Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mrs. B's 2010 Book Reviews: January

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris (Book Club Selection): Solid/Good/3 Stars

Harris, probably best known for "Chocolat" (and perhaps the movie with sumptuous Johnny Depp is even better known than Harris's novel), delivers another story involving a small French village, widows, and food. That, however, is where the similarity ends; whereas "Chocolat" is lovely and fluffy, "Five Quarters of the Orange" is a dark and murky tale.

In fact, this was one of few books I've read where I didn't really care much for any of the characters (save one) but still found it highly readable and engaging. This was due primarily to Harris's fantastically descriptive writing style. She was educated in languages and it certainly comes through; she grips you from the get-go and pulls you right in.

In summary, a woman returns to the village of her youth after many years absence and buys the farm where she had lived with her widowed mother and two siblings. However, she does not alert the people in the village to whom she really is because the family had left under tragic, seemingly unforgivable circumstances, all those years before.

Harris expertly travels between the present, the past, and the in between in her telling of the tale (not always easy to do).

Our book club discussion was lively, and, as is befitting such a complex story, some of us picked up on threads that others had not; made comparisons that others had not seen, etc. One member aptly said, "This book is like movies such as The Sixth Sense in that you know if you go back and re-read it, you're going to notice things you didn't the first time around".

I don't know if I'll ever read it again; I might hope for a movie rendition, though! And, certainly, I'll likely delve into one or two more of Harris's books.

A word to the wise: Don't read this book while you are hungry. In addition to writing novels, Harris also has co-penned two cookbooks. Food; yummily described, is featured prominently throughout!

BTW, I'd rate this 3 1/2 stars if I could.

Helen of Troy by Margaret George (CD): Really Good/4 Stars

Although I own a copy of the book, I actually listened to it on CD. My guess is that I would have enjoyed reading it just as much as I did listening to it (and, in fact, I did go to the book to re-read a section or two).

It took me forever to get through this; not because it was not good but because it was 25 CDs! I started it in November of 2009 and finished it almost two months later.

Did Helen of Troy (nee Sparta) actually exist? Did Troy? It's unclear whether the characters described in Homer's Iliad (and Odyssey) were real but what seems apparent is that, over time, with all the telling of the stories and tales, they may as well have been.

As with George's other historical fiction tomes featuring strong female personalties (Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, and, Mary Magdalene), the tale is told from Helen's perspective only. It begins with her life as a child in Sparta so the tone changes from that of a child, to a teen, to a young woman, to a middle aged woman, to an old woman; over the course of the book. George is a master at this; you feel as though you're growing up right along side the main character.

Most everyone knows the story of Helen of Troy, "The Face That Launched A Thousand Ships", and how it is intertwined with those of Paris of Troy ("The Judgment of Paris"), Achilles ("Achilles Heel") and, of course, the country of Troy itself and the long battle between Greece and Troy (10 years), seemingly over Helen and waged primarily by her cuckolded husband King Menelaus of Sparta and his war-hungry brother Agamemnon. And, finally, the infamous Trojan Horse, designed by wily Odysseus.

I first learned about all of this through a Greek mythology section my 6th grade teacher taught. Since then, I've remained fascinated by the Greek Gods of Mt. Olympus, the lesser Gods, and the mortal children of both. This is likely why I really got into this particular book because, in addition to telling the story of Helen, there was a lot of antics and involvement from the Gods woven throughout the tale. Additionally, there is excellent character development of some of the lesser, but equally important, folks in the tale (Hector (Paris's older brother) is one of these) plus some invention, I'm sure, of characters that didn't exist (assuming any of them actually did!)

On the surface, it's just a great story of love and war. Dig a bit, though, and there is more depth, if you allow yourself to ponder it.

In any case, I'd definitely recommend this book! Since finishing it, I went back and re-watch "Troy" and may now also re-read my old copy of Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology!

An Echo in the Bone (Outlander #7) by Diana Gabaldon: Solid/Good/3 Stars

Like a lot of folks, I eagerly await each installment of Gabaldon's series about Jamie Fraser and his time traveling wife, Claire.

I must admit, though, that her earlier books (1-3) were much more interesting to me than the latest ones, this despite the fact that a lot of the action in the more recent books has taken place in 1770s North Carolina. Maybe it is because the older ones focused more on the Claire and Jamie story line (my sister Ann refers to the books as "The Claire and Jamie Books")? I've just not been as engaged with some of the characters that figure prominently in the later tomes.

And, tomes they are. This one was over 800 pages long! I sort of plodded through the first several hundred pages; the action picked up around 400 and I read quickly up until about 700 where it got, I must say, a bit silly, save for one story line (there are typically three or four going on at any one time during the book).

Typical of Gabaldon, she left this one wide wide wide open for #8. She'll have to write another one as too much was left hanging!

I keep waiting and hoping for Jamie to time travel to the present. Now, that would be something worthy of another 800 pages. It hasn't happened though. Yet.

Mrs. B

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