Category Archives: Book Review

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

I received this book as a giveaway by William Morrow in exchange for an honest review.
The book left an ambiguous impression. On one hand, not many books nowadays tackle the subject of war with grace, patience, and poise. On the other hand, it was somewhat of a disappointing novel.
The plot line mostly moves forward with occasional flashback to the pre-war and early WWII Germany. The surviving wives of German conspirators against Hitler are grappling with their lives, survival, necessary sacrifices, and guilt.

Guilt should be and is the leading theme of the novel, but somehow the existential circumstances the characters faced did not move me. Believe me, I am not immune to the topic of war, senseless violence, and guilt, but Jessica Shattuck is not Dostoevsky.

I know – it is a hefty goal to strive to be, but there is one thing I see as a trend. American writers can do thrillers and suspense books, espionage and conspiracy novels very well ( it might be a part of literary tradition) , and, to be fair, Russian writers fail miserably at it, but when it comes to emotional anguish and self-devouring guilt, inner monologues and soul-searching, no one does it better that Russian writers.
It does not mean American writers should not try, though. A nice try …

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Filed under Book Review, Historical Fiction

Forgotten Bookmarks by Michael Popek

I do not scrapbook, neither do I like reading someone’s, but this book offered such an interesting excursus into the lives of people who read books that I could not resist the temptation and checked it out … and read it in one big sitting/lying down session.

Book readers know that we use nearly everything as a bookmark. I am currently using my accident report issued by Springdale police as an Infinite Jest bookmark. Luckily, this is my copy, and I have no intention donating it or reselling it, so I am relatively safe while I am alive:-) I am giving this as a example that readers do in fact use weird bookmarkalikes.

My personal digression apart, the book offered a delightful and occasionally melancholic excursion into the lives of people without their agreement. And this is where voyeurism becomes very noticeable:-) A variety of letters, poems, notes, recipes, cars, bills, hotel do-not-disturb signs, drawings, sketches, leaves, and even natural hair hairnets, all this and much more finds its way into library books, book bins, flea market, and antique stores.

These unique bookmarks are teasers of someone’s lives, full of happiness, haunted by poverty and privation, lovesickness, hopes, desperation, gourmet tastes, and simply a zeal to live. The author is quite non-intrusive and provides only necessary comments without interpreting or analyzing the bookmarks and the books they were found in. Sometimes it is not the bookmark, but the content of the book that make a specific bookmark hilarious. The one that made me laugh out loudly is the advert used as a bookmark about a local dancing club that also contains the rules of civility in this specific club, namely, ‘You are not allowed to touch the dancer’, and then ‘If you touch the dancer, you must leave the club’. All these relatively puritanical rules can be understood and accepted as the reflection of their epoch, but somehow this bookmark found its way into the book by Sigmund Freud Totem and Taboo. The bookmark is indeed about totems and taboos. A very Freudian bookmark, don’t you think?

I enjoyed the book more than I anticipated, and this is always a big plus for book readers.

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Filed under Book Review, nonfiction

Station Eleven by St. John Mandel

Something went awry! The reviews are raving, and even the friends’ reviews (goodread friends whose literary tastes I trust) are very affirmative and positive, but as I said something went awry and the book did not resonate with me. I was discussing the novel with my husband, and we both unanimously agreed that the writing was superb with very precise and insightful language, but it never reached our hearts. The metaphors and the imagery did not reach our hearts immediately, but as an aftertaste, as a reflection, as a post-reading analysis, but never instantaneously, never immediately, always forcefully, always analytically, never by intuition, never by heart, but by brain.

I am sad to say it was a novel about the human fatigue, the burden of civilization we do not want to support, and we are unwilling to share.

It is also about the history of a comic book …. Is our life a plot in a simple comic book … not even a novel, a comic book?

At least, it was not a zombie survival novel, and that’s something!

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Literary Fiction, Postapocalyptic

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

First off, I have a small version of the bigger anthology that was given to me as a part of the gift – soup bowls and a pack of soup. I have not tried the soup as I usually prefer to make mine from scratch, but the bowls are very useful and attractive, and I will possibly use them quite often.
The other thing of the gift set is a book. The idea is great, and I know that there are a number of thematic editions. I used the ISBN to find the one I have, and the GR site took me to this edition with the same title, but definitely more substantial than the one I have. I wish the editors of the books were competent enough to give it a proper and individual ISBN.

