Sunday, October 28, 2012

show, don't tell

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: As a reader, I never really understood the writer's maxim to "show, not tell".  I always thought, "I'm being told a story, so what's the big deal?"  Until now.  Now, I get it.

This book is about Ben, Helen, and their adopted daughter Sara.  In the first part of the book, Dee does a fair job of showing us that Ben and Helen's marriage has fallen apart and the events that bring about its actual end.  We are shown how the marriage is dissolved and how Helen has to learn again how to support herself, and now her 12 year old daughter.  So far, so good.

Dee starts to get into trouble when Helen and Sara move to Manhattan.  Helen becomes more involved with the PR firm she now works for and Sara starts attending a new school.  Sara tells us that her mother has basically started letting her raise herself.  But, aside from the fact that Sara must order dinner for herself and her mother most nights, and that she becomes very devious about skipping both school and the after-school activities she's supposed to be participating in, we aren't ever shown what Helen has done to make Sara fling the accusations at her that she finally does.  Combine that with Sara being a generally unlikeable character to begin with, and the sections involving her are fairly unreadable.

All of which makes me wonder why Dee included Sara's plot-line to begin with.  The much more interesting aspect of this book is Helen's new job and her views on (and success with) apologies.  The title suggests that this was supposed to be the main story of the book, but it gets very little space.  Instead, Helen's supposed talent becomes something else that we are told, without really being shown how or why it works or is important to the overall story.  This is a shame, because a focus on apologies and how they impact public relations would have made a much better story.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

better and better

Princess Elizabeth's Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: In my review of Winston Churchill's Secretary, the first of the Maggie Hope books, I said that the series showed promise as MacNeal settled into her talents as a writer.  With this second installment, MacNeal is certainly starting to live up to that promise.  Although some of the language is still a bit clunky (and there are far too many mentions of birds), the story itself flows much more smoothly than it did in the first book and MacNeal takes fewer shortcuts to get her characters in and out of situations.

Newly installed with MI-5, Maggie Hope is placed at Windsor Castle at Christmas in 1940.  Posing as Princess Elizabeth's math tutor, she is really there to ferret out a possible plot against the future queen's life.  Descriptions of life at Windsor Castle during this period are well-done, and glimpses of historical personages are clearly well-researched.  Once again, MacNeal does an excellent job bringing to life a fascinating aspect of Britain during WWII, while at the same time allowing Maggie to grow as a character and as a spy.  I look forward to reading more!

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Sunday, September 16, 2012


The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: For all that this is a book that centers on a genocide, it's not very compelling.  There are two stories told in parallel, neither of which I found particularly engaging.  The primary story is the one that takes place during the 1915 Armenian genocide.  It's the story of Elizabeth, a recent Mount Holyoke graduate who travels to Aleppo with her father on a mission of humanitarian relief (although in her father's case it seems to have more to do with making sure his money is being responsibly spent).  In Aleppo, Elizabeth meets Armen, an Armenian engineer.  Although Armen presumes that his wife and daughter are dead, victims of the Turkish transportation, he is in Aleppo hoping to find someone who accompanied them across the desert and can tell him what exactly happened to them.  This might have made Armen a tragic and interesting character, except that he more or less abandons his quest the moment he meets Elizabeth.  He is drawn to her because her cheekbones remind him of his wife's, and he falls in love with her almost instantly.  The attraction is mutual, if not entirely believable, and the rest of the story is a foregone conclusion, and would be even if we did not already know the end of their story from their granddaughter.

The second story is told by Laura, Armen and Elizabeth's granddaughter, a writer who knows very little about her Armenian heritage (although, to be fair, she doesn't seem to know that much about her Boston Brahmin heritage either).  She is drawn into researching her history when a friend forwards her a photograph of someone with her last name from an exhibition focusing on the Armenian genocide.  Her story of discovering her grandparent's history is interesting, but lacks emotional heft, although that may be because I found her grandparent's story itself to also lack spark.

Put together, we get two stories, neither of which is adequately fleshed out.  Perhaps if Bohjalian had chosen to tell a single story, there would have been more room to create a more fully-realized world, and fewer characters who are simply shadows (Elizabeth's father, Armen's wife, and so on).  Likewise, if Bohjalian had chosen to tell only the historical story (adding the contemporary story seems like little more than self-indulgence on his part), he might have been able to actually help his readers understand more about the Genocide You Know Nothing About (as he has Laura call it).  Instead, I found myself confused by how Syria figured into the Armenian story, what the Germans were doing there, and what the Turks had against the Armenians in the first place (though I suspect most of the Armenians were asking the same question) and unconvinced both by Armen and Elizabeth's love affair and by Laura's historical quest.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

too jumpy

The Red House by Mark Haddon
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I know that it's a perfectly valid literary technique to write in fragments rather than full sentences.  I know that frequent jumps from one character's perspective to another is also quite acceptable.  But I find books that do either too much, let alone both, very hard to read.  And yes, Haddon employs both techniques throughout this book.  So you may take my less-than-positive feelings about this book with a grain of salt, but there it is.

That being said, Haddon definitely made the right choice to write this book from the perspective of all the characters.  If he had tried to write it from the perspective of a single character there would have been no there there.  But the perspective changes so quickly (in some cases a character has only a single paragraph) and with only an extra line space between shifts that it can be kind of dizzying.  Unfortunately, it was very hard for me to enjoy this jumpy narrative.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

tightly focused

The Submission by Amy Waldman
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: For this story to work, we all have to cast our minds back to 2003, a scant two years after the 9/11 attacks, and remember how raw those attacks still felt.  Only then can we all ask ourselves the question: would I have supported a memorial designed by a secular Muslim-American if it had been chosen under these circumstances?  Hopefully, we can all answer honestly that we would have.  And if perhaps we wouldn't have then, certainly with the distance of additional decade, we can all say we would now.  But that's almost beside the point because Waldman gives us multiple points of view without forcing us to choose.

