Book review: The Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock

While this is technically Nick Bantock’s seventh entry in the Griffin & Sabine series, the story told within the beautiful pages of “The Pharos Gate” is in fact a much-desired epilogue to “The Golden Mean“, the third book. Here we finally see the last, most difficult steps Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem took to reach each other at the Pharos Gate in Alexandria. Set upon by forces determined to prevent their union, these two nevertheless become one in the most metaphysical sense. While we knew this had come to pass from the events of the second trilogy, nothing compares to experiencing their fusion first or, more accurately, secondhand.

Once again, Bantock’s physical novel itself is a work of art, in the styles of Griffin and Sabine both — two distinct yet harmonizing modalities. The sheer tactile joy of removing printed sheets filled with Griffin’s words and seeing once more Sabine’s distinctive brown script is enough to pull the reader right back into their story. While I am not sure this volume would stand cleanly on its own, it makes a treasured addition to an already fascinating tale. If you are unfamiliar with Griffin & Sabine, I recommend starting and the beginning and staying the course throughout their journey.

I received an advanced readers’ copy of this book for the purpose of review from LibraryThing.

Wolf Hall: book review

whallI’ve only watched one episode of Masterpiece’s “Wolf Hall” mini-series so far — I’m saving the rest for a binge-watch at the end. Damian Lewis is so perfect for King Henry I can’t believe I didn’t think of him before. Mark Rylance isn’t how I pictured Cromwell exactly, but he’s wonderful as well. It seems like a marvelous production. Despite that, though, it’ll never match the experience of reading Hilary Martel’s novel for me. Wolf Hall was one of the finest, most engrossing books I’ve ever read.

Reposting my earlier review here…

The hardest book review to write is one for a book you loved. It’s difficult not to gush, to come up with useful analysis, even look for weak areas, when all you want to do is ramble on and on about how exceptional it was. Talking about Wolf Hall is like that for me.

Mantel turns the character of Thomas Cromwell on his head, leading us away from all we’ve previously been told of him. Not a villain here at all, he is merely a man, and a fairly good one. He is an ambitious man who strives and reaches for more, but one who is compassionate, feeling, and deeply thoughtful. A commoner from the worst of beginnings, he manages to rise to high office on merit, and no small amount of intelligence, alone. He lives, he laughs and he mourns, and mostly he builds for the future. Reading every line, even when it is not Cromwell speaking, feels like you are reading his mind, hearing things as he would have, seeing as he would have seen, and feeling as he would have as well.

Wolf Hall takes place during the heady years when Henry VIII pursued Anne Boleyn, then split the church in order to take her as his wife. Throughout these pages, Anne is a palpable, throbbing presence, always felt if not all that often seen. (“She says yes, yes, yes, then she says no,” one man describes her aptly in her absence.) And Henry himself is captured so perfectly, as both prince and man —

“The king has two bodies. The first exists within the limits of his physical being: you can measure it, and often Henry does, his waist, his calf, his other parts. The second is his princely double, free-floating, untethered, weightless, which may be in more than one place at a time. Henry may be hunting in the forest, while his princely double makes laws. One fights, one prays for peace. One is wreathed in the mystery of his kingship: one is eating a duckling with sweet green peas.” (p. 392)

But it is not only the famous Mantel brings to life, it’s also the lesser beings, the people of London, of York, of Whitehall and Putney, Calais and Essex. People of the court, people of the streets, people of the kitchens of the great halls of England. The sounds, the smells, the atmosphere, it all seems to be contained on these pages.

The details, the atmosphere, the craft in which words are spun and tales are told, all of this combines to make Wolf Hall a work of literary art. I devoured every word and longed for more, and cannot recommend it enough.


Book review: At the Water’s Edge, by Sara Gruen

atthewatersAlthough I was not a huge fan of Sara Gruen’s previous bestseller, Water for Elephants, I decided to give this novel a try — the setting of Scotland was far more interesting to me, and I’m a fan of most historical fiction, though not usually WWII. And who can resist a trio of friends searching for the Loch Ness monster?

I should have been unsurprised, though, the have the same milquetoast response to At the Water’s Edge as I did to Gruen’s earlier work. It wasn’t bad, not in any sense. The story was compelling and I wanted to know how it ended… especially mid-book or so, when it seemed like nothing had happened for some time, I really wanted to know how it ended… but the characters just missed the mark. Gruen’s talent seems to be for fantastical settings and detailed world-building, but when it comes to the people inhabiting her written sphere, there’s something to be desired.

Everyone is interesting and creatively imagined, but not at all fully fleshed out. Maddie is the one we get the best feel for, as the narrator. Ellis and Hank were two-dimensional and barely differentiated from each other. The people Maddie and her companions encounter at the inn, in Scotland, had no real character development, — even including Angus, whose role becomes rather important. He was delivered here as little more than a dark-haired Jamie Fraser, and with a dark past that frankly paled in comparison to that of Diana Gabaldon’s hero. There a bit of a derivative feel in other places, too. Certain plot points felt a bit too much like an early season of “Downton Abbey”, albeit with a different war as the backdrop.

