I began this book because I liked the concept: a nurse in post-war 1945 warps backwards in time to 1743 Scotland where she finds love and adventure inI began this book because I liked the concept: a nurse in post-war 1945 warps backwards in time to 1743 Scotland where she finds love and adventure in the Highlands...why did I finish the book? Most likely due to a sense of literary masochism (although I suffered through the S&M kind too in the latter pages--be warned!). The tragic irony is that in the beginning I had assumed the story would actually go somewhere, instead of looping around the same track multiple times, where nurse Claire and her kilt-clad lover gallivant, fight, make love, get captured, beaten, rescued (not necessarily in that order) over...and over...and over...
Jamie, the hot-blooded Scot, was probably the best developed character (relatively), although it may have been just the brogue. And he had the tendency to say the most inane things sometimes (a particular metaphor involving duckweed comes to mind...gag!). Claire is "feisty" and "spunky" (read: annoying), very erratic in behavior, and overall not very likable. At one point, potential intriguing material is wasted--Jamie must punish Claire, who has endangered the lives of his clansmen with her stupidity. This could have been a psychologically interesting scene, but instead it turns into a kiss & make-up/out session while the characters remain static. Another interesting time-traveling character is wasted later in the story, disposed of without answering some intriguing questions about the consequences of time travel. Issues remain simplistic and complexity, though tantalizingly dangled, is never pursued.
I could rant for pages about what I didn't like--long expositionary sections containing important "clues" to the story, lots of superficial description of people/places, but nothing that develops the characters. And mistakes--picking fruit in April? Really? Am I the only one who noticed this? And finally, the bland language that served merely to record the action as if narrating a movie. But for all my griping, the book didn't really plunge into the abyss until around page 300 when the situation takes a really ridiculous turn, and the ending, smacking of religious-Freudian-voodoo did NOT do it for me at all. Blah....more
...and it was a shame that a book with so much potential should leave me exhausted from laboring through the last 300 pages instead of rushing out to...and it was a shame that a book with so much potential should leave me exhausted from laboring through the last 300 pages instead of rushing out to buy Kushiel #2.
The story is built around the intriguing concept of an alternate renaissance world (with a religion that coincidentally dovetails with themes from Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code)--and is the only fantasy novel I've read with a map of Europe in the front. Although the names of countries and cities have been changed, they all still had historical roots (in OUR world!) and can be deciphered by any reader with a slight classical background. Kudos to Carey for the obviously extensive research she conducted to give her setting authenticity.
The main character Phedre of Terre D'Ange (Land of Angels...aka France) is bought and raised by an erudite nobleman with a hidden agenda of espionage. He has Phedre trained as a courtesan, but in this alternate world the "arts of the bedroom" are related to religious zeal--and the detailed cultural picture of Terre d'Ange painted by the author had me believing it, too. In her acceptable role in society as courtesan, Phedre aids her master by collecting information from her various high-brow clients. Treason and political intrigue gradually sift to the surface...and suddenly Phedre's world is turned upside-down.
This is where the book gets very good. I loved watching Phedre and her uptight body-guard named Josslin come to terms with Barbaric Skaldi tribes. And with each other. Here the characters were at their fullest and held my concert. But what goes up must come down, as the saying goes. Once this major plot point is resolved, the rest of the story drags on, a 300 page anticlimax. The emotion I had felt as the story unfolded suddenly faded.
One aspect of the book that jarred me was that for the most part, the story is rooted in the realism of alternate history. For more than 600 pages, the laws of physics etc. are obeyed. Then towards the end several undeniably *magical* occurrences were so out of place that I could no longer suspend my belief, and my faith in this beautiful alternate world sprung a leak.
It also got annoying the way the author repeated herself, describing the same thing over and over (300+ pages could have been omitted!) Yes, I know that kneeling "abeyante" was the first thing Phedre learned at the Night Court...I don't need to be told every single time she kneels (and she sure kneels a lot)!
