I’ve read this book three times and on each occasion I’ve loved the story. Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena. According to tradition Tita is...moreI’ve read this book three times and on each occasion I’ve loved the story. Tita is the youngest daughter of Mama Elena. According to tradition Tita is forbidden from marrying her sweetheart, Pedro, because she is destined to take care of her mother until the day she dies. As a result Tita is relegated to a lonely life, with only her beloved recipes as an outlet for her emotions; and what happens in Tita’s kitchen is magical. For instance, when Mama Elena decides to marry Pedro to Tita’s older sister, Tita is ordered to make the couple’s wedding cake as punishment for daring to hope for love. Tita obeys, but can’t stop herself from weeping as she makes the icing, working her tears into the meringue. As a result, when the cake is served to the wedding guests each person is suddenly overcome with an intense longing, for all the loves lost in their lives, for all the opportunities missed and sacrifices made. Mama Elena is convinced that Tita has vengefully poisoned the cake, but in reality Tita’s emotions have inadvertently become tied to the dishes she creates in her kitchen. “Like Water for Chocolate” is filled with uncanny scenes and succulent recipes, all of which are narrated in the deft, enchanting voice of Tita’s great-niece, who learned of her aunt’s recipes by discovering her handwritten cookbook. (less)
Reading books like this make you realize how lucky you are not to have been born a princess in 1400’s Europe. In this novel about Juana of Castille –...moreReading books like this make you realize how lucky you are not to have been born a princess in 1400’s Europe. In this novel about Juana of Castille – the second daughter of Ferdinand, King of Aragon, and Isabella, Queen of Castile – Gortner allows you to witness the delicate balance of power and impotence that marked Juana’s life. Married off to Philip the Handsome at a young age, her life was continually marked by the power she could potentially wield and the control men had over her. Although she eventually became heir to the Crown of Spain, her husband and father never allowed her to claim her throne. Her once passionate marriage to Philip transformed into one marred by his thirst for power, and even turned abusive when he began spreading rumors about her “madness” in order to justify keeping her locked up. Indeed, her own father and son used the madness card to imprison her in the tower of Torsedillas for fifty-five years, until her death in 1555. Gortner takes some liberties with the storyline, changing for instance, the method of Phillip’s death, but his modifications add depth to the story and in the afterword he fully admits he took liberties with Juana’s history. He also gave Juana the benefit of the doubt when it came to questions of her sanity. While many historians believe she suffered from schizophrenia, Gortner gives us a woman whose life pushed her to the brink of human endurance and sanity.(less)
Indian girl moves to America. Falls in love with an American boy. Worries that her traditional family won’t accept him. Those three sentences pretty m...moreIndian girl moves to America. Falls in love with an American boy. Worries that her traditional family won’t accept him. Those three sentences pretty much sum up the entirety of this book, which had promise but fails to deliver in terms of creating three-dimensional characters. The first quarter of this novel consists of Priya, the main character, complaining about what a horrible person her mother is. The rest of the story gives her family similar treatment, reducing them to a collection of stereotypes. While these characterizations likely reveal a measure of truth about traditional Indian society, it would have been nice to see other dimensions of their personalities.
