis

This review is by Isaiah, age 12.

This book is the third in the "Breadwinner" series. It tells the story of Shauzia, Parvana's best friend, as she tries to get to France.

General rating: 3 out of 4--not uplifting, but good to read anyway

1. Is it plausible? Yes. It is very plausible. It happened 10 or 15 years ago when the Taliban had control of Afghanistan.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes, it was very thought provoking. Several times I thought if it would be possible to go that far or to do that many things or to act like that. She did some very brave things.

3. Is it engaging? It is very engaging--you want to know what happens next. There are a lot of cliffhangers and dead ends.

4. Is it uplifting? No. It's not uplifting because she never gets to France in the end, she gets hurt, and more than half the time she's starving. But all of the rest of the book is a very good book and tells an interesting story.

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: It was a good book. I would have liked to have read more about Parvana, because "Parvana's Journey" (the previous book) ended in kind of a cliffhanger. "Mud City" was the book I liked best in the series, though, because it was an interesting story to tell and it told me more about Afghanistan and Pakistan than the previous two did. I recommend this book for ages 10 and up. It can be read apart from the series because it tells a totally different story. I recommend that you read it.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

This is an imaginative version of the story of Alexis de Toqueville. While some of the basic outlines of the life of Carey's Olivier de Barfleur do mirror those of the life of Alexis de Toqueville, the main of the book is an entertaining invention. Our aristocratic Olivier find himself bundled off to America, saddled with a clever man-of-the-earth, Parrot, as his servant. The clash and eventual co-operation of their personalities, the portrayal of American democracy, the beautiful lyricism of Carey's writing--these are the things that make up this book.

General rating: 3 out of 4. I liked it, but can't unreservedly recommend it.

1. Is it plausible. Yes.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes, it really is.

3. Is it engaging? Yes, particularly the back half. I found it a little difficult to get caught up in the book at first because I didn't like ANY of the characters during almost the entire first half of the book. Peter Carey's writing style is lovely and that helped a lot.

4. Is it uplifting? No. Not at all.

Language: there are a few very offensive words and quite a few less offensive obscenities as well
Sex: well... my evaluation of sexual content is based on one main thing: titillation. If there is sexual content that is generally offensive (e.g. violent, base or ugly), then that's obviously unpalatable. But from time to time there will be a book that has its share of sexual relationships that can be best described as "earthy" but don't seem to be designed to titillate. The vast majority of sexual content in novels seems to me to be added just to arouse and entertain. The sexual content in this novel was at times a bit intrusive to the story, I thought, but didn't stand out to me as added just to be provocative. Mostly. That said, this book does have plenty of sexual content. Both men are in love at one point or another and even when their sexual feelings about their loves aren't described, there are referrals to sex in general. Sex being, apparently, on every man's mind frequently. So I'm told.

My recommendation: I would hesitate to recommend this to my friends because of its earthy content. I have no desire to add it my collection. I had trouble getting into it. I will most likely not read any other books by Peter Carey. Although his writing is very evocative, very transporting, I don't care for his earthy style nor his veiled cynicism. On the other hand, I'm glad I read this book. It made me think about America and what makes it unique and what makes it a wonderful place to live and what its struggles may have always been. It also awoke in me an interest to read Toqueville's "Democracy in America", which I've heard so much quoted from over the years. I did find myself invested in Olivier and Parrot by the end. I loved how Carey illustrated so many ideas just through the feelings and experiences of his main characters. It was an interesting book.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

This is a graphic novel (an extended comic book, really). It was written during the cold war and has a dark, apocalyptic theme. It's not about superheroes, exactly, but about well-trained men and women who dress up and do heroic things. They call them vigilantes.

General rating: 3 out of 4, but very low grades on bad language and sexual content. This is a dark book. I cannot recommend it.

1. Is it plausible? It's fantasy. There were no jarring details. It was plausible.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes, it is. Written during the cold war, there is plenty of philosophizing on war, the decline of society, power, and other such subjects.

3. Is it engaging? Yes, very.

4. Is it uplifting? Absolutely not. It's bloody and dark and a little frightening.

Language: sprinkled with obscenities and profanities
Sex: Yes, of the cartoon variety, which makes it less graphic (contradictorily), but there's quite a bit of it. There's also a character who rarely wears clothes--he's nearly always naked.

My recommendation: Time Magazine chose this as one of its 100 Best English-Language Novels since 1923. Hm. I've long observed that as far as the "critics" go, darker and painful is better. I've never agreed. To me, if a book fails to uplift, it cannot be absolutely qualified as a "good" book. I understand that dark, painful books can be powerful in their messages. They just don't bring light to my soul. And light is what I want in there. This book will not bring light into your soul. It's interesting--I do really like the idea of graphic novels and I've read several that I really liked. If you like DC comics, you'll like this book. It's very dated, the attitudes and portrayal of the cold war (and a possible starting of WWIII) is very 80s. The most moral character is terribly disturbed. The most powerful character is terribly disengaged from humanity. There's a lot of blood and gore. It asks some good questions. (Does the end justify the means?) There is no real resolution in the end. I cannot recommend it as a good book, but I can see why so many consider it to be exceptional.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

This book is subtitled "a Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century", and that's at the very least what it is. Can you call a 292 page book a handbook? There is A LOT of detail about the 1300s. Ian Mortimer covers such topics as: landscape, people, what to wear, where to stay, what to eat and drink, hygiene and what to do.

General rating: 3 of 4. Slow in parts, but brilliantly full of information.

1. Is it plausible? Absolutely. The most outstanding thing about this book is how well researched it is. I particularly like the illustrative quotations from books written during the 14th century. Of course, all history is part fiction (because no one knows what really happened in the past, right?), but Ian Mortimer's "best guesses" don't detract at all from this book's general plausibility.

2. Is it thought provoking? Yes. Of course, much of what I thought about was along these lines: "I am SO glad I am alive now, rather than 700 years ago!". But Mortimer shares his philosophy of history along with the many historical details he has researched. He also shares quotes from 14th century literature that are beautiful and thought provoking.

3. Is it engaging? Ah, here we have a bit of a problem. About half of this book is pretty interesting, but the other half just d-r-a-g-s! It took me over a month to finish because I kept putting it down and picking it up. I decided to just quit reading it and then I decided to keep on reading it. Finally I got to some chapters that I thought were really interesting and they carried me through the book, with a little stuttering through the chapter on "The Law", which was long and detailed. Actually, this whole book is extremely detailed, and not all details will interest every reader. I LOVED the section on 14th century literature especially (in the "what to do" chapter). I guess the best way to read the book is to read the sections that you find interesting and skip the ones you don't.

4. Is it uplifting? I found it moderately uplifting. For one thing, finishing with the "what to do" section leaves the reader with the happiest impressions of the 1300s. Chaucer, Langland, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"--I love that stuff. I also have to mention my happiness just at being alive in the 21st century. That's an uplifting thought right? There are some bad things about life in the USA in 2010, but it sure beats living in England in 1330!!

Language: none
Sex: none

My recommendation: A very very interesting read. Feel free to skip parts you find uninteresting, but do hang on--there's a lot of good stuff here. And Ian Mortimer really knows Medieval England. He also shares his philosophy of history which is worth thinking about. A good book--well worth having on your shelves!