To sum it up, Kushiels Dart had all the political intrigue, spies and plots I had hoped for, but for all the plot complexities and researched background, didn't have the depth and believability I'd hoped for. ...more
I was getting a very A Game of Thrones vibe from this one. I started asking myself "how has this not been turned into an HBO series?" Did a little digI was getting a very A Game of Thrones vibe from this one. I started asking myself "how has this not been turned into an HBO series?" Did a little digging and yes, it was turned into a mini-series back in 1980 and yes, it's being remade by Fox, to air next year (2014). So. Fancy that.
Shogun gets off to a rip-roaring start: in the year 1600 an Englishman Blackthorne and his Dutch crew are shipwrecked on the coast of Japan. They find themselves labeled (not entirely unfairly) "barbarians" by the locals, and brutally subjugated by the ruling Samurai. The first half of the novel follows Blackthorne as he seeks to understand--and eventually game--this new cultural system. Starting as a captive in a pit, he manages to raise himself into high places, and yet he is never more than a pawn in the larger political story of Shogun. The political story takes up most of the second half of the novel, and here the pacing--and my interest--began to flag. By about 2/3 of the way through I must have reached my saturation level for new character names, because I suddenly found myself awash in Yodokos and Kiritsubos and Onoshis, wondering which one was the old noble with leprosy and where was he, and which was the suspected Lady assassin and...I really could have used a chart. Also, while the first half follows Blackthorne fairly closely through his attempts to be accepted and understood by his Japanese handlers, the narrative "camera" zooms out for a wide-shot in the second half so that every section bounces to a new point of view. The more riveting scenes are spaced further apart, sectioned off by long passages of repetitive dialogue about various wheelings, dealings, and supposed treacheries. The story seems to be arcing up to a dramatic showdown over who becomes the Shogun...but ultimately the narrative just sort of stops. The "showdown" is dealt with in footnote-like epilogue.
I liked a lot of things about Shogun: the action, the detailed setting, the dramatic clashes of cultures--oh, the things an Englishman will go through to avoid a bath, polite bowing, or eating raw squid. In one of the more notable scenes, Blackthorne is politely asked at a tea house whether he would prefer a male or female "companion". When he flips out, his Japanese hosts consult with one another over what could possibly have offended him. One of the men suggests that the westerner would perhaps prefer a sheep or a duck, and makes inquiries into where a suitable duck might be procured before the misunderstanding is untangled... I also liked the subtle love story with the (probably anachronistic) kick-ass interpreter. The fact that both are married and parents makes the situation more complex and dangerous.
However, this is a LONG book, and I can think of very few books that absolutely needed to be as long as they were. This one, unfortunately, bogs down in the second half with much (I thought) unnecessary and repetitive dialogue. Also, many important dramatic threads are never followed through. Case in point: Omi, the samurai who lops off a disobedient villager's head in the early pages, then commits an act of shaming humiliation against Blackthorne, who secretly vows to kill Omi later. The larger political story forces them into an awkward alliance at some point, but that promised revenge simmers forever, is never acted upon and by the ending seems to have been forgotten. Blackthorne's personal story is never closed, either--the novel just sort of stops. I wanted to give this book 4 stars for the gripping first half, but settled on 3 to reflect the dragging middle and abrupt ending....more
The first thing a reader of Edgar Sawtelle notices upon picking up this book is its heft. At 566 pages, this doorstop tome--a retelling of Hamlet in rThe first thing a reader of Edgar Sawtelle notices upon picking up this book is its heft. At 566 pages, this doorstop tome--a retelling of Hamlet in rural 60's Wisconsin, with dogs--puts my 200 page copy of Shakespeare's Hamlet to shame. What, my internal writer demands, is taking up so much space? Details, lots of them. There are, at the book's best moments, lyrical details that bring vivid emotion and imagery to life. These are details that expound on Edgar's family history and their fictional breed of dog, details that bring the backwoods landscape and strangely Gothic Sawtelle barn to life. There are some needless details, too. Slabs of information that tells us exactly what a character says or does, that list random minutiae serving only to clutter the story. Some such details provoked in me a Chekovian response--a chainsaw hanging in the shed along with fifteen obsessively-detailed items? Will it be hauled out in Act III? (Surprisingly, no). The mysterious Starlight Colonies which pop up periodically on TV--will their apparent significance be explained later? (Red herring again). In a final critique of the author's use of detail, his tendency in the more climactic scenes to overload our senses with dynamic yet repetitive imagery fail to make the important bits stand out, something he could have achieved by simply being more selective with his detail. Although this is a langoriously paced read, I still found myself mesmerized by Edgar's world and the inherent lyricism of the author's style.
