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Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving

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Last Night in Twisted River book coverIf you’re in the mood for a long detail-oriented novel in the style of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, John Irving is the man for you. This prolific author’s latest work, Last Night in Twisted River, is a saga worth the reader’s time.

Covering five decades and encompassing New Hampshire, Boston, Vermont, Toronto and the frozen landscape of Pointe au Barie Station, Ontario, Last Night in Twisted River traces the life and times of Dominic Baciagalupo and his son Daniel. Initially set in a logging camp in northern New Hampshire, Last Night in Twisted River begins with a tragedy and never lets up. In John Irving fashion, the characters become entwined in each other’s lives for better but often for worse. Dominic is the cook for the logging crew, and his young son observes and learns from this rough and tumble crowd. Unfortunately, there is an occurrence on the Last Night in Twisted River which sends Dominic and his son to Boston where they assume new identities. Thus, Cookie/Dominic Baciagalupo becomes Tony Angel and his son becomes Danny Angel.

The reader must truly be on his toes because in addition to name and identity changes, the author indulges in the technique “in medias res” where the reader is dropped into the middle of a situation unexpectedly. Eventually the reasoning becomes clear, but John Irving demands a lot of attention to his carefully scripted work. He’s a joy to read.

It would be pointless to get into all the subplots and numerous characters along the way, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Irving’s expert storytelling affords insight into the logging industry of northern New England in addition to many religious and political references which makes for an enriching reading experience. A keen sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.

This is another of those long complex novels whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I give the book 4 black bears.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Unbroken:A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Lauren Hillenbrand

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Unbroken book coverIn the field of non-fiction, Laura Hillenbrand has distinguished herself with the bestseller Seabiscuit. In a relatively short space of time her latest blockbuster Unbroken came on the scene. Subtitled “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini.

The author, who did exhaustive research on this book, collaborated with Zamperini when he was in his 80’s to get all details possible. Since World War ll veterans are becoming fewer, it was important to note all the memories that could be retrieved. In this case Zamperini’s ordeal occurred in the Pacific when as an Army Air Force bombardier, he was shot down in 1943.

Zamperini and two other crew members were adrift on a makeshift life raft for weeks with basically no life-saving supplies, including food and water. They had to become resourceful and clever with what they could put together to catch fish and birds and even fight off encircling sharks. I think the killing and eating of an albatross or two was a bad luck move, however.

Unfortunately for these three, this was just the beginning of their ordeal. They were captured by the Japanese and sent to a series of POW camps, each worse than the one before. Because Zamperini was known as a world class runner, he was singled out for more intense punishment than the others.

Told in infinite detail, Unbroken is a testament to the human spirit which in this case survived under extreme duress. There are pictures throughout the book of Zamperini’s family, aircraft and fellow flyers. The author does not conclude the story with the end of the war and the POW’s release, but explains how difficult re-entry into civilian life was.

I remember watching “Victory at Sea” Sunday afternoons with its soaring music and battle scenes, but I never dreamed as a child that there were thousands of American POW’s held and abused at the same time.

Unbroken is a realistic look into one man’s experience that effected us all.
I give the book 4 life jackets.

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Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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State of Wonder book coverIf it’s been a while since you’ve read a thrilling adventure story with more twists and turns than the tributaries of the Amazon River, you must read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.

Dr. Marina Singh did not start out to be Survivorwoman in the Amazon Rainforest; it just worked out that way. As a research scientist, she was used to being in a lab environment, but her boss sent her to Brazil to check up on Dr. Annick Swenson. Swenson had been several years deep in the rainforest with her team working on new fertility drugs and/or a malaria vaccine. She was not communicating, and her employers were desperate to hear of her progress.

As an aside, I think it appropriate to mention that Patchett is also the author of the acclaimed Bel Canto so her writing skills should come as no surprise. The following is an example of the kind of writing one can expect from Patchett. When Marina landed in the rainforest, “…every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction. She was a snack plate, a buffet line…”

With that as an example, one can only imagine the vivid descriptions to come of the Lakashi tribe, a fight with an anaconda, poison arrows shot her way, and a confrontation with cannibals.

In addition there is a personal story line with history going back to Marina’s days as an intern at Johns Hopkins where she was mentored by Dr. Swenson. There was a portion of the book that I thought lagged where Marina was kept waiting in the port of Manaus. It felt like so much treading of fetid water, but the action began in earnest when Marina finally ventured deep into the jungle and her long-awaited rendezvous with Dr. Swenson.

Be sure to join in the adventure; you’ll love State of Wonder.

I give the book 4 mosquito bites.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

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The Weird Sisters book cover“Double, double, toil and trouble.” So spoke the three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, for whom The Weird Sisters are named. This unusual novel by Eleanor Brown is filled with quotes from Shakespearean plays, which makes the book completely refreshing, surprising, and fun.

