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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto
By Ann Patchett
Completed July 4, 2010

Imagine being held hostage for more than four months in a luxurious mansion in a South American country. Negotiations are at a stalemate, and the terrorists holding you are nothing more than a gang of armed teenagers led by three generals. You outnumber your captors, and they are pretty lax with their rules. Despite the odds, you never try to escape. Why? Because your life as a hostage allows you to become a new person – a person that you couldn’t be in your real life. It’s this theme that is the cornerstone to Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

The group was assembled to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa. They were foreign dignitaries, priests and government officials – and the character that tied them all together was Roxane Coss, the American soprano who was the evening’s entertainment. Once the terrorists invaded the mansion, it was Roxane who called the shots. She used her lovely voice as collateral and was able to negotiate shampoo, food and other amenities for her fellow captives. In turn, she sang for the terrorists and hostages – and they all fell under the spell of Roxane’s music.

Spending months together blurred the lines between the terrorists and hostages. Together, they played chess, took reading lessons, cooked and made love. The hostages, mostly older men, showed fatherly affection to some of the terrorists. With this attention, the teens began to blossom. A boy could sing, a girl could read, another could play chess. They transformed from being jungle children to individuals with hearts and souls – all wanting love and approval.

Bel Canto runs at a slow pace, which probably won’t suit many readers. However, if you love character-driven stories, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint was the epilogue, which tied together some unnecessary loose strings. Sometimes, stories just need to end on its tragic note – because that’s what happens in real life. Other than this small flaw, I enjoyed Bel Canto and look forward to reading more fiction by the talented Ann Patchett. ( )
 


The Quickening by Michelle Hoover

The Quickening
By Michelle Hoover
Completed June 25, 2010

 

This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

The Quickening is the debut novel by Michelle Hoover – a story of two women who live on neighboring farms in the Midwest during the Great Depression. Mary, on the surface, was uppity and conniving, but as the story emerged, the reader saw the lonely side of Mary. She was abused by her husband and not respected by her three sons. Her only solace was playing piano at the local church under the encouragement of her pastor. Eddie was Mary’s neighbor – a more down-to-earth soul who was troubled by her inability to have children (though she eventually had twins) and struggling to keep her farm afloat with her husband.

It would be hard to characterize Mary and Eddie as friends. As neighbors, they spoke to each other often, their children played together and their husbands helped each other out. Whatever friendship existed between them, though, was completely destroyed by the time of the “accident” – something mentioned over and over again but not revealed until the end of the book.

Each character takes turns narrating a chapter, which sometimes was a reflection of 1930’s farm life and other times was told from their perspectives as older women (probably during the 1950’s). The changing time lines within the chapters were confusing at first, but once you find the rhythm, it moves nicely. Each chapter uncovers a little more about each woman, finally climaxing to the “accident” that changed their lives forever.

Hoover is a promising young writer, and The Quickening proves to be a noteworthy debut. Her renderings of Mary and Eddie, as well as her descriptive writing style, resemble the work of a more experienced writer. If you like being transported to this time in American history, I would recommend The Quickening to you. ( )

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer


The Invisible Bridge
By Julie Orringer
Completed June 21, 2010

As one reads more and more about the atrocities of World War II, it’s really a wonder that war is still part of any country’s foreign policy. Here is a war, no that long ago, that ravished several continents and left millions of people dead. This was a war against people, buildings, cultures and a way of life. Many authors, including Julie Orringer and her The Invisible Bridge, have seized this opportunity to remind us again of the devastation of World War II, by creating stories about how war affects us all.

In The Invisible Bridge, the reader follows young Andras Levi, who was leaving his native Hungary to pursue an architectural degree in Paris. The first half of Orringer’s tome was devoted to Andras’ time in Paris – his struggle to afford tuition, his romantic entanglements with Claire and the affects of anti-Semitism in school. He and his friends – all Jewish – watched with an anxious eye as Hitler began his conquering of Europe. Eventually, Andras must return home, facing the reality that his homeland will enter war with him in it.