My favorite part was figuring out "who is who" from the Hamlet cast. I almost missed Rosencranz and Guildenstern!...more
Although I quite enjoyed this book, it took me a while to get hooked despite d'Artagnan's humorous accident in which he must fight seperate duels withAlthough I quite enjoyed this book, it took me a while to get hooked despite d'Artagnan's humorous accident in which he must fight seperate duels with all three of the "original" musketeers, and almost three months to complete. Then there is the drawn-out affair of the diamond tags which d'Artagnan must retrieve from the duke of Buckingham (whom I rather liked), and a VERY long drawn-out part in which d'A. finds his 3 friends wounded at 3 different inns (yawn). The plot picked up speed--and my interest--when the diabolical Lady d'Winter seduces d'A..and the rest is a rollicking good read, with plenty of nailbiting situations and even solid doses of humor. Thanks, A. Dumas!...more
My initial reaction to this book after reading the first few chapters is that it reminded me of Catch-22. Sure enough, after some research, I found ouMy initial reaction to this book after reading the first few chapters is that it reminded me of Catch-22. Sure enough, after some research, I found out that Heller credits Hasek's work as one of his key influences. If you appreciate the biting satire, base humor, and no-holds-barred castigation of bureaucratic organizations in Catch-22, you love it in Svejk as well. Sveyk, the (seemingly) good-natured and dopey Dudley-Do-Right of the Czech contingent in the Austria-Hungarian army during WWI is a well known "hero" in his home country. He represents the "little people" on a world scale, the powerless little countries that have been at the mercy of their militant neighbors throughout the 20th century. Sveyk, unable to assert any form of control on the political chaos around him, engages in a more passive-aggressive tactic. Pretending to be a patriotic supporter of the war, he ensures, through "innocent" bumbling mistakes, that more energy be required to get him to the front than necessary. Although officially labeled an "imbecile" by the military, Sveyk's canniness shines though in his ability to shame and/or outwit the forces that try to impose him (and what greater enemy of the common soldier exists than his own chain of command?) Secondary and tertiary players provide a colorful cast of caricatures: the sozzled chaplain who falls over drunk at mass, the idiot general who speaks in platitudes, the ambitious cadet whose cognac hangover is misdiagnosed as cholera, and finally the Sveyk's own well-meaning and hopelessly frustrated superior officer Lt. Lukas. All of this shows us the political quagmire of WWI eastern Europe and shocks us because really, has anything changed? ...more
I have a theory about why some people love this book and others, myself included, struggled to slog through it. First, I think it depends on your persI have a theory about why some people love this book and others, myself included, struggled to slog through it. First, I think it depends on your personal tolerance for sentimentality. Given that the first half of the book is a love story base on Love with a capital L, which itself is based on beauty, magical first glances, a forbidden element, and an ever mysterious woman, you'd better be content with a sentimentality meter reading that's over the moon. I have a number of reader-friends who would love to wrap themselves up in this kind of thing and take it home...and that's great. For them. If you're of the more cynical persuasion who raises an eyebrow at a college freshman professing his undying fidelity to the older woman who is his first love, wondering what kind of emotional backlash might ensue...don't bother ducking. There is no backlash. This is LOVE. If the main character Andras wrings his hat (and he does this a lot) in an emo fashion over his intended's perceived "infidelity", rest assured that all tension shall be based on complex yet innocent misunderstandings. Because this is LOVE.