Waldman recreates the mood of post-9/11 New York City without pulling her punches.  Numerous sides get their share of the story-telling: the widow who tries to be fair-minded; politicos who try to pander to all sides without, of course, ever appearing to; the brother of a firefighter who has made being anti-Islam his personal cause; other anti-Islamists who aren't afraid to piggy-back on the fear of the time, even though they didn't lose anyone in the attacks; the reporter who get the leak about the story of the Muslim who won the anonymous competition to design the 9/11 memorial.  If some of these sides are presented more as caricatures than fully fleshed-out characters, that's almost beside the point too as this is a not a character-driven story.

This book has other flaws, perhaps the biggest one being that too many things seem to be beside the point, including things like the motivation of the person who leaked the news about the designer of the memorial, and whether anyone ever found out who it was.  But Waldman does well to keep her story focused on what does matter - the conflicts, internal and external that arise in a situation like this.  Overall, this is a very well written and thoughtful piece of fiction that could all too easily have been non-fiction, which is something we would all do well to remember.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

disjointed and disconnected

A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: This book got off to a very promising start for me.  Nayman's initial narrator (Oscar) said something that gave me an instant feeling of connection.  But, after only a few pages with this narrator, and just as things are starting to get interesting, we are abruptly thrust into a new time and place, and given a narrator (Christine) with whom I not only felt no connection, but couldn't even bring myself to be really interested in at all.  I was so turned off by this section of the book, that I had a hard time feeling any investment in the the next section, even though I felt at least some connection with this third narrator (Marilyn).  Both Christine and Marilyn hint at some dark secret from Oscar's past that they think they know, though both do it in such a jumpy, pseudo-tantalizing fashion that by the time we hear Oscar's voice again I was more relieved that all the games were coming to an end than actually interested in what the secret was.

It's a shame that the story felt so herky-jerky, because I think that if Nayman had kept Oscar's voice as the sole narrator throughout the book her story would have had the emotional impact she was going for.  Instead, by throwing in so many extraneous plot points and red herrings (Christine's opium addiction and Marilyn's conflicting feelings about her wartime photography, among others) she's declawed what could have been a powerful story.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

forced ignorance

Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Rating: 1 star (out of 5)
Genre: childrens, steampunk
Review: This book gets one star for having an interesting premise (a juggernaut on wheels that travels the earth after Europe is devastated in an alternate version of the Napoleonic Wars).  Beyond that, though, this book is terrible.

Every author is faced with the question of how to convey needed information to the reader.  After all, the reader must somehow learn the background of the characters and something of the world in which the book is set.  Some authors choose to do this through the voice of the narrator, others use dialogue and allow one or more characters to explain what's needed to another.  Both choices can work if done properly, and each has inherent narrative pitfalls that must be avoided.

The biggest problem that an author who chooses the dialogue approach must overcome is that of the ignorant character.  This character must be believably ignorant (so that the explanations come in the natural course of the narrative), but not so ignorant as to become unsympathetic.  This is the trap into which Harland falls.  His main character (Colbert) is the grandson of the Supreme Commander of the Worldshaker (a person second in significance of the juggernaut only to the queen and her consort).  The book opens with the announcement that Colbert is to be his grandfather's successor.  Colbert is 16, and so ignorant as not to be believable  He's never met any of his peers in his relatively small social class (even though it's clear they've all met each other) and has clearly never received any kind of instruction in social skills, let alone in how to run a city-sized juggernaut.  If Colbert were actually written to be an idiot, I might have found this easier to believe, but he's not.  It turns out that he's a smart, thoughtful boy, who, if he were better-written, would have asked the questions that come up in the book long ago.

Harland would have done better to have a little more faith in his reader and not assumed that his readers are as forcibly ignorant as he makes his main character be.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

flawed but promising

Mr Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: This book should have been a fun read.  It deals with some of the most interesting aspects of WWII-era London including cryptography and Churchill's offices at 10 Downing St. and adds the little-discussed element of IRA activity in London during this time.  Unfortunately, the book's numerous flaws overshadow the positive aspects.  MacNeal takes several shortcuts to get characters were she needs them and to move the narrative along.

However, as the first book in a projected series about Maggie Hope, it shows promise.  As MacNeal settles into her narrative talents (which are certainly evident, despite this book's shortcomings), she will figure out to avoid the pitfalls of narrative convenience and lovers of strong female detectives in historical fiction will have another series to become engrossed in.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

limited narrative

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: At the outset, this book seems to be about a fairly ordinary Korean-American family.  Although the younger sister has left town without telling her family where she's gone, her actions seem like an understandable act of rebellion (as opposed to the mystery the jacket-blurb would have you believe).  In point of fact, she is relatively easily found and returned to the family fold, although the real reasons she left are frustratingly left un-fleshed out.

Soon after we meet this family, however, it seems as though the book is really about cruelty.  There are acts of cruelty perpetrated by the government, by spouses, sisters, parents, and other family members against one another.  This part of the book is very difficult to read, not just because of the descriptions of cruelty, but because they were so unexpected after the book's opening, and because I never really understood why we were presented with so much cruelty.  It doesn't seem to help us understand much about how the family interacts during the father's illness and decline, which takes up much of the book.  Yet even here the story seems insubstantial and can't support the weight that the author seems to be trying to give it.

There might have been more to this story if it had been told in multiple perspectives.  But because it is told in the first-person of the older sister, a character who doesn't seem to grow or change, the book itself stagnates.  By denying us the insights of any of the other characters, the author limits what the reader can get out of the book.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.