Being in a Budapest was one of the safest places for European Jews during World War II. Hungary was not keen on Hitler’s “Final Solution” policies, and while Jews were economically and politically repressed, it wasn’t until the end of the war that they faced the fates of their European neighbors. While you read about Andras’ struggles serving in the Hungarian labor force, you kept waiting for the other shoe to drop: when Andras would be killed, when his family would be “evacuated,” when senseless killing would begin. It was a weird sense of dread, knowing the inevitable would occur.

The Invisible Bridge is Orringer’s first novel, and she should be applauded for tackling such a tremendous subject. Admittedly, the second half of the novel – when Andras was back in Hungary – was the most engaging part of the story for me. The amount of pages spent of his time in Paris seemed a bit excessive, compared to his plight once Andras returned home. Nonetheless, I would recommend The Invisible Bridge to fans of World War II fiction – the story of Hungarian Jews was a different side to this war – and one readers might find educational and provocative. ( )

Orange Prize Survey results are in!


Thank you to the 37 respondents who participated in the Orange Prize Survey! It was a tough match! Check out the results!

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver


The Lacuna
By Barbara Kingsolver
Completed June 6, 2010

In The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver assembles a moving story about a character who becomes a victim of his times. Harrison Shepherd could never find a place to call home. An American boy living in Mexico, Harrison survived through his ability to cook good Mexican food and gift for writing. His youth was spent among Communists – namely Mexican painters Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo, and displaced Russian revolutionary Lev Trotsky. While politically ambiguous, Harrison was loyal to his employers – typing letters, mixing plaster and cooking dinners. After Trotsky’s murder, Harrison felt alienated by the country he called home and decided to head north to the country of his birth.

Unfortunately, Harrison’s time in the United States was equally disillusioning. Embracing the wartime hopefulness of Americans, he began a successful career as a novelist writing about ancient Mexico. Harrison had a few years of peace and happiness, until the U.S. government began investigating citizens for communist loyalty. Harrison’s time in Mexico made him an easy target, and he fell victim to McCarthyism – alienated once again from a country he tried to turn into home.

Lucky for Harrison, he had a loyal and intuitive stenographer, Violet Brown, who helped him navigate these murky waters. She typed his letters, fed his creative soul and counseled him on how to deal with the claims of anti-Americanism. She saw grace and talent in her employer, and Violet did everything she could to protect him (mostly from himself).

The Lacuna has troubling similarities to modern America. Kingsolver exposes the injustices and paranoia that can grip a nation. Her book could serve as a warning to people about what happens when fear overrules reason: Innocent people are tossed aside, personal justice is stepped on, and people become suspicious of their neighbors, co-workers and friends. For a person like Harrison Shepherd, it becomes a hole that one cannot emerge from.

Told with beautiful language and witty dialogue, The Lacuna is Kingsolver at her finest. This book is highly recommended to readers of “serious” fiction – who enjoy stories full of symbolism, foreshadowing and politcal thought. ( )

Vote now for your 2010 Orange Prize pick


On Thursday, June 9, the winner of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction will be announced in London. But if you were one of the Orange Prize judges, who would you pick for the winner?

Cast your vote in the 2010 Orange Prize Winner Survey and let your voice be heard!

The survey is open until midnight EST, Monday, June 6, and the responses will be announced on my Examiner page on Tuesday, June 7. And check back there for the Orange Prize Winner announcement. 

 

Take The Orange Prize Survey
 


Getting Ready for Orange July 2010

I am very excited about this year's Orange July, and I hope you all will join the fun. As a reminder, Orange July is when you commit to read at least one book that has won or been nominated for the Orange Prize.

Orange Prize for FictionAs you think about what books to read, here are some helpful links:

Past Orange Prize Winners and Nominees
2010 Orange Prize Long List
2010 Orange Prize Short List
Orange Prize Project Blog
Orange January/July Facebook page
Orange Prize on Twitter
Orange January/July on Twitter

Hashtags:
#opf2010 - if you tweet about Orange Prize 2010
#ojj - if you tweet about Orange July

Are you planning on participating in Orange July? Make sure to leave a comment to let us know - and please spread the word on your blog, Facebook page or Twitter profile!