And while we're on the subject of sentimentality, let's talk about the characterization. The large cast of co-protagonists in Andras' circle of family and friends are GOOD people, noble and innocent, with few exceptions. Even when the sky itself is on fire and raining down on them, they are insufferably selfless, starving themselves to feed children, nursing each other back to health and so on. They are even anachronistically Modern in their beliefs: of course only Fascists with a capital F would have the nerve to harass a perfectly harmless Gay character, while all our co-protagonists lovingly embrace him As He Is, no questions asked. As all the good non-fascists were wont to do in the late 30's... But the point of good characters is that we sympathize with them, right? Even if it makes them predictable and dull? I suppose, and yet somehow I resent being emotionally manipulated by this kind of forced sympathy: it's just too easy, when unspeakable horrors happen to good people for no reason, especially when children are involved. Of course I KNEW this was a holocaust saga going in, correct? Isn't that the very definition of the genre? What right do I have to complain about this, anyway? (I'll just mention that Suite Francaise was full of petty, ignoble, interesting characters, but somehow I cared about some of them anyway.)
One of the biggest barriers to my appreciation of the story was its relentlessly heavy tone of overwrought momentousness. Even in what should have been lighter moments the characters are wracked with angst and poetically purpled profound thoughts. The result, quite simply, is that it's exhausting. And repetitive. The characters are caught in a cycle of expressing their more dramatic emotions: shocked disbelief, breast-beating sorrow, ecstatic professions of love, misplaced tearful apologies for situations beyond their individual control. The few instances of attempted humor fell flat, and I so wanted them to work. Even an epic saga needs humor, needs the grit of sarcasm and understatement, needs to turn occasionally away from the epic before we are beaten over the head with it.
Which leads me to one of my biggest issues with this book: that the superfluous, overwrought prose waters down what is, deep down, a moving story. The author feels compelled to EXPLAIN everything, not counting on the reader to GET IT on her own. The author relies too much on interpreting for us every little quiver of body language, lest we somehow miss the point of their next unsubtle outpouring of emotion. The result of all this (unintentional?) telling is that it caulks up the hazy void where subtext tends to dwell. When an author insists on spelling out the meaning behind every little look, glance, and line of dialogue, we readers suspect our intelligence isn’t trusted. Some of us don't mind, but some of us resent it. I noticed this sort of excessive interpretation in The Invisible Bridge, not just once, but consistently.
A prime example of this occurs when the willful Elisabet stays out all night while her mother Klara and the main character search for her: “but when they opened the door they found [Elisabet] on the doorstep, holding a pair of evening shoes in one hand, a cone of spun sugar candy in the other. Klara, standing in the doorway, took a long look at her, at the shoes, the cone of candy; it was clear she hadn’t come from an innocent evening with Marthe.” I would argue that the entire second sentence, semi-colon and all, is unnecessary. The fact that she’s carrying her shoes, that someone bought her candy, signals that she’s been out dancing with a boy and not at Marthe’s house. We don’t need Klara’s prolonged double take, the repetition of “shoes” and “candy” for this to sink in, and certainly not that patronizing phrase “it was clear.” “It was clear” signals (to me) that the writer fears the opposite, that it is not clear at all (which it is), but instead of adding a few extra details to Elisabet’s appearance to bar any imagined confusion—smudged makeup or a man’s handkerchief hanging from her belt or whatever—she lays everything out for us. “It was clear” reappears throughout the novel, and is always used to similar effect as in the following: “Now she held her back rigid while another woman leaned close to her ear; it was clear that the other woman was narrating the progression of Novak’s tete-a-tete with Klara” or even “Soviet planes—or what had appeared at first to be Soviet planes, but might have been German planes in disguise—had bombed the Magyar border town of Kassa. The message was clear: Hungary had no choice but to send its armies into Russia.”
To be fair, there were some very powerful moments in this book. In particular, I was emotionally struck by the part in which Andras and his friend are punished for creating a humorous reactionary newspaper in one of the labor camps and literally forced to "eat their words". During the scene Andras has a chilling realization that he hasn't even seen the worst of the horrors which are to come. But while this should have been a turning point for Andras in which he should have either been galvanized into action or frightened into complicity, neither comes to pass. Apart from a few quips that "you should have seen what they did to us", this scene may as well have never happened, for all the impact it has on Andras' characterization. He is still his same Good self, still willing to conduct a bit of passive resistance without holding his neck out too far.