The three Andreas sisters’ father is a Shakespeare professor in a mid-west college so he named his daughters for heroines from Will’s plays–Rose (Rosalind), Bean (Bianca), and Cordy (Cordelia).

Naturally these women have different temperaments and life has carried them in opposite directions. Rose, the eldest, is an organizer who doesn’t think her sisters are capable of any decision-making. Bean, the middle child, chose an upscale life in New York City and succumbed to materialism, and Cordy, the baby of the family, became a wandering, aging hippie. The three sisters are reunited due to the illness of their mother and must face the problems they thought they had left behind.

Rose’s fiancé has gone to study in London, and he wants her to join him. She is torn between her love for him and her fear that her mother won’t be cared for properly in her absence.

Bean has returned from New York with a lavish, stylish wardrobe and a ton of debt. She sees no way out, even by using all her wiles.

Cordy seems the most out of the loop since her wandering existence did not exactly give her marketable skills.

As the sisters help their mother and simultaneously work on their own problems, they are comforted by the fact that they are in their childhood home with all the memories which that evokes. Their parents are still their anchor even with advancing age and illness.

The Weird Sisters is an excellent novel. It would certainly add to the reader’s enjoyment if some of the Shakespearean quotes rang a bell, but I think it works in any case.

As the Bard said, “All’s well that ends well.”

I give the book 3 9/10 cauldrons.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Emily and Einstein: A Novel of Second Chances by Linda Francis Lee

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Emily and Einstein book coverSet in the famous Dakota apartment building on New York’s Upper West Side, Emily and Einstein by Linda Francis Lee is a surprisingly good novel which could have easily derailed into just so much fluff. What saves this book are the deeper meanings and significance the author imparts to the two main characters, Emily and her dog Einstein.

Emily Barlow is a feisty, hardworking young lady who experiences tragedy early in her married life. Emily’s husband, Sandy Portman, was a privileged young man whose family’s wealth and status landed him in the Dakota. We learn about his personality and background through the eyes of his wife and her dog, Einstein, which is rather strange. As the story progresses, Sandy turns out not to be a very good person.

After her husband’s sudden death, Emily picks up Einstein at the local animal shelter where she volunteers. Of course she is at a loss and grieving, but Einstein apparently senses her neediness and facilitates her eventual return to a new and improved outlook on life.

Out of necessity, I am leaving out key information that would be in the spoiler category. As I was saying…Not only does Emily have to deal with the loss of her husband, but she is being evicted by her mother-in-law from the fabulous apartment because Sandy never bothered to change the deed. Her work at a publishing firm is suffering, and her long lost sister Jordan descends and is basically no help.

The reader needs to suspend disbelief when reading Emily and Einstein, but the issues that arise about second chances, self-worth, and lots of karma are reality-based. A great sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either. I could have done without all the running scenes in Central Park where Emily is training for the New York Marathon, but it was something her husband had always wanted to do, so it did fit into the story line.

Lastly, thanks to the library patron who recommended this book. I owe you one.

I give Emily and Einstein 3 ½ Milk Bones.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans

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Miles To GoWritten as a journal in novel form, Miles to Go by Richard Paul Evans is the second in The Walk series. It’s not really necessary to have read the first one, however. The author is glad to fill the reader in.

Basically Alan Christofferson has set off on a quest of hope. Through a series of life-changing occurrences, he finds himself recovering from stab wounds in a Spokane hospital. All he wants to do is recover enough to walk to Key West, Florida, to forget the past and look for a reason to live, I guess.

A stranger appears in his hospital room and offers him a place to stay while he is recuperating. Her name is Angel. Honestly, it’s Angel. Since Alan is homeless with no prospects in sight, he agrees. As it turns out, Alan begins to learn about Angel’s background, and he in turn helps her.

The lack of subtlety and nuance in this book is pronounced. I believe what the author is broadly hinting at is that there are people in our lives willing to help out in the most trying times. For example, when he was able to get back on the road, Alan met Kailamai, a teenage runaway. It is soon revealed that she has had a horrendous childhood and been placed in a series of foster homes, some of which were inappropriate placements. Through all this turmoil she is somehow upbeat, independent and a good traveling companion. Alan of course eventually introduces her to Angel.

After Kailamai, Miles to Go becomes a travelogue about what not to miss at Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse mountain sculpture. He’s not too impressed by the sights or lack of sights in Wyoming. At this point the line between fiction and non-fiction becomes blurred, and the author has become Alan.

Miles to Go has some spurts of philosophy, good advice and humor, but the author can’t seem to decide on the focus. He’s walking towards a goal, hopefully meeting more good souls and fewer thugs. I wish him well, but I don’t think I’ll join him on the third leg of the trip. Florida is a long way.