While I certainly understand where Priya is coming from – who wouldn’t be appalled by her grandfather’s belief that all white people are thieves? – I nevertheless felt that the way she dealt with her family was hypocritical at best. She criticizes her cousin for allowing their family to treat his wife poorly (because she is North Indian, not “their Indian”) yet doesn’t have the guts to tell her mother that she is engaged until after her mother arranges for her to meet a “nice Indian boy” to marry. Indeed, it’s not until after this “nice boy’s” family proposes marriage that Priya finally comes clean. Priya’s angst illuminated the pressures Indian women can face when torn between a traditional culture and Western ideals, yet with 229 pages of storyline one would have expected the author to incorporate more of a plot into the novel. Priya’s emails with her fiance are stilted and, at least to my American ears, it would have been helpful if the author had included a glossary at the end of the book to explain all of the Indian terms she incorporates into the narrative.(less)
Ever since I read Carroll’s “The Dark Queen” I’ve been a fan of her writing. A mix of historical fiction and romance novel, Carroll has a knack for ca...moreEver since I read Carroll’s “The Dark Queen” I’ve been a fan of her writing. A mix of historical fiction and romance novel, Carroll has a knack for capturing the atmosphere of 1500’s Europe while also showcasing the indomitable personalities of her heroines. The first three novels in this series recount the adventures of the Cheney sisters, who are “daughters of the earth” – called witches by some – skilled in the ancient arts of healing. “The Huntress” shifts focus by telling the story of Catriona O’Hanlon, an Irish warrior woman of sorts sent to England by the eldest Cheney sister. Her quest: to find a young girl who some believe to be a powerful dark sorceress. Cat uses her skills with a sword, her beauty and her wit to accomplish her mission – meeting a handsome gentlemen along the way, of course. “The Huntress” was not as action packed as “The Dark Queen” (a book I finished in one night), but was nevertheless an enjoyable read. I only wish Queen Elizabeth I and her spy master Sir Francis Walsingham had played more active roles in the storyline.(less)
On February 7, 1812 the New Madrid earthquake – the largest quake ever recorded in the United States – hit Annie Lark’s Missouri house, trapping her b...moreOn February 7, 1812 the New Madrid earthquake – the largest quake ever recorded in the United States – hit Annie Lark’s Missouri house, trapping her beneath a roof beam. Unable to move the massive timber and terrified by the aftershocks, her family decides to leave the sixteen year old girl to her fate, but death is slow coming and she lingers until a French fur trapper named, Jacques Ducharme, rescues her days later. What follows is the story of Annie’s life as Jacques’ “river wife,” which Jacques’ descendant Hedie Ducharme discovers among the family papers along with the histories of three other Ducharme women. Together these stories take the reader from 1812 Missouri, through the Civil War and up to the bootlegging days of the 1930’s. I was riveted by Annie’s story. Her legs never fully recover from their earthquake trauma and her fearless determination to adapt to both this setback and the rough, sometimes violent, life she leads with Jacques is captivating. Agee’s skill as a storyteller is evident throughout the novel, yet, try as I might, once the novel shifted away from Annie I wasn’t able to maintain my initial interest. I enjoyed the tales of Omah, Laura and Maddie, but Hedie’s story is lukewarm at best. While the other women are strong willed and clever in their own ways, Hedie is timid and willfully ignorant of her husband’s true nature. There were more than a few moments when I couldn’t help but think, “Come on Hedie, you haven’t figured it all out yet? Gimme a break.” Hedie’s story is interspersed between chapters, so naturally her character influences the entire novel – especially the ending, which uses her life to conclude the Ducharme tale.(less)
Set in late 1800’s Mexico amid the political turmoil of General Porfirio Diaz’s regime “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” recounts the real-life story of Ur...moreSet in late 1800’s Mexico amid the political turmoil of General Porfirio Diaz’s regime “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” recounts the real-life story of Urrea’s great-aunt Teresita. The illegitimate daughter of the patron and one of the indios working his ranch, Teresita eventually became known as Santa Teresa, the Saint of Cabora. Apprenticed to the colorful curandera (healer) Huila at an early age she eventually became known for her midwifery skills, healing powers and supposed return from the dead. Eventually her popularity among the laypeople inspired massive pilgrimages to her home and attracted the attention of General Diaz himself, who saw her as a threat to his authority when she began encouraging the Yaqui Indians to fight for their land. After spending twenty years researching Teresita’s life and even the healing techniques of the indios, Urrea has created an enthralling story filled with lively characters who all but jump off the page. I especially appreciated his colorful use of colloquial Spanish, which not only reminded me of some of my relatives but made his characters seem all the more human.(less)
I’m a picky reader so I don’t say this lightly: this is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I certainly didn’t expect it be so enchantin...moreI’m a picky reader so I don’t say this lightly: this is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I certainly didn’t expect it be so enchanting when I saw it sitting on a shelf at the library, but there’s something about this story that is deeply moving. The main character is a twelve-year-old boy named David whose mother has recently died of cancer. When his father remarries shortly after her death and has a child with his new wife, David feels betrayed and retreats into a world of books and fairy tales. Eventually he spends so much time with his books that the boundaries between fantasy and reality begin to fade, and what results is a poignant story of a young boy’s journey from innocence to adulthood. Filled with heroes, monsters, tricksters and kings, the pages of this book tell a tale that is hard to put down.(less)
