Tuesday, February 23, 2010

17. The Secret River by Kate Grenville

William Thornhill is born in England into extreme poverty.  But his childhood friend, Sal, grows into the love of his life.  They marry, have a child and he runs her father's boating business.  During a time of hardship, William is caught stealing and is sentenced to the penal colony of New South Wales along with Sal, their son, Willie, and another son born on the voyage.  William is indentured to his wife and after a year becomes an emancipist and allowed to go his own way.  He talks Sal into moving to a site he has found on the Hawkesbury River where they plan to farm and save enough to return to England.  At least, Sal wants to return.  Neither knows much about farming and less about living in the wilds of Australia.  When a band of aborigines picks their land to settle, they adapt and learn small things from the natives.  But there are other Englishmen living on the river who incite each other against the aborigines creating a tense and untenable situation. 

I'll just say that I liked the first part of this book.  William and Sal are sympathetic characters, and their love for each other is touching.  The characters of their children are less developed which I thought detracted from the story.  Up until the conflict with the aborigines becomes inflamed, I was enjoying the book.  William becomes less sympathetic, even though I could understand some of his confusion and ambivalence.  While I'm sure the conflicts depicted are historically accurate, I didn't like reading about the atrocities committed by both sides.  It's a tale much like what happened to the native Americans, unbearably sad; but I didn't get a true feel for that sadness.  The ending was not satisfying for me either.  I would have to say my feelings about The Secret River are just so-so.
Rating:  3
Catching Up Challenge

Sunday, February 21, 2010

16. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

This biography tells the story of the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  Known by her friends and family as Vincent, the poetess lived a very unconventional life.  She and her two sisters were raised by an absent mother.  Because of divorce, Cora Millay worked as a nurse and often had to leave her young daughters alone for days at a time.  Vincent strived to achieve in school and often wrote stories and poems that won prizes in magazines.  She catches the eye of a rich socialite who sponsors her to attend college at Vassar.  I found this portion of the book to be very interesting.  In fact, it is a testament to the talents of Nancy Milford that I actually finished the book.  She makes Millay's story compelling and includes interesting tidbits about life in the first half of the 20th century.  However, Millay herself was not a likeable person at all.  At least not in this book.  She must have had some redeeming qualities because the books tells about scores of friends and lovers.  However, what I learned about this woman, even though she had obvious writing talent, is that she was promiscuous, had numerous affairs with men and women including one while she was married that her husband seemed to condone, she was selfish and self-centered; became addicted to alcohol and drugs; and she spent way more money than she earned.  She seemed to be dedicated to her mother but often neglected her.  Relations with her sisters were strained at the best of times.  Usually, I don't care for asides from the author; but Milford is able to interject dialogs with Millay's sister, Norma, that added insight and humor to the course of the story.  Many of Millay's poems are included in the book, but I am not a poetry lover.  Not sure why I would read this book, but there you have it.  I'm glad it's over.  I'm not sure if I will read another of Milford's book.  Even though she writes very well, I wonder why she included so much of Millay's sexual life unless that was just such a huge part of her existence.  It really did serve to illustrate her unconventionality and unique approach to life. All said, I was really glad to finish this book and look forward to moving on to something more uplifting.
Rating:  2.75

Catching Up Challenge

Thursday, February 11, 2010

15. The Rug Merchant by Meg Mullins

The Rug Merchant tells the tale of Ushman, an forty-year-old Iranian expatriot who came to New York to create a better life for him and his wife who remains in Iran caring for his ailing mother.  After three years, Ushman has established a successful business selling expensive Persian rugs.  The reader is only introduced to one, Mrs. Roberts, who seems to have an extraordinary interest in this merchant.  I found her, at best, odd.  After Ushman's wife declares that she is pregant and divorcing him for another man, he begins haunting the airport, imagining the reunion that will now never happen.  But he meets Stella, a nineteen-year-old college student.  She is beautiful, carefree and very American.  The two become lovers in a way that I found hard to believe; but it does illustrate Ushman's great loneliness and openness to other possibilities.  He is very realistic about the relationship which probably lends to what I felt was an anticlimatic ending.  As you can probably tell, I didn't love this book.  While I found Mullins writing beautiful; the story itself fell flat and left me unmoved.  I did like the way she presented how the cultural differences of Ushman's old and new life affect so many of his actions; but, in the end, I found I didn't care that much about him. 
Rating:  3