I give the book 3 last walks.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

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Minding Frankie book coverMaeve Binchy is a familiar name among readers who enjoy the doings of a close-knit Irish community in Dublin. Especially in the recent past, Binchy has focused on a particular group of people who reappear in ensuing books. This is the case in Minding Frankie.

The Frankie in question is a baby girl who was not born into the most ideal circumstances. Her mother did not survive childbirth, and Noel, the alleged father, was in no position to assume a solitary parenting role. Hence, many folk kicked in minding Frankie.

What makes the story work is that these people were in a neighborhood within walking distance of each other and were able to hand off care of Frankie in shifts while Noel worked and went to night school to improve his job skills.

I will not go through the list of supporting characters who mind Frankie, but each had his own story to be told and his own particular interest in this small family unit. A cousin from America arrived and was the organizer type. She encouraged a recent retiree to go into the pet-walking business, opened a thrift shop for the church, and worked to erect a statue of a local patron saint.

The social worker who was in charge of Noel and Frankie’s case was more than diligent and was often popping in to see if the child was indeed well cared for. She had a couple in mind who really wanted to adopt so she was watchful of any transgression on Noel’s part. The fact that he was a recovering alcoholic put more stress on the situation.

If there is any redundancy in Binchy’s work, it is the fact that many of the characters from previous novels open restaurants. As I read this book, I found those familiar characters and had a hard time differentiating them from the new cast starting up the same kind of business.

Nevertheless there is enough new material offered on the reading menu to make the book a success. It’s all about unconventional families, their relationships, and the care and love they show each other. It’s what makes Maeve Binchy so successful. Plus, what’s not to like about a newborn minded by so many folk?

I give the book Minding Frankie 3 5/8 nappies.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar

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The Weight of Heaven book coverFor some reason, I have luck with stab-in-the-dark reading choices in the extensive large print collection at our library. In this case, the choice I made was The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. The cover is evocative with a clever design and a somewhat mysterious title. It turned out to be an excellent find.

Frank and Ellie Benton are well-educated, upwardly mobile Americans who move to India after the sudden death of their young son. Frank’s work for an American company brings him to a factory in a small village, which almost immediately descends into a violent labor dispute. In retrospect, this is the least of his problems.

As Frank and his wife try to deal with the loss of their son as they become accustomed to their new surroundings, they are embroiled with labor problems, local customs, and a growing relationship between them and their domestic help’s son Ramesh. It becomes clear that as Ramesh spends more time with the Bentons doing his homework, they become more emotionally attached to him. In fact, Frank treats him as a surrogate son and plies him with outings and gifts, gestures that upset the child’s father.

What occurs as the story evolves is that these situations create too much pressure for Frank to handle, and his relationship with his wife suffers. He descends into dangerously obsessive behaviors that compound already shaky situations. Tragedy is inevitable.

How the author keeps the disparate strands of the story line together is remarkable. We become more and more involved in the grief-stricken lives of a couple as well as experiencing the divisions found in the culture, geography, and class structure of the region. It’s quite a revelation.

I give The Weight of Heaven 3 7/8 maelstroms.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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Review: World Without End by Ken Follett

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World Without EndIt has been 18 years since the publication of Ken Follett’s groundbreaking historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth. Apparently, he has been very busy because the sequel, World Without End, weighs in at over 1,000 pages and could be named Book Without End. Nevertheless, Follett is at the top of his game, and World Without End is as captivating and informative as its predecessor.

Set in the village of Kingsbridge 200 years after the town’s cathedral was built, World Without End is an engrossing medieval tale of the lives of the four main characters – Caris, Gwenda, Merthin, and Ralph. As children they witnessed a fight in the forest with an ensuing death and the hiding of a secret. Each represents a different aspect of medieval society in the 1300’s to great effect.

This epic historical novel takes on all-encompassing themes such as the role of the priory in that period, changes in attitude towards medicine, innovations in commerce and architecture, and how justice was administered. Conflicts arose over these changes, and it is through the eyes of the four main characters that we experience and understand these changes.

For example, Caris is a nun when the Black Plague descends on the area. At the time the treatment du jour was bloodletting, which only ensured that the patient would die more quickly. Caris had read that the plague was spread by proximity and instituted cloth masks and handwashing. The prevailing medical minds thought this very akin to witchcraft, and we all know what the punishment for that is.

As though there was not enough going on in England, Follett brings the reader to France, where King Edward is fighting another interminable war with that enemy. Battlefield strategies are graphically described and feel quite authentic. There was a lot of barbarity at the time so be prepared for such details.

Ken Follett has come a long way since his Eye of the Needle days, which were quite good. He is now at a whole new level of writing, and I believe a trilogy is in the works.

If he keeps on writing, I’ll keep on reading his entertaining, informative work.

I give the book 4 loaded longbows.

Happy reading from Beverly!

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