Saturday, March 29, 2008

too much

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Summary/Review: Jodi Picoult has once again tackled a moral dilemma. Up for debate this time is whether the mother of a girl in need of a heart transplant should accept the heart of the man who will be executed for the murder of her husband and older daughter. And if Picoult had stuck to one dilemma, this might have been a better book. Instead, the book is complicated by Green Mile-like questions of whether the condemned man had the power to perform miracles and a Dead Man Walking-like last-hour relationship between the death row inmate and a priest.

In typical Picoult fashion, there is no clear right and wrong in this story. Shay Bourne, the convicted man, does not really contest his conviction, or his sentence. He simply insists that he must be allowed to donate his heart afterward, despite the fact that being executed by lethal injection would make this impossible. Enter an ACLU lawyer, with issues of her own, who's determined to get Bourne executed in a way that would allow for his heart to be taken, and, by so doing, turn a spotlight on the inhumanity of the death penalty.

Her argument is that Bourne's religion requires that he be allowed to donate his heart in order for him to find salvation. Here is where the issue of his "miracles" come in. When he supposedly makes wine flow from the taps in the prison, divides a single piece of gum among 7 men, and heals the prisoner in the next cell who is dying of AIDS, word leaks out and people flock to the prison gates, proclaiming the Second Coming. Naturally, there are an equal number on the other side who think he's a fraud or even the devil. Whatever the truth of the matter is, and we're left wondering, Maggie Bloom, the ACLU lawyer, uses these "miracles" and some of Bourne's own words to try to convince the court that he belongs to a religion, even if he's the only member of it, that requires organ donation as necessary to salvation. And here I have to give Picoult credit: what other popular author manages to work the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) into a novel?!

Although well written as all of Picoult's books are, the multiple threads and questions keep this one from being as good as it ought to have been. Hopefully, in her next book she will go back to presenting us with a with just one moral dilemma, as she has done so well so many times before.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Overused Words

Another fun one from Paper Cuts, this time about the Seven Deadly Words of Book Reviewing, although, for the record, eschew is one of my favorite words.

Monday, March 24, 2008

needs explication

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Challenge: TBR, A-Z (author)
Review: This book (at least in translation) is in desperate need of an introduction. The chronology at the back is not sufficient to give some unfamiliar with the history of manuscript illumination in Istanbul any idea what's going on. An explanation of the controversy surrounding art and illumination and the tensions between Eastern and Western art would have been very helpful. As it was, the bulk of the book was completely lost on me! Which means that, overall, I can't really comment on the quality of the writing or the story, except to say that I found it very difficult to read and not at all enjoyable.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

a little trite, but cute

The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Heather Vogel Frederick
Genre: young adult fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Challenge: A-Z (title)
Review: A fondness for Little Women is a definite requirement for enjoying this book. It takes place in Concord, Massachusetts and is replete with colonial and Transcendental history, as well as the more personal history of Louisa May Alcott and her family.

These historical factoids are sprinkled throughout the story of 4 sixth-graders whose mothers decide to form a mother-daughter book group. They read Little Women over the course of the school year, and as they progress through the book they draw parallels to their own lives. Unfortunately, these parallels sometimes feel forced, as though the author had said "Oh, this is a lovely quote, now let's write a scene to demonstrate it."

The four girls themselves are well-drawn characters. Unfortunately, other characters come across as flat, if not as caricatures of a type.

For all that, the device of rotating the perspective among the four girls works well to keep the story moving along, and one might get some nostalgic enjoyment from it, especially if you remember reading Little Women with your own mother...

Monday, March 17, 2008

An historical lesson that goes down smoothly

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: While reading this book, one is forced to wonder how much it is meant to be a commentary on the current situation in the Middle East. And indeed, the political and historical expositions can be a little heavy-handed. And yet I found these easy to forgive, due mainly to the engaging voice of Agnes, our narrator. She has a very fresh and conversational tone that allows the reader to take in the information without feeling bashed over the head with it. And, I have to say, a lot of the description of how the Middle East was divvied up after WWI was very interesting in light of what's happened since in that region.

Most of the book is just good narrative. Agnes tells us her story as though we were sitting down over a cup of tea, and her conversational tone draws the reader in right away. Her tales of meeting Winston Churchill, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), and the others at the Cairo Peace Conference are wonderfully told, and her descriptions of Egypt, Jerusalem, and the other places she visits make them come alive. And of course, the way she tells us about her beloved dachshund Rosie are simply delightful!