I know the purpose of this book is to console and to inspire, but why can’t the editors choose more substantial stories for a small pocket edition, or if these are the best, what about the other ones?
I am painfully aware that the contributors allegedly are not the established writers and merely bloggers, but then the note about the authors seems to be saying kudos for their published articles and stories, blogs and books.

Personally, the devotional nature of a seemingly secular book aggravated me a lot. People were mentioning their faith for no justifiable reason. Most of them are telling the stories of country cooking that usually requires some canned ingredients and frozen, even if they were home-made, dinners. Some of them focused on broken families with the brood of children from different marriages, stay-at home moms, and farms. Basically, very southern, in the meaning that I do not like it. I really enjoy Southern Gothic, but not the farm cooking with all its accouterments.

There was only one story that featured a hipster-like story-teller whose idea of the meal actully stirred the pleasant feeling of hunger.

All the above and the quality of writing are the main things that only made me give the book two stars. English graduate majors or other published others who use the phrases like ‘fixing dinners’ are not the examples of literary accomplishment, but I am sure the book reaches its target audience if one considers the five and four-star reviews.

I rebuke and reproach myself for trying to read something and then judge it by its literary accomplishments or the the lack thereof when I am NOT a part of its potential target audience. Oh, well, it will serve me as a lesson to read the books that have a potential to provide emotional and intellectual nourishment. Mea culpa!

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Filed under Book Review, chicken soup for the soul, Uncategorized

Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Horror is a rare genre that indeed has a true literary potential into which many authors could have tapped in, but unfortunately this novel does not come to my expectations of a good horror novel that will send willies down my spine. To be fair, it did send some willies down my reading spine, but I want my willies in a good literary context.

To start from the very beginning, I am honest saying that the premise of the perfect blizzard with snow, power outage, cold, misery of the chilling wind, lost and stranded people is very successful and interesting. The scenes with the supernatural and inexplicable and potentially scary are quite suspenseful and edgy, and all the elements of the suspense and horror are successfully interwoven into the plot, so if only the novel had had only this things under its belt, it would definitely have been a successful novel.

Unfortunately, all these ingredients for a horror novel were put in the context that does not appeal to me. The descriptions should have been more detailed and more inventive wording-wise: unusual and original tropes have not hurt any good author worth his or her salt. The number of main characters was simply overwhelming, and I often had to page back to refer the character’s name and to his or her personality and/or history.

The characters were very unlikable, not because they were all bad people, but because these were the characters who would never read books: odd job pickers, struggling restaurant owners, policemen, even school teachers were apathetic – people with the minimum qualifications who are not enthusiastic about their jobs. I used to live in the small town populated by similar people, and we could not breathe there intellectually and moved to a bigger, more liberal place where people are not driven by the basic consumerist impulse. In brief, the book is about the people who would never read any book themselves as they are so much involved into their dramas. The language also targets the same group – nothing complex or breathtaking, but simple paragraphs and slightly trite descriptions. The saddest thing is the book will never be read by the target audience it tries to reach and appeal too. Other people read books nowadays.
On a personal note, all these characters remind me of Republicans, not the educated, well-versed and supremely egotistic Republicans who use their philosophy to get the best of life and damn the others. These are right-wingers by habit, by routine, by lack of knowledge and experience, by apathy, by prejudice, by being a part of the conformist flock.

I know personal political and literary tastes can be very rigorous criteria to judge the book, and thus we judge too harshly, but we do need another Stephen King, whose novels can be spine-chilling and hair-raising and still keep the feeling of a literary novel written by an author who cares and loves his or her characters, whose characters are human and humane, and even if they are monsters, at least we know where their demons come from.

Christopher Golden did not deliver the novel I wanted. Sorry for my highly subjective political bias.

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Filed under Book Review, Horror, Uncategorized

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

This one was a HUGE bummer. It is particularly painful to give the book two stars immediately after a very good book. The book is written around some quirky and weird retro pictures, but the novel itself never reaches the true potential of the photos.

