Monday, September 24, 2007

The Splendor of Silence

This is a Mother Talk book review.

The Splendor of Silence, by Indu Sundaresan, is a lush, sweeping novel, set in India in 1942. It weaves a love story, culture clashes, some espionage and anarchy into four boilingly hot pre-monsoon days.

Sam Hawthorne comes to India via Burma, where he had parachuted in behind Japanese lines to rescue a missionary. During his mission for the fledgling OSS, he's injured and comes to Rudrakot ostensibly to heal. In reality, he is searching for his missing brother Michael.

In Rudrakot, Sam stays with Raman, the political agent who is, unusually, an Indian. Sam meets, and falls in love with, Raman's daughter Mila, who is, of course, promised elsewhere. Not just any elsewhere, but to the local raj. Sam learns that his brother is a prisoner at a detention center and also finds out that Mila's younger brother Ashok has become embroiled with a nationalistic group intent on assassinating the British representative to Rudrakot. If Sam reveals the plot, he loses his chance to free his brother.

This tale is revealed to Olivia Hawthorne, Sam's daughter, who receives a mysterious trunk on the day her father died. Thru an anonymous letter-writer, Olivia fills in the holes of her childhood and learns about her parents affair during a time of racial tension and political upheaval.

While the tale takes a while to develop, the writing is generally excellent and the details are exquisite. The descriptions of life in India, in Rudrakot, bring to life the heat, the misery and the class divide that permeated the kingdom. The heat simmers on the page and while the plot twists and hopping back and forth in time can be a bit confusing, overall it's an enjoyable read, especially to anyone interested in the many historical aspects of this book.

This is another great book group possibility. There are so many questions that could be discussed: Race relations, history, non-violent reform and civil disobedience, class lines in both India and Britain and inter-racial relationships. I haven't read anything by this author before, but I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for her books when I'm out perusing the libraries and used bookstores I frequent.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed WIngs

This is a review for Mother Talk.

On Borrowed Wings, by Chandra Prasad, is a coming of age story with a twist.

Adele Pietra grew up during the Great Depression in Stony Creek, CT, a town divided between the haves, or Cottagers, and the have-nots - the quarry workers. Adele's father was an Italian stonecutter and her mother was a former Cottager, disowned by her wealthy parents over her marriage.

Adele has a brother named Charlie who is a year older and their mother's favourite. Their mother pours all of her spare energy into educating Charlie, tutoring him into the night so that he can get into Yale.

When Adele's father and brother are killed in a quarry accident, Adele and her ambitious mother decide that Adele should assume the role of Charlie and take his place at Yale, where he'd been accepted shortly before his death.

Arriving at Yale, Adele not only has to conceal her impoverished background but also her gender. While she grapples with trying to pass as a young man, she also has to deal with her feelings of revulsion over her work-study job with a professor of eugenics. This work brings her into contact with many poor families in New Haven, but specifically centers on one Italian-American family, the DiRisios, whom she tutors and develops a pseudo-familial relationship.

While afraid that these young men might find out her secret, she easily falls into a friendship with several classmates.; Harry, a slight Jewish boy from Manhattan, Phin, a mysterious legacy student and Wick, an irrepressible daredevil who fascinates Adele. She manages to navigate these sometimes-treacherous waters fairly well, but with believable pitfalls and near-misses over the discovery of her identity as a woman.

The characters in this book were all excellently developed and I found myself pulling for Adele from the beginning. She's a very real heroine, flawed, but essentially a good person. She makes mistakes, she shows vulnerability, but she also stands up for people and develops real relationships in spite of the strain she's under about her identity.

As Adele progresses thru Yale, she realizes how much she loves learning just to learn. She spends hours in the Stacks, dipping into books as the fancy strikes but eventually becoming more disciplined in her choices. In her work with the DiRisios, the Italian family, she discovers a real joy in passing that knowledge along to others. It is this that drives her to stay at Yale, over her mother's eventual protests.

This book was great on so many levels. It would make a terrific book group book because there are so many topics to delve into for discussion: race, class and gender identity, to name but three. In fact, I may suggest it for my book group; I enjoyed it that much. It would be fascinating to get other women's opinions on this excellent book.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Interred With Their Bones

This is a Mother Talk book review.

Interred With Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell, is a roller coaster of a book, weaving the mystery of the whereabouts of one of Shakespeare's lost plays with the mystery of the actual identity of Shakespeare himself.

I love books like this. Big, fat, entertaining books that assume you know a bit about the subject at hand. Books that take you on a rollicking ride while never pandering or talking down to you. Books that have you on the edge of your seat, eager to find out What Happens Next. Best of all, they're based on actual facts and real history. These books are fun, especially when you stop and think about history. People get intimidated - "Oh, I could never get my head around historical fiction." Codswallop. Of course you can - all history is is gossip, gussied up and given the patina of age.

