Book Review: “The Boston Girl” by Anita Diamant (4/5)

The Boston Girl by Anita DIamant (1)

Scribner, 2014, 336 pages [hardcover]

I got this book from the library after several recommendations from friends (and my mom, my faithful reading buddy). Anita Diamant is probably most well-known for writing The Red Tent which was adapted into a TV miniseries and which I actually have not read! I do have it now from the library though, and after my experience with The Boston Girl I think I will be reading it sooner rather than later.

The Boston Girl made me feel very nostalgic because my grandmother passed away three years ago, almost to the day, and this book takes the form of an 85-year-old grandmother (Addie Baum) narrating to her granddaughter (Ava), telling her all about her life beginning with her childhood in Boston in the early 1900s. My own grandmother was born just 17 years after Addie and had some similar experiences growing up in terms of being one of the first in her family to go to college and really work hard to make a name and future for herself. It made me miss her a lot and wish that I had spent more time with her finding out more about her past while she was here.

It took me a little while to get used to the second-person interjections that Addie’s character often made to Ava. I feel that second person is pretty uncommon especially in historical fiction, but in general I did think that it worked in this scenario, with an older woman basically recounting specific stories from her past in response to her granddaughter asking: “How did you get to be the woman who you are today?”

I found the greatest strength of this book to be in the characterization. Throughout changing times, cultural adjustments, family, financial, and personal struggles, Addie really remains true to herself which I respected. Other characters are also presented strongly such as Addie’s mother who really struggles with a life in America and finds it highly challenging to let go of the “old ways” of living. Although the plot was slower at times, this was definitely a solid 4-star read for me.

 

Book Review: “Ross Poldark” by Winston Graham (4.5/5)

Originally published 1945. 393 pages in my 2015 paperback edition.

Originally published 1945. 393 pages in my 2015 paperback edition.

I wanted to start exploring the Poldark series based on the growing popularity of the adaptation on BBC. This is the first book in a 12-book series by Winston Graham about the Poldark family. I haven’t watched any of the show yet because I wanted to see if I would enjoy the book first, but now I think I will definitely start watching!

Ross Poldark is the story of Ross Poldark (naturally), who returns home to Cornwall after fighting in the American Revolution. His family is fairly prominent around the area, though they are not the wealthiest or most powerful, just generally respected for the most part. Before he left for the war Ross was engaged to Elizabeth and he was so excited to come home and be with her again. However, when Ross gets home he finds out that not only has his father Joshua passed away in his absence but that Elizabeth figured him to have died in the war (it’s not like he could have sent her a Facebook message) and became engaged to his cousin Francis instead. Even after seeing that Ross has returned home, injured but alive and safe, Francis and Elizabeth go ahead with their wedding and Ross has to both heal his broken heart and make out a living for himself and straighten out his father’s home and land basically on his own (not spoilers — this is all at the very start of the book).

I first couldn’t help thinking of Ross like Ross from Friends. He was clearly so heartbroken over Elizabeth and everything that was going on, but tried his best to put on a good show for the family…

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Even though it was apparent that he actually felt like this…

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Ross has a couple of servants around the house, Jud and Prudie, who do a lot more drinking than helping out but he generously keeps them around, if only more for companionship after his father’s death and his own emotional trauma, and they eventually shape up and really get to helping him run things again. He also is very kind to the impoverished miners in the area, and rescues a young girl Demelza from her abusive father. More about that in the next books… I think that what Graham was trying to demonstrate in Ross’s character is that his generosity and kindness despite having relatively little himself and feeling so down helped him turn everything around and be well rewarded by the end of the book.

In many ways, it’s really hard to believe that this book is over 70 years old and that it details life in Cornwall in the late 1700s. Graham’s writing provides a lot of insight into character, family relationships, romance, gender roles, class politics, small-town gossip, criminal justice… SO many topics that really transcend time and remain so modern and relevant. Some of the vernacular is dated but for the most part I found this to be an easy read for its age with a pleasant flow and good pacing. The book is separated into a few different books that each span a slightly different time period. We really come full circle with Ross after his return home and get set up well for the following books even though the ending is satisfying and not a cliffhanger. I greatly enjoyed Ross Poldark and rate it 4.5 stars. The next book is Demelza and I’m looking forward to it!