 


The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison

The Very Thought of You
By Rosie Alison
Completed May 21, 2010

Before being shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize, The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison had not been reviewed by a major literary critic. Now, many reviewers and book lovers are catching up, and reviews are coming in about this dark horse in the Orange Prize race.

The Very Thought of You begins right before England declares war on Germany during the Second World War. Eight-year-old Anna Sands is beginning her journey as a refugee to the English countryside, dispatched by her mother who feared London would be bombed during the war. Anna arrives at the estate owned by a childless couple, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. There, Anna assimiliates to a new routine with school, friends and country life. She witnesses, though, conflicts of love and lust that are well beyond her years.

Alison’s depiction of England and the child refugee’s life was eluminating. It’s amazing the sacrifices the English made during this time. Despite the atrocities of war, “regular” life trudged on – a poetry assignment, the purchase of blankets, a daily prayer.

While the historical aspects of The Very Thought of You were interesting, the numerous love issues of the adult characters were troubling. Three marriages were in shambles, with couples cheating on each other, and a general sense of selfishness was abound. It was adultery overkill. Alison should have focused on the demise of one couple, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, who presented the most interesting case of why a marriage could fail. The rest of the love affairs distracted from the story.

Despite this, I was enamored by Alison’s characters, especially Anna, and intrigued by the historic setting of the story. Alison’s writing style was swift and moving. I would recommend The Very Thought of You to anyone interested in the lives of those on the British homefront during World War II. ( )

Molly Fox's Birthday by Deirdre Madden

Molly Fox's Birthday
By Deirdre Madden
Completed May 13, 2010


How well do you know your friends? In Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, the unnamed narrator, who is a successful playwright, examines the friendships of her two friends, Molly and Andrew.

The narrator is staying in Molly’s home while Molly is on holiday. Facing fierce writer’s block, the narrator begins to reminisce about how she met Molly, who was now a highly acclaimed stage actress, and their mutual friend, Andrew, who was an art historian. As the narrator goes through her day, little things remind her of each friend. She begins to realize that she may not know her friends as well as she hoped. Each had sides to their lives that were closed – the mourning of a murdered brother, the abandonment by a mother.

The narrator doesn’t dwell in these facts, but gets captivated in its wonderment. In essence, she accepts that you could be friends with people for a long time, but there are still layers that remain unrevealed. The idea of friendship is to not focus on what you don’t know about a person but revel in what you do.

An enchanting tribute to friendship, Molly Fox’s Birthday would be enjoyed by readers who relish in the cerebral. Admittedly, the story has some contrived transitions between the narrator’s present life and her memories. Overall, though, it was a lovely tale about the power of friendship, mutual respect and acceptance. ( )
 


Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi

Remember Me
By Trezza Azzopardi
Completed May 8, 2010

As I finished Remember Me by Trezza Azzopardi, I was left with a feeling of mystery about the story’s narrator. After more than 260 pages, what did I learn about her? Even her name was a moving target – was it Patsy or Lillian or Winnie? Told by such an unreliable narrator, Remember Me is one of those books that falls together hours after completion. Azzopardi drops clues about Winnie like breadcrumbs, helping the reader find her way through Winnie’s story after much reflection.

Remember Me shifts from Winnie’s past to her present life as an older woman living on the streets. She carries her green case, full of mementoes. When someone steals Winnie’s case, she takes an emotional journey through her past. We learn that Winnie was the daughter of a doting father and a mentally unstable mother. After her mother’s death, she moves in with her grandfather, and then later her great aunt. She eventually ends up at the home of a brother and sister who convince Winnie that she’s a clairvoyant. It’s this part of Winnie’s journey that offers a moment of stability for her before more heartbreak sets in. As you watch Winnie move from place to place, it’s sad to see her never have a place to call home. Everything was temporary in Winnie’s world.

Remember Me is a story that should be read by those who like a story’s complexities and learning about the characters slowly. Azzopardi packs an emotional punch, once you sit back and reflect on all of the pieces she presents about her characters. Once you do, you are left with a novel about how loneliness and detachment can plague a human’s soul. ( )
 


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