On to the plot:

Kate, a stage director at the New Globe theatre in London, is drawn into this mystery by her former mentor, Rosalind Howard. Roz gives her a gift and begs Kate to follow it where it leads. When the Globe is burned and Roz is killed - in a way that mimics the death of Hamlet's father - Kate sets out to discover the secrets behind Roz's gift: A Victorian mourning brooch featuring flowers that that are associated with Ophelia.

Kate is accompanied on her hunt by two people; Sir Henry and Ben Pearl, Roz's nephew. The plot twists and turns as the group is chased across Europe and America in search of the answers to these great literary mysteries. People double- and triple-cross each other, and as each Shakespeare-inspired murder mounts up, the tension ratchets up another notch. The ending is one, huge, breathless chase that had me turning pages at a furious rate, anxious to find the answers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was well-paced and had plenty of twists and turns (although I will admit to having my suspicions about one of the characters very early on). The author seems to not only know the plays of Shakespeare inside and out but also the history behind who he was and the ongoing debate over whether he even existed at all.

I'm not a Shakespearean expert, nor have I read that many of his plays, but I didn't find that to be a detriment. Instead, I found myself wanting to read his plays (I own them all - thank you, Grandma) and I'm very interested in learning more about Shakespeare's life. A book that can draw me in like that and pique my curiosity is all right with me. When there are so many dreckish mysteries out there (I'm looking at you, Mr. Patterson *ahem* ), something intellectual yet readable, challenging but intensely satisfying is a wonderful find. I'll definitely be recommending this one to my friends and family. I give it four out of five stars.

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Dark Dreamweaver

This is a book review.

The Dark Dreamweaver by Nick Ruth, a young adult fantasy fiction novel, tells the story of David, a young boy plagued by nightmares. In spite of his fractured sleep, he still manages to be cheerful and content, engaging in a Monarch butterfly-raising project with his parents.

One of these caterpillars turns out to be a cursed wizard from the land of Remin. The wizard, Houdin, needs David's help to stop Thane, the evil wizard from David's dreams, who is draining the land of Remin of its energy supply, a commodity called Spectrum.

David travels with Houdin to Remin, where they have several adventures in their effort to restore Spectrum to Remin. David starts to learn wizardry, which he seems to have an aptitude for, and meets several fantastical characters along the way.

The premise behind this book was good - conserve resources, discover alternative energy sources, be open to those who are different from you. The writing, however, was spotty. At times, it was interesting but for the most part, I found it plodding and dull. There was too much effort to make cutesy names the way JK Rowling did in the Harry Potter books, but for the most part, they weren't nearly as successful. Of course, it's hard to improve upon names like Grimauld Palace and Durmstrang.

The characters lacked development and dimension. I never felt anything for any of them - their story lines seemed forced or were rendered dull, even when they should have been interesting. The final scene was the most interesting in the book, containing exciting, dynamic passages that were woefully missing in the rest of the book.

The story seemed to be trying to ape the Potter books, with the evil wizard, the young boy wizard -in-training and the older wizard instructor. Thane, the evil wizard, was able to control people a la Voldemort, and had managed to corrupt several other species as well.

All in all, I thought this was a rather weak effort. I'm a fan of YA fantasy fiction and fantasy fiction in general, but this is not something I'd recommend to anyone.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

MotherTalk Review: Little Black Book Of Style

This is a book review. Check out their site for more information or if you'd like to sign up to be a reviewer.

I was recently given a copy of Nina Garcia's Little Black Book of Style. Ms. Garcia is the fashion director at Elle magazine as well as a judge on Project Runway. I am a huge fan of Project Runway and always enjoy Ms. Garcia's sometimes scathing, sometimes laudatory comments of the clothes the designers create. I am not, however, a fashionista. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I like my clothing to be comfortable and functional - I have an almost-three year-old and a 13 month-old. Even on their best days, they're little grime machines, so right now, I need clothes that will withstand their assaults.

That said, I enjoy fashion and when I do have the chance to get gussied up, I want to look put together. This book was definitely a primer on how to do just that. She urges women not to fall victim to fads of fashion, but rather to sculpt their own sense of style.

The easy, conversational tone of this book make it feel, for the most part, as though you're having a discussion with a good friend about clothes and shoes and handbags. She's never patronizing and she's not all about high-end fashion, telling you that you can find gems at H&M and Target and that an L.L Bean tote is just as classic as a Coach bag. Her description of being yanked out of the hot-house fashion world she inhabited in Columbia and being plunged into the preppy world of a Wellesley, MA boarding school are rather amusing - I'm a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander and I would imagine she stuck out like a sore thumb.

The illustrations in this little tome are fantastic. They are by Ruben Toledo and they perfectly complement the text. My only quibble with this book is the section of interviews she does with people like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera. She asks each person the same set of questions and after the first few, it gets monotonous.

I enjoyed this book. It's not a deep read and it didn't really tell me anything that I didn't already know, but it was informative nonetheless. The illustrations alone are worth the cover price - even if you don't get anything out of the book, you can always frame those fabulous pictures (which, sadly, I couldn't find online - just trust me, they're fantastic).