Catching up Challenge

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

14. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Ten very dissimilar people find themselves invited to an island retreat owned by the mysterious U. N. Owen.  Or Unknown.  As it turns out, they find they do have something in common.  Each one has murdered or caused the death of another or allowed someone to die through their deliberate negligence.  And their host intends to punish each one.  One by one, the visitors are poisoned, axed, shot, etc.  As each character dies, those remaining start to view others with growing suspicision.  Their terror is so real.  They have been abandoned on the island with no contact with the outside world and a murderer is amongst them.  Who wouldn't be terrified under these circumstances.  How they try to defend themselves and how their artifices unravel makes for a truly intense story.  I was really rooting for each person to not be killed but as more is revealed about them and their particular crime, that feeling began to change.  And the final chapter where all is revealed took me completely by surprise.  But it was a very satisfying ending.   Although I've listened to several Miss Marple mysteries on CD and loved them, this is the first of her books that I actually read.  What a treat.  I'm so glad I have some more sitting on the shelf to look forward to.    Rating:  4.75

Catch Up Challenge

13. Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas by James Patterson

James Patterson has written a love story!--a powerfully moving and suspenseful novel about families, loss, new love, and hope.

Katie Wilkinson has found her perfect man at last. He's a writer, a house painter, an original thinker--everything she's imagined she wanted in a partner. But one day, without explanation, he disappears from her life, leaving behind only a diary for her to read.

This diary is a love letter written by a new mother named Suzanne for her baby son, Nicholas. In it she pours out her heart about how she and the boy's father met, about her hopes for marriage and family, and about the unparalleled joy that having a baby has brought into her life. As Katie reads this touching document, it becomes clear that the lover who has just left her is the husband and father in this young family. She reads on, filled with terror and hope, as she struggles to understand what has happened--and whether her new love has a prayer of surviving.   Book Summary from Bookbrowse.com

I've read most of the Alex Cross series that Patterson wrote, really liked it, even though it was truly violent stuff.  Still, the stories were well told, the characters incredible -- the good and the evil -- and they were a great example of psychological thrillers.  Suzanne's Diary is a complete departure from that genre.  I think Patterson does a pretty good job of writing a book from the woman's point of view.  He also does a good job of putting suspense in the story which probably isn't easy in a romance novel.  The book reminded me of a Nicholas Sparks novel, only better.  I liked the use of a diary to convey the story of Matt's previous life before Katie.  But I didn't get a feel for who Katie was, she was more of a peripheral part of the story; and Suzanne and Matt were almost too perfect.  Of course, Nicholas was the best part because he's a baby; but even he was way too precocious.  In spite of all that and the fact that it was pretty sappy, I quite liked the book.  I didn't really see the twist at the end of the book, pretty sure I didn't like it; but I'm still giving the book a pretty good rating.  Rating:  4