Book Review: “A God in Ruins” by Kate Atkinson

“One’s own life seemed puny against the background of so much history.”

Hardcover edition; Little, Brown, and Company, 2015. 480 pages.

Hardcover edition; Little, Brown, and Company, 2015.
480 pages.

My TBR list is so, so long, but after seeing that my local library had this in, I had to get it ASAP while all the details of Life After Life were still fresh in my mind. This is marketed as a “companion book” to the former. While Life After Life focuses on the very special Ursula, A God in Ruins tracks the life of her younger brother, Teddy Todd, as well as his wife (Nancy), daughter (Viola), and grandchildren (nicknamed “Sunny” and “Bertie”). While Ursula and the rest of the Todds do reappear occasionally I understand why it is a companion rather than a direct sequel since Teddy really is the focus here. Much of the book deals with Teddy’s time spent as a fighter pilot during WWII and how his wartime experiences affect his view of life and his relationships upon his return. In particular his daughter Viola is very difficult and struggles with both the daughter and mother role. It was interesting to examine her personality as contrasted with Teddy’s and how her own children compare and contrast to them both.

All in all, this book did not shine for me the way that Life After Life did. I am giving A God in Ruins 3 stars. My issues are only with the actual story and plot and not the writing. Atkinson’s descriptions of the war are always, as they were in Life After Life, extremely poignant and detailed. However, the magic that I felt she captured through Ursula’s uniqueness in the former book just wasn’t present for me here and a lot of the time I felt like I was reading just any other wartime historical fiction or, in the parts of the story describing Teddy’s family and occurring in the present day, just contemporary fiction with all the usual family drama. It doesn’t change the fact that Atkinson is a great, intelligent writer who is really gifted at crafting these stories, but I wanted more. The “twist” ending disappointed me as well and I felt like even if that was her one little attempt at the same device used previously, it was not necessary in this book.

Book Review: “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker

“On a cloudless night, inky dark, with only a rind of a moon above, the Golem and the Jinni went walking together along the Prince Street rooftops.”

Wecker-Golem-and-Jinni-book-cover

Hardcover edition; HarperCollins, 2013. 496 pages.

This was a truly beautiful, very unique book. I am so glad that I finally picked this up from the library and basically tore through it in just a few days despite having work and other current reads. I feel that the only way I can truly honor how fascinated and entertained I was by Wecker’s story is through the use of some GIFs from Supernatural throughout this review, so bear with me 😀

While the title might make this obvious, I will give a brief summary of our main characters: Chava is a golem. Traditionally these creatures are made from clay, are infinitely strong, and are bound to serve a master.

The Golem in Supernatural

The Golem in Supernatural. Golem smash!

In Chava’s case, her creator designed her to look very human as she was a “special request” from a man who aimed to have her as his wife. Her master, and would-be husband, dies on the voyage to America right after he wakes her. She is then left to her own devices in 1899 New York City, grappling with the massive conflict between unleashing her true nature and desiring to fit in and behave as a human.

Ahmad is a jinni. His true form is that of fire, but he has been trapped in a (very handsome) human form. A tinsmith in Little Syria accidentally releases him from his long-standing imprisonment in a copper flask, and he, too, has to try to adapt to this new, rather detested life, which is like an entirely new type of prison for him.

Now, I think that if Ahmad looked like this, he might have had considerably more trouble blending in...

Now, I think that if Ahmad looked like this, he might have had considerably more trouble blending in…

Chava and Ahmad end up meeting and realize that they have far more in common than they might have believed. They originally really do not get along due to their (understandably) very different viewpoints on human nature, love, religion, and almost everything else, but in this New York where it is possible that the next person you meet on the street might not be a person at all, but rather a supernatural creature, their friendship is crucial.

Castiel is an angel... he gets it.

Castiel is an angel… he gets it.