In this amusing Jane Austen inspired novel heartbroken Courtney Stone goes to sleep in her modern-day Los Angeles apartment only to wake up the next m...moreIn this amusing Jane Austen inspired novel heartbroken Courtney Stone goes to sleep in her modern-day Los Angeles apartment only to wake up the next morning in the body of an nineteenth-century Englishwoman named Jane Mansfield. With no idea how she got inside Jane’s body, Courtney must negotiate Jane’s aristocratic English life without revealing that “Jane” is no longer who everyone thinks she is. Sporadic memories of Jane’s life eventually materialize along with a love interest named Mr. Edgeworth, making Courtney’s newfound existence even more complicated than it already is. Rather than glossing over the realities of nineteenth-century living as so many period novels do, the narrator weaves these details in to the story, entertaining us and torturing Courtney, for example, as she tries to bathe in a house without plumping. Courtney’s anachronistic expectations and views are what drive the humor in this novel, though her relationships with fellow characters leave something to be desired. Courtney is just as bemused by the end of the story as she was at the beginning, and I couldn’t help feeling that the author missed many prime opportunities for gleaning the modern vs. Regency England conundrum for all its worth. Eventually Courtney makes some headway with her situation, but never develops any real depth. Yet if you are looking for a light, easy read that doesn’t take itself too seriously this novel is entertaining. It certainly made my afternoon commute on the train fly by.(less)
After reading the Amazon.com reviews I was eagerly anticipating this book about Lady Emma Hamilton, a common born woman who rose to fame both for her...moreAfter reading the Amazon.com reviews I was eagerly anticipating this book about Lady Emma Hamilton, a common born woman who rose to fame both for her beauty and for her affair with Admiral Lord Nelson. Born Amy Lyon in 1765, by seventeen years of age she was already well-known in London society as the mistress of several men and as the “Goddess of Health” for a quack Scottish doctor named James Graham. Eventually she moved to Italy where she became the toast of society and married the English Lord Hamilton, and it was during this period of her life that Lady Hamilton met Admiral Lord Nelson. Altogether Lady Hamilton’s life is captivating and “Too Great a Lady” captures some of that, especially during the first half of the book where we learn about Emma’s early years in a brothel and as a kept woman. However, the second half of the book loses much of Emma’s voice and reads more like a history book than a novel. Significant portions of each chapter are composed of excerpts from Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson’s letters, and though we still learn about her life, for the most part she recounts Nelson’s military history and current missions. I felt like her story took a backseat while Nelson’s military prowess came to the front, and while I don’t dispute Nelson’s well-deserved renown I was more interested in Emma’s thoughts and feelings. The old adage of “show don’t tell” would have improved the story significantly in this area, transforming Emma’s social gatherings from something akin to “went we to a dance” to an entire world of costume, food and conversation. Finally, Emma’s inconsistent dialect drove me up the wall. The author goes to great lengths to convince the reader that Emma was so proud of her Cheshire accent that she refused to get rid of it, despite having near native pronunciation in languages such as Italian and French. Nevertheless, Emma’s dialogue is incredibly inconsistent. For instance, on page 360 Emma says “Mam, Emma Carew has just arrived. Tell me, and tell me true: did you plan this?” then some 8 lines down Emma suddenly sounds like this “Only I ‘ope I never ‘ave to answer too many questions. My ‘eart won’t be able to stand up to it, y’nau?” In the first example Emma sounds like a well-spoken ‘lady,’ capable of pronouncing the letter H and all. In the second example, she has reverted to her Cheshire accent, dropping all the H’s and even becoming unable to say “you know” correctly. I realize I’m being tremendously picky here, and I have no problem with accents – but if a character is going to have a heavy accent they should have it throughout!(less)
Not long after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid. Once there she fell...moreNot long after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 Deborah Rodriguez went to Afghanistan as part of a group offering humanitarian aid. Once there she fell in love with the people and their land – but what could she, a hairdresser from Michigan, do to help? Eventually she decided to open a beauty school that would give Afghani women the skills they needed to work in one of the only socially acceptable areas: beauty salons. The Kabul Beauty School opened in 2003 and as Rodriguez tells her story she also introduces you to the vibrant women who have become a part of her life: the newlywed who faked her virginity on her wedding night, the twelve-year-old bride sold into marriage to pay her family’s debts, the Taliban member’s wife who attended the beauty school despite her husband’s constant beatings. Each and every tale is filled with moments of heartbreak and awe – it’s hard to believe what some Afghani women must go through for the simple pleasures we so easily enjoy in America.