It is the story of many things – sci-fi with elements of fantasy, how hard to be a teenager and misunderstood by parents; romance is also a package deal. It also touched upon the serious questions like WWII and Holocaust, but not a single theme touched my heart. The story never gets eerie as the photos that accompany it, the plot sags and struggles; the characters and the dialogue are mediocre at best and very often immature.

Part of the reason why I disliked this novel is my weariness of young adult books. Three or four years ago, this genre exploded the publishing business, but after a couple of novels, my interest simple fizzled out. The world is often too black and white in them, the characters are formulaic and too predictable, and many, many novels cultivate the pseudo simplicity of the world in which their characters live and die.

The attraction of literary fiction is getting stronger every day, and I refuse to live in the fictional world of teenagers and adolescents. And yes, good wording is also highly appreciated in any work of fiction. This is something that YA will hardly be able to do it for me.

I am confident there are YA novels that will move me and make me stop to think or make me lose my heartbeat, but not in the nearest future. Currently I am all FINISHED with YA.

P.S. I did enjoy the photos, though. They are absolutely eerie and surreal. Sigh, the original idea was so beckoning, but the world built around those photos was sub-par .

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Filed under Book Review, Uncategorized, YA

Revival by Stephen King

There is an opinion among Stephen King’s fans that he has become soft and his novels can hardly be classified as horror novels any more. However, in my opinion, it is unjustified. He has become wiser and more insightful, and if it means fewer gory scenes in his novels, this is the compromise I am more than willing to accept. Sometimes the insight into the mind of an individual can stir more trouble and disquietude than the bloodshed of the visual description.
This is exactly what Stephen King did in his latest novel. One can hardly compartmentalize the novel, and many literary tags can be easily applied to it – it is a coming-of-age story that lasts for decades; it is the story of addiction and the price we have to pay for easy solutions. It is also a parable about what is modern faith and how one would define a spiritual person.
I can see how both evangelicals and staunchest atheists could be mad at Stephen King. The reasoning of the second group is easier to pinpoint. Stephen King is using science to show us through the eyes of his character that there is another world after the death that we are not aware of, an ugly world, a world of human privation and misery, a world we can not explain or see from here and now.
The possible condemnation of the opposing group would be more complex and, I am afraid, more poignant. Prior to this novel, the religious people in King’s novels were of two types – either quiet, truly spiritual people, usually Methodists, who actually were loyal to all the doctrines of the religion they aspire to belong to – loving, forgiving, supportive, nonjudgmental – and let us be honest, they were NOT numerous at all. The other group is the group of loud-mouthed evangelicals, who are in facts haters, who used the religion to plant seeds of hatred, alienation, judgment, supremacy, violence, and bigotry (and their name is legion, and personally – rightly so).

This novel offers a much trickier concept of a man of faith. Charles Jacob is originally a loving and supporting man who quickly wins the hearts and minds of his congregation, but the horrendous drama turns him into a non-believer (although his fascination with electromagnetic science always offered this potential). His sermon after the death of his wife and son is the one where many free-thinkers would like to cheer him.

In fact, King was right again, saying that this man was possibly the most indoctrinated ever, and indeed he was. Charles Jacob lived and died with the thought that faith (spiritual or very worldly) is a thing that can turn many ugly things into beautiful ones, but most importantly it can also turn many beautiful things into ugly and self-seeking.
As a secularist and humanist, the power of faith is a mystery to me, but King is unmistakably bashing at the commercial evangelicals whose main religion is money and delusion of others. His main target is TV evangelicals – people who make money duping others by sending false messages of hope.

The character of Charles Jacob is quite complex, whose existence is driven by two opposing forces – help without strings attached and help with strings attached. Sometimes, his desire to see more, to know more, to understand more is so overwhelming that this urge cannot be even stopped by human losses. He is equally a mad scientist and a mad believer. Maybe, Stephen King is telling us that it is one and the same thing. Human lives cannot fall victims to one’s desire to see what is behind this life. Save lives and treat others without ulterior motives of salvation and curiosity seems to be a correct answer, but King is a wise story teller because he knows we would be nowhere without it, even if it is the saddest fact of our existence.

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Filed under Book Review, fantasy, Horror, Stephen King