Catch Up Challenge

Sunday, February 07, 2010

12. 1776 by David McCullough

The fact that this book was written by David McCullough is the only reason I could be induced into reading yet another book about the Revolutionary War.  I would love to read a biography of George Washington, but I don't think I can face all that war information.  I'm just not interested in the campaigns, strategies, and details of battle.  Even so, I'm giving this book a pretty good rating because McCullough makes the battles almost interesting and the rest of the history of this pivotal year is fascinating.  I love how he includes the thoughts of King George and the leaders of Great Britain as they discuss those pesky colonies.  It really makes you think about what the other side felt about such disloyalty.  The author also includes journal entries written by soldiers from all walks of life, misspellings and all.  It's also the first time I really felt that Washington was not the infallible genius we are led to believe.  How they won the war after the debacle on New York Island (Manhattan) is amazing.  So he did make some huge mistakes but he learned and grew from them and became so much more.  What McCullough really shows so well is how fantastic it was that the Continental Army was able to be victorious against the mightiest army and navy on the earth as he writes in the final paragraph:
"The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Decaration of Independence, was for those who carried the fight for independence forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.  Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning -- how often circumstances, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference -- the outcome seemed little short of a miracle."
Of course, I have a firm belief that God played a huge part in the creation of this nation; but then why did he make it so hard and allow so much suffering?  Probably so that when we look back over the years to those struggles and sacrifices, we won't take for granted what those patriots did that allows us the freedoms we enjoy so much and that established this country on such a good foundation.   Rating:  4.25


Friday, February 05, 2010

11. Tara Road by Maeve Binchy

It's been many years since I've read a Binchy book.  There were probably several but I can only remember Circle of Friends and The Scarlett Letter.  Even with that length of time, it seems like Tara Road follows a similar pattern:  a sympathetic female character who falls in love with a good-looking, well meaning, but weak cad.  But maybe I'm wrong and the other two books are more different that I remember.  I do remember liking them or why would I have bought this book?  We are introduced to Ria as a young girl who looks up to her older sister and is basically just a good person.  While working at a real estate agency, she meets Danny Lynch.  They fall in love, marry, and buy a fantastic fixer-upper on Tara Road.  Through the years, the house is improved and Ria creates a home where family and friends gather to enjoy her hospitality and good food.  With a daughter and a son, a beautiful home, and a charming, good-looking husband; Ria believes life couldn't get any better except for maybe another child.  When she broaches the subject to Danny, all hell breaks loose as he confesses he has got another woman pregnant and is leaving Ria.  This story takes up half the book.  The rest deals with how Ria exchanges homes for two months with Marilyn from Stonyfield, Connecticut in a bold move that astounds her close friends and family.  None of what happens in the book is a real surprise to the reader and the ending, while certainly not wrapping everything up, implies that almost everyone is going to have a happy ending.  It is a bit unbelievable that Ria's bratty 14-year-old daughter becomes so loving to her mother in two months' time.  There are a few details like that that put me off a bit.  However, I do like the way Binchy draws her characters.  Even Danny, bounder that he is, has redeeming qualities. Ria is a bit too innocent and naive while her daughter is sharp as a tack.  I really like Ria's mother, Nora, in the latter part of the book.  She's a hoot.  Another great character is Marilyn who just can't understand how the Irish are so intrusive in each others' lives.  Her efforts to distance herself are pretty entertaining.  And there are a few characters that you really love to hate.  While I don't consider this book to be great literature, it was an entertaining read and kept my attention most of the time.  I think it could have been shorter, maybe a few less divergent storylines; but overall pretty good.
Rating:  3.5

Monday, February 01, 2010

10. Rockwell by Karal Ann Marling

Less a biography and more a pictorial journey, Rockwell follows America's best-loved artist as he begins his career creating his unmistakeable illustrations.  I bought this book seeral years ago because I am a true Norman Rockwell fan.  His pictures make me laugh, sigh, or even tear up which is probably why they were and are so popular.  Of course, the art critic community panned him for his sentimental art and refused to consider him as a true artiste.  True, his paintings are photographic in nature, but they were amazing in how they could tell a story and for the detail and the feeling he put into each canvas.  I love his pictures.  And this book contains over 100 illustrations of the pictures and the artist.  While I didn't learn a lot about the man himself -- he was married three times, had three sons, and suffered from depression -- I did learn a great deal about his art, the motivation behind much of his work; and how he and his work changed over the years.  A fun and informative read.  Here's a few of my favorites:
Rating:  4