I've been a big fan of Mary Doria Russell's books since I discovered them, and this one did not let me down.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bernard Malamud

A really interesting essay on Bernard Malamud. I clearly need to read more of his books!

teenage love

That Night by Alice McDermott
Genre: fiction
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review: I've enjoyed other books my McDermott, especially Child of My Heart. And I have no problem with a future narrator; in fact, I thought McDermott did a great job alternating the voice of the narrator as a 10-year old and as an adult. But this book lacked something, I'm not quite sure what. It's a nicely told story, but I was left asking the question, "Why was I told this story?" It sort of felt like someone started telling me a story, but lost their train of thought in the middle, or forgot why they were telling me.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

most overrated books

Very interesting post (and responses) from the NYTimes Paper Cuts blog about the most overrated books through history.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

finally done

The Widows of Eden by George Shaffner
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: To get a real feel for what I thought of this book, please read my reviews of the two books that came before it, In the Land of Second Chances and One Part Angel. With this book, the three form what I hope will be only a trilogy telling the story of what happens when Vernon Moore pays a visit to the hopeless folk of Ebb, Nebraska.

Having established what I thought of those, it should come as no surprise that I was not impressed, to say the least, by this third installment. Here we have more of the same, although at least we are given the beginnings of an explanation of where the mysterious Mr. Moore comes from. I was not thrown a bit by the vaguely supernatural nature of the theory that the people of Ebb come up with, it just seemed forced and laid on top of the story very heavily.

This book follows the pattern set by its predecessors. There is a crisis in Ebb and Vernon Moore rolls into town to save the day. Except, rather than just addressing the problem, he has to do it in the roundabout way of convincing one of the main players to have faith. His arguments this time are a combination of the arguments he made in the first two books.

There is really nothing new here. The characters, none too interesting to begin with, have become parodies of themselves. I can only echo what other reviewers have said: if you liked the first two, you'll probably like this one. If you didn't, or haven't read the first two, don't bother with this one.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

small-town spinsterhood?

Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Challenge: A-Z (author)
Summary/Review: I started this book with high hopes; I'd heard such good things about Trigiani's other books (especially Lucia, Lucia). But I was more than a little disappointed. I found the writing to be trite, and the characters' behavior too often inexplicable.

This book is supposedly about how Ave Maria, the "town spinster" of Big Stone Gap, finds herself and finds love over the course of a year. I suppose that she does, but there were too many improbable things in the story to make either of her discoveries believable.

One discovery that is believable: after her mother dies, Ave Maria is given a letter that her mother wrote and left in the care of her lawyer. The letter explains that the man Ave Maria has thought of as her father (who died many years before the story begins), isn't, and that her real father is an Italian man that her mother had to leave behind when she became pregnant. So far, fine. Part of what results is that the family of her erstwhile father come clamoring for what they see is now their inheritance, including the house Ave Maria grew up in and the pharmacy business she now owns and runs. What does Ave Maria do? Rather than fighting this based on the fact that her father's will gave all of his property to her mother, who then gave it to her (although this is mentioned), Ave Maria chooses to protect the assets from the grubbing relatives by transferring the whole thing to her 16-year-old assistant! And as if that weren't improbable enough, she then begins to separate herself from the every-day running of the business and leaves it in the teenager's "capable hands"!

Moving on. At 35, Ave Maria is thought of by the town and by herself as a spinster. She prizes herself on her independence, although she wishes she could fall in love with someone who would want to marry her. But, when someone she's known since childhood suddenly proposes to her, she says no, thinking that he's only asking her out of pity, or is playing some kind of trick on her (this I found eminently believable, because if someone up and proposed to me without any sign that they had any special feelings for me, I'd feel the same way!). The man in question gets mightily offended, but doesn't stop trying. Unfortunately, he also doesn't really do anything to demonstrate that he's loved her since they were children (we don't find this out until much later). So why should either we, as readers, much less Ave Maria, believe that he's madly in love with her? Apparently, all her friends knew he was in love her, but we're not told any single thing that he did to demonstrate it. What's more, they apparently knew that she was in love with him, even though we're not told what she may have said or done to give that away. And, none of them will tell her what they've so sneakily observed. Ave Maria does eventually feel all the love, and they get married quickly, and seem very happy. Which is great. Except I don't believe it.