I think I'm being a bit harsh. Few of us are aware of the Hungarian role in WWII, and Orringer's meticulous research into the details of everyday life in Paris and Budapest are laudable (although the wikipedia-esque summaries of battles and broad political developments that pop up every time a character sits down to read the paper could have been better incorporated). I'm still feeling more than a bit guilty about this review because I know the characters are based on the remarkable experiences of the author's family, and of course one never wants to show one's ancestors in a bad light unless they deserve it. At the same time, in FICTION I want to read about tortured, flawed characters who don't always think politically correct thoughts or are likewise always charitable and forgiving. And not for an unending 700 page slog.
Don't think that a short book could possibly do justice to a weighty subject like WWII? Then I recommend the tiny, incredibly powerful 85 pg novella "Closely Watched Trains" by Bohumil Hrabal about Czech resistance to the German Occupation. It's hilarious and brutal, and takes just one afternoon to read....more
It can be a struggle to read non-fiction books about complex historical events and truly assimilate the information without letting it go in one ear aIt can be a struggle to read non-fiction books about complex historical events and truly assimilate the information without letting it go in one ear and out the other. Winds of War, a novel set in the years leading up to WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, filters history through one phenomenally connected US naval family. Somehow this slight fictionalization, the mere addition of a smaller human story to the gargantuan political one, provides the right amount of perspective to make this an interesting (and educational) book about History. Because when you get down to it, that's what this is--an enormous, very much readable, chronology of the events leading to WWII.
The patriarch of the Henry clan is Victor "Pug" Henry, a senior naval officer who just wants to command a ship, but who finds himself sent off on various diplomatic assignments to Germany and Soviet Russia instead on President Roosevelt's every whim. This convenience of plot allows Pug to rub elbows with Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and the like. Far fetched? Yes. Fascinating? Hell yeah. The other Henry clan members likewise find themselves spread far across the globe, because author Wouk wants to ensure that we readers get a front-row seat in as many (literal) Theaters of this War as possible. The eldest son becomes an aviator and is sent to Pearl Harbor to await the arrival of you-know-what. The younger "black sheep" son Byron opts out of the navy (for as long as he can) to study art in Italy, where he falls for a Jewish-American girl. On a visit to Warsaw to find her father's estranged family Byron finds himself in the midst of a German surprise attack on the city. You can guess where this story arc is headed too, I'm sure. Meanwhile, daughter Madeline gets a job with a New York radio biz, and Pug's wife Rhoda starts an elicit affair with a scientist who is (of course!) involved with the Manhattan project.
While all this human intrigue pulled me along through the first 500 pages of this 1000+ page book, I eventually began to resent the soap-operatic levels of drama that serve mainly to manipulate the characters into being exactly where the author needs them to be at a specific time in history. I can't imagine the amount of work that went into choreographing this hugely complex dance, but I could always tell that the strings were there. Byron's Jewish wife, of course, "needs" to stay in Europe to presumably bear witness to the horrors of the Holocaust in Wind's follow-up volume, War and Remembrance, and so she spends 800 pages of this book battling bureaucratic red tape and unlucky coincidences.
My favorite part of the book follows Pug's brief post as naval attache to the American embassy in 1930's Berlin. There are some great little moments as Pug witnesses the slow transformation of the city, from government officials to the lowliest of waiters, into weird, war-ready automatons. I suspect Wouk must have based much of this section on the real-life US ambassador Dodd, whom I read about concurrently in Erik Larsson's Garden of Beasts (though Pug is a much more interesting and sympathetic character, in my opinion). I also liked the occasional snippets of fictional German General von Roon, who provides the "official" German counter-explanations for their entry to WWII. However this book is so long that I eventually became impatient and eager for the end, and while I still plan to eventually read War & Remembrance, I need a long recovery first!...more