I really don’t want to give anything else away about the plot, but you have to realize that with these two characters at the center of the story, when we are exposed to their origins, special abilities, inherent weaknesses, and the conflicts that they have with one another and the people around them, the end result is bound to be pretty awesome. I loved this book. It is apparent that Wecker is a gifted writer and it’s hard to believe that this was her debut novel. The way that she was able to blend multiple cultures and mythologies to create this story was very successful to me. I am Jewish and had heard and read about the legend of the golem before but I like Chava’s story best of all of the golem tales I’ve heard. It was also refreshing to read about a jinni who didn’t just grant wishes! The other aspect of this book that really highlighted the author’s craft was the perfect imagery of New York at the turn of the 20th century. The descriptions are all expert – it was so easy for me to picture everything: the opulence of families like the Winstons contrasted with the ethnically divided neighborhoods and their crowded tenements, the noises and smells in the streets, a Central Park where sheep still grazed, and the glittering, gas-lit dance hall…

My one small critique, which leads me to rate this at 4.5 stars, is that I felt that at times the plot did drag somewhat and was slow going. The focus here is really on the characters rather than the story and sometimes it was just a bit too plodding for me. Though I suppose if the story moved faster it would have meant fewer pages of Wecker’s lovely writing. All in all, this was an excellent read that I think would appeal to fans of both historical fiction and urban fantasy. I plan to read Wecker’s further works as they emerge.

How I felt during the last few pages (and at the end of any great book really): walkin' on sunshine

How I felt during the last few pages (and at the end of any great book really): walkin’ on sunshine

Book Review: “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

” ‘Sweet sixteen,’ Hugh said, kissing her affectionately. ‘Happy birthday, little bear. Your future’s all ahead of you.’ Ursula still harbored the feeling that some of her future was also behind her but she had learned not to voice such things.”

Hardcover edition; Reagan Arthur, 2013. 544 pages.

Hardcover edition; Reagan Arthur, 2013.
544 pages.

When I was in the middle of reading this, I kept thinking of a quote from the Disney movie Brave: “If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” Of course you cannot think about this quote without thinking of it in Merida’s Scottish accent. But anyway, in Life After Life, Ursula Todd does have the chance to change her fate. Many times. And not just her own fate. Her “gift” of being born, again and again, every single time that she dies, has the power to affect her own life, those of her family and friends, and perhaps a much, much larger group of people than that. Every time that the “darkness” comes over Ursula and she is reborn, she grows up retaining a bit of what she learned and experienced in her past lives so that in effect she can eventually predict certain events and starts to realize why she might have been given this very unique gift/curse/condition, however you might want to see it.

This book came so highly recommended by one of my best friends so I wanted to love it when I grabbed the audiobook from the library. However, after listening to the first of 12 discs I had this feeling that it wasn’t for me at all and I wouldn’t be able to get into it. I really wanted to give it a chance, though, so I decided to abandon the audio version and get it on my Kindle instead. That was a much better reading experience and I found that the pages flew by so quickly. Atkinson has created a very, very special story here that transcends what we’d normally think of as historical fiction. There are many books dealing with the topic of reincarnation in various ways, and many of those tend to get a bit too spiritual or philosophical, but in Life After Life, I think that the subject is handled in a straightforward and precise manner that draws you in and makes you honestly believe that Ursula’s life (well, her lives) could actually happen.

I am giving Life After Life 4 stars. I loved reading about Ursula’s situation and the self-realization that she develops over time (and time again). Some of the supporting characters were kind of like caricatures reflecting very typical mindsets and habits of the time and place, but in a way that actually worked well towards the story because as Ursula changed in different ways during different lives, they stayed the same. As several of my blogger friends have noted the middle did drag somewhat. I tended to get a little bit lost with just how many times Ursula died and came back; with how many separate story lines during the war I had to keep track of. I honestly was also reading it so, so fast to see how it was all going to be wrapped up, that the sheer speed could have also contributed to my slight confusion, so that’s my fault rather than Ms. Atkinson’s. I am absolutely going to read A God in Ruins which continues the story of Ursula’s brother Teddy. In Life After Life, everyone (except Maurice) loves Teddy, but I actually felt like he wasn’t characterized much beyond the adored younger brother so I am very curious to learn more about what makes him so great.