The end — where we leave our heroine, and where everyone ends up — was satisfying, so that improved my experience of reading it. Certainly some readers will enjoy the book as a whole more than I did. It would make a good read for a plane trip, or at the beach on vacation, but I can’t recommend it any higher than that.

At the Water’s Edge will be available in hardcover, large print and Kindle format on March 31, 2015. I received an Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Random House for the purposes of review.

Review: This is Where I Leave You

This-Is-Where-I-Leave-YouSometimes I see a preview for a new movie and there’s that little tagline, “based on the novel”, that catches my attention. If it looks at all good, I’ll get my hands on the book as soon as I can, because we all know the book is always better than the movie, and I want to read it unsullied. That’s what I did with “This is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper, and while I’m glad I did, I might have wished I hadn’t just this once. I wonder now if I wouldn’t have liked better seeing the movie first, seeing what parts of the story the script writer and the director choose to distill from the whole, as they always do, without knowing the rest — and then finding the book, and filling in those spaces, learning more about the rich, frustrating, complicated and messy ins and outs of the Foxmans, kind of the way I would have if I’d just met them that week, then heard all the stories the books spells out later. If anything could have brought them more alive than Tropper already has, that might have done it.

But it’s a great book. I liked it a lot, and read it quickly — I was never bored and wanted to find out what would happen next. The characters, particularly the Foxman siblings, all leaped off the page — Judd, who just walked in on his wife sleeping with his boss; Paul, the eldest and most self-righteous brother; Wendy, the older sister with three kids; Phillip, the younger brother who’s a little different than everyone else, on the surface, but not really underneath; their mother, the psychologist who wrote the book on child rearing and looks like a million bucks; and, most of all, their father, who just died, and the reason why they’re all together again, sitting shiva for seven days. When I tell you that there’s a fistfight before the first day is out, you can imagine what the other six are like.

If I had any criticism to make, and it isn’t a real one, it would be that there’s just so *much* going on in this little book, it’s hard to keep up. The siblings each have their own complex story, the parents, the parents’ friends, the wives and the husbands and the girlfriends and the neighbor’s kid, everyone has a complicated backstory, and that’s realistic and it makes it all so much more interesting to read, but whew, by the end you’re feeling like you moved in with the Foxmans for the past week, and in a way, at the end of shiva, you’re just as eager to get the hell away from them as they are from each other. On the last page, I was happy to know this is where I would leave Judd Foxman and his screwed up life. It was nice dipping in to watch it for awhile, but being able to walk away from his mess (the way we can’t walk away from our own lives, and our own messes) was the best part.

Book review: “This is Where I Leave You” by Jonathan Tropper

thisisReview of: This is Where I Leave You
by Jonathan Tropper

Sometimes I see a preview for a new movie and there’s that little tagline, “based on the novel”, and it catches my attention. If the movie looks at all good, I’ll get my hands on the book as soon as I can, because we all know the book is always better than the movie, and I want to read the story first, unsullied. That’s what I did with “This is Where I Leave You”, and while I’m glad I did, I might have wished I hadn’t just this once. I wonder now if I wouldn’t have liked better seeing the movie first, seeing what parts of the story the script writer and the director choose to distill from the whole, as they always do, without my knowing the rest — and then finding the book, and filling in those spaces, learning more about the rich, frustrating, complicated and messy ins and outs of the Foxman family, kind of the way I would have if I’d just met them that week, then heard all the stories the books spells out later. If anything could have brought them more alive than Tropper already has, that might have done it.

But it’s a great book. I liked it a lot, and read it quickly — I was never bored and wanted to find out what would happen next. The characters, particularly the Foxman siblings, all leaped off the page — Judd, who just walked in on his wife sleeping with his boss; Paul, the eldest and most self-righteous brother; Wendy, the older sister with three kids; Phillip, the younger brother who’s a little different than everyone else, on the surface, but not really underneath. And then there’s their mother, Hillary, the psychologist who wrote the book on child rearing and looks like a million bucks; and, most of all, their father, who just died, and is the reason why they’re all together again, sitting shiva for seven days. When I tell you that there’s a fistfight before the first day is out, you can imagine what the other six are like.

If I had any criticism to make, and it isn’t a real one, it would be that there’s just so *much* going on in this little book, it’s hard to keep up. The siblings each have their own complex backstory, and the parents, the parents’ friends, the wives and the husbands and the girlfriends and the neighbor’s kid, they all do, too. And that’s realistic and it makes it all so much more interesting to read, but whew, by the end you’re feeling like you moved in with the Foxmans for the past week, and in a way, at the end of shiva, you’re just as eager to get the hell away from them as they are from each other. On the last page, I was happy to know this is where I would leave Judd Foxman and his screwed up life. It was nice dipping in to watch it for awhile, but being able to walk away from his mess (the way we can’t walk away from our own lives, and our own messes) was the best part.

A substitute for a vacation to Greece, maybe, but…

I just finished reading my review copy of “When the Cypress Whispers”, by Yvette Manessis Corporon.

Sigh.