The subtitle for this book is somewhat misleading in that Rodriguez never went behind the veil herself, choosing instead to revel in her outgoing American personality. She did wear a veil on occasion, but for the most part Rodriguez reveals the proverbial faces of other women living veiled lives in Afghanistan. Also, at times it is hard to understand what was going on in Rodriguez’s head and I would have appreciated more detail about the thinking process behind her decisions. For instance, when she agreed to an arranged marriage and became a man’s second wife, or when she agreed to let her teenage son marry an Afghani woman who was being sexually abused. Yet if the rest of the book is any indication, I’m sure the impetus behind these actions was the author’s big heart and tremendous trust in the goodness in other people. Altogether this is an inspiring book that makes you rethink your conceptions about what can truly make a difference in this world.(less)
Set in a fundamentalist Christian sect living outside of mainstream society, this is an evocative, highly addictive story. Ninah (the main character)...moreSet in a fundamentalist Christian sect living outside of mainstream society, this is an evocative, highly addictive story. Ninah (the main character) is a thoughtful, inquisitive young woman. Both of these qualities cause intense inner conflict, especially when she feels torn between faith and forbidden love. The only reason I’m giving this book 4 instead of 5 stars is because the storyline is so strong – and a bit disturbing at times. This is especially true towards the end of the novel.(less)
As a young boy Xeno Atlas learned of an ancient book called the ‘Caravan Bestiary’ that contained stories of all the animals who had been denied safe...moreAs a young boy Xeno Atlas learned of an ancient book called the ‘Caravan Bestiary’ that contained stories of all the animals who had been denied safe passage on Noah’s ark: the manticore, the unicorn, the sphinx, to name of a few. An isolated youth whose mother died giving birth to him – and whose father resents him for it – Xeno is raised by his grandmother and her tales of animal spirits. When his grandmother dies and Xeno is shipped off to boarding school a teacher tells him of the Caravan Bestiary, and herein begins Xeno’s quest to find the book, which has been lost for hundreds of years. During his school years he begins researching fantastical beasts, taking notes in spiral bound notebooks, and when he is drafted some years later for the Vietnam War it is only Xeno’s desire to find the bestiary that prevents him from succumbing to his traumatic wartime memories. Soon his father dies and leaves him with a fortune – a mysterious occurrence since Xeno’s father was a sailor – and Xeno finds himself able to travel the world looking for the bestiary. His quest takes him to libraries from Hawaii to Europe, even an unlikely friendship with a seance master, each step revealing clues that take Xeno one step closer to his goal. Xeno’s story is a fascinating one at first, punctuated by his melancholic passion for mythology and a frustrated love for his childhood friend, Lena. However, though the conclusion matches the overall tone of the book it was unsatisfying. Many questions are left unanswered, which is in keeping with Xeno’s mysterious search, but I couldn’t help wishing for more from the author.(less)
I never thought I would say this but John Speed now rivals Philippa Gregory as one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. Set in India in the y...moreI never thought I would say this but John Speed now rivals Philippa Gregory as one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. Set in India in the year 1657, “The Temple Dancer” is a riveting tale of two women: Lucinda Desana, a beautiful Goan heiress; and Maya, a devadasi (temple dancer) who is bought by Lucinda’s family and sold as a concubine. They meet in Goa and travel through the Western Ghats by elephant, each heading towards a fate that has changed by the time their journey has ended. Escorted by a dangerous man with a reputation for violence, a conniving eunuch, a cold-hearted businessman and a mysterious prince, their story is filled with intrigue, adventure, sensuality and forbidden love. Indeed, I lost many hours of sleep because I simply had to find out what Speed’s exotic collection of characters were going to do next. His immense knowledge of Indian history and culture transforms them into vibrant people who inhabit an unforgettable world. The back cover of this book says that Speed has studied Indian history, art and religion for over thirty-years and I believe it. I can hardly wait for the next two books in this planned trilogy.(less)
I have to admit: I was absolutely enamored with this book… until I got to the end, when my feelings began to waver. Told by two narrators – one a best...moreI have to admit: I was absolutely enamored with this book… until I got to the end, when my feelings began to waver. Told by two narrators – one a best-selling author with a mysterious past, the other her young biographer – at first The Thirteenth Tale is wildly captivating. Learning about the Angelfield twins is like being drawn into tale that is part gothic ghost story and part modern mystery. Setterfield maintains this pitch for most of the book, but sadly, allows the narrative to falter somewhat towards the end. Although the culmination of the Angelfield history is fascinating, there is too much fluff on either side of it. A long set of uninteresting journal entries beforehand, and a drawn out “wrapping things up” section afterwards. Also, a few storyline questions were left unanswered – no reason for that after 406 pages. Still, this book did make my commute something to look forward to, no small feat considering I spend a good four hours on trains & subways every day!(less)