Sunday, August 31, 2008

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I really love Isabel Allende's style. The voice she gives to her characters is simply awe-inspiring. She describes people, places, and events without slipping into tedium and can, overall, make any place as real as your own backyard.

This story was peculiar to me. If pressed, I'm not sure I could tell you exactly what it is about. Sure, I could say that it's one woman's journey to find herself. I could tell you that it's about discovering different shades of love or that it's simply a work of historical fiction about the gold rush. But none of those quite covers what this book is.

In the beginning of the book, each chapter almost seems disconnected. We flit from one character to the next, seemingly losing the main character for chapters at a time. While this made each character real and gave them depth, I felt like I wasn't sure what book I was reading at any given point. Was I reading about a woman betrayed by love in her youth in England? Or about the harsh life of a Chinese doctor? Was it about the young man who took a momentous trip on a bet and unwittingly fell in love? What happened to the young woman, Eliza, the supposed main character of the book? Some times she seemed lost in the sea of characters.

Three quarters of the way through the book I began to worry that nothing was going to happen. By the end of the book I realized that a lot had, in fact, happened and there was no disappointment at all. There didn't seem to be a climax to the story - not in the traditional sense and maybe that was my real issue all along. There were plenty of conflicts and resolutions, lots of things that happened - but not much of a climax. And while I wouldn't consider this to be my favorite of Allende's novels, this will not stop me from recommending it to others.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

My familiarity with David Liss's work begins and ends with The Coffee Trader. However, having thoroughly enjoyed said novel, I was very excited to have received The Whiskey Rebels through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program. To begin, I must say that I know little about early American history. Government and economy have never been high on my list of interests.

From the beginning I was drawn to the character Ethan Saunders. He is a richly described and very well developed character. At times, even on the same page, I alternately wanted to hug and slap him. His sense of honor (when he has one) is admirable but on the same note, his lack of scruples can be infuriating. The other main character, Joan Maycott grew on me less. I thought I would prefer her chapters, but there were times when I honestly wished I could just skip over them to get back to Ethan and his story. His wit and humor made his parts very enjoyable to read. Once Joan is introduced into Ethan's "present" things got a little confusing - switching from past to present with the same character in each. It wasn't too difficult to follow, just a bit jarring and it quickly evened out.

The descriptions of places and scenery were amazing. Almost too amazing in some instances - the dirty streets of Philadelphia and the unkempt settlers were so vivid I was amazed sometimes that I couldn't smell them myself. However, something bothered me throughout the novel (and not just this novel, but perhaps historical fiction in general). Men, particularly "bad guys", are seemingly always portrayed in an extreme. They womanize and have nasty streaks a mile wide. The assumption that all "less civilized" men harbor masochistic leanings (especially toward women), never bathe, and generally behave like beasts is a little tiresome. I don't think that a villain needs to be cliche to be appropriately evil. Another small thing that bothered me was the dialect. I couldn't always tell when it was possibly a typo (this having been an ARC) and when it was intentional. Some of the more refined "gentlemen" still fell into "that don't bother me none" speech at times.

The last quarter of the book really picked up. It was thrilled and I really didn't want to put it down at all. Joan was somewhat disappointing to me in the end, but Ethan definitely held a special place for me. All in all, I enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to others. I can't vouch for the history (as I said, I'm not as familiar with early American history as maybe I ought to be) but it was definitely interesting and entertaining.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Fire: A Novel by Katherine Neville

I was really excited to receive this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer Program. I had thought, prior to reading the blurb, that the book would be a continuation of The Eight with the focus on those familiar characters. Honestly, I'm glad it's not - I couldn't see how a whole book could come out of it. However, I was disappointed with the small role Alexander Solarin played in the story. He was my favorite character (next to Mireille) from The Eight. However, the story quickly picked up and I was able to put that small prejudice behind me.

I found the first chapter that takes place in the past incredibly difficult to read. The names and places that are difficult to pronounce - even in my head - made things very disjointed for me. That too, quickly passed, though. Katherine Neville was able to tie these two books together in a way that really worked for me. The way things fell to the descendants of the previous story was a nice way to keep things familiar to old readers. It took a while for me to warm up to Xie and the other new characters. I had a hard time liking Key. She seemed to be entirely too convenient - her connections, her knowledge. There were, of course, things in the plot that were obvious from very near the beginning. I've found that most sequels follow a pattern similar to their predecessor, so it wasn't exactly surprising when certain things happened.

The story was lively and there really weren't any dull moments. I was a little disappointed that the locales were not as exotic and varied as in The Eight, though the story itself more than made up for it. There were some things that I simply couldn't "get" - I'm no chess guru, nor do I have any esoteric or deep philosophical knowledge. I may not have a head for puzzles, but I do know a good book when I read one. I would very heartily recommend this book (and The Eight) to others.