There was so much I enjoyed about this book — the scenery, of course. The food. The culture. The location. The history. I’m even a fan of modern fiction of this ilk, the kind where there’s a nice young woman who’s endured something, and this book is going to show us how she finds happiness again. Like all of Sarah Addison Allen’s books. And it started off fine…

And, frankly, went off the rails at the end. You know, my husband hates the movie Serendipity because, he says, the main character is already supposed to marry a perfectly nice woman when he instead finds “true love” elsewhere. What was the first time he proposed, then? Just malarkey? Whoever wrote that story introduced a perfectly nice significant other, and then wants me to believe that it’s okay to dump that person for their “real” love. Well, I’m sure that happens, but it isn’t nice.

Here, Daphne does the same. She’s been pursued by a seemingly nice man for years, she agreed to marry him, convinced him to move their wedding to a tiny Greek island, and then, when he gets there, completely unprepared for how Daphne has suddenly and completely returned to her roots — he still takes it in stride. He’s fine. He’s polite, he helps her cousin start a new business, he goes along with what she wants. Basically his only sin is that they have a two-second discussion about caring for an aging relative where they don’t see eye to eye, and Daphne decides she never loved him, because coffee grinds told her so. She leaves him, hooks up with someone she just met — spoiler alert, here, but I can’t say I advise reading this one, so it shouldn’t matter — and then decides she doesn’t really want to be with him, either, though she has his kid and doesn’t manage to let him know. My point is, I didn’t find her character’s romantic choices to be all that believable. Since I suspect there are aspects of this story taken from real life, I’m sure in real life they were completely fleshed out — but the author jumped around too much, and didn’t give us enough time to find Daphne’s leaps credible.

(Also — and this drove me crazy — what NYC restaurateur can leave their business for months and just saunter back when they’re ready? Restaurants close that way. Who was running the place while she was gone? She never had to check in once?)

If you don’t care about the relationship mismanagement and want to read about rural Greece and some lovely bits of family interaction, as well as an interesting historical backstory — I wish more time had been spent on that — then maybe this is worth a quick read. It’s getting tons of good reviews, so there’s always the possibility that it’s just not my cup of tea and might be yours. I can’t deny I was terribly disappointed, though.

Book Review: The Woman Who Wasn’t There

Angelo Gugliemo isn’t just the co-author of The Woman Who Wasn’t There, along with Robin Gaby Fisher. He’s one of the people whose lives were twisted around, hearts wrung out, and their 9/11 experience exploited by the woman known as Tania Head. Tania was the president of the board of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network and, with her tragic story of surviving the collapse of the south tower but losing her husband (fiancé? husband? his description varied) in the north tower, striking a deep chord with fellow survivors and the world in general. She was one of the faces of 9/11, a woman struggling with loss but striving to help others heal. An inspiration to many, she was a sometimes a trial to others, lashing out, demanding undivided attention, and ruling the Survivors’ Network with an iron fist. She had deeply devoted friends, including Guglielmo, a filmmaker, all of whom were dedicated to protecting Tania from further suffering.

Tania’s story, however, was all a lie. She wasn’t in the south tower. She wasn’t even in the United States on 9/11. She wasn’t engaged to, or married to, the man named Dave who died in the north tower. She wasn’t even named Tania (her real name was Alicia Esteve Head). She’d made it all up.

Fisher and Guglielmo’s book tells Tania’s story the way he and her friends experienced it. It begins with her harrowing escape from the south tower, as their friendships began with hearing her tale. It continues with her increased involvement in survivor activities, and it describes the new bonds formed, and sometimes shattered, as Tania struggled to maintain her grip on the Survivors’ Network and retain her place in the spotlight. The book ends with Guglielmo’s stark, heartbroken realization of how he’d and so many others had been manipulated, and how cold and calculating a person he’d once thought of as gentle and compassionate truly was. His bitterness is more than justified, and his disappointment is palpable.

While the prose isn’t exactly polished or lyrical, this is a compelling story, with all the horror of a car crash you can’t turn away from. I would have liked to know more about the people, the survivors, who knew “Tania” and whose lives had been so adversely affected by her lies, and how they have moved on. As a reader, you certainly hope they have been able to do so.

Book Review: Pegasus

Review of: Pegasus by Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley’s latest is a compelling story of two races — human and pegasi — bound together by an ancient accord. “Beacuse she was a princess, she had a pegasus,” the book begins, leading us straight into the story of Sylviianel (Sylvi) and, soon, the peagsus to which she is bound. At once a coming of age story, a piece of high fantasy, and an anthrolopological study of two races who can barely even communicate, yet maintain a symbiotic relationship, McKinley’s book covers a lot of territory. What it doesn’t do, however, is finish the tale: readers should be warned this is only the first half of a two-part story, so be prepared for a cliffhanger ending.

While the backstory is lengthy, and the complexities of the human-pegasus bond are tricky to put into words, McKinley makes up for these ponderous problems with wonderful characters, particularly Sylvi and her father, the king. While the plot fails to provide closure, having a fleshed out cast of characters helps a great deal to keep the reader engaged. I for one am greatly looking forward to the sequel, apparently due out sometime in 2012. Let’s hope McKinley comes through.