Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Review: Tinsel - Hank Stuever

*** December Book Club Pick ***

In Tinsel, Hank Stuever turns his unerring eye for the idiosyncrasies of modern life to Frisco, Texas, a suburb at once all-American and completely itself, to tell the story of the nation's most over-the-top celebration: Christmas. Stuever starts the narrative as so many start the Christmas season: standing in line with the people waiting to purchase flat-screen TVs on Black Friday. From there he follows three of Frisco's true holiday believers as they navigate through the Nativity and all its attendant crises. Tammie Parnell, an eternally optimistic suburban mom, is the proprietor of "Two Elves with a Twist," a company that decorates other people's big houses for Christmas. Jeff and Bridgette Trykoski own that house every town has: the one with the visible-from-space, most awe-inspiring Christmas lights. And single mother Caroll Cavazos just hopes that the life-affirming moments of Christmas might overcome the struggles of the rest of the year. Stuever's portraits of this happy, megachurchy, shopariffic community are at once humane, heartfelt, revealing--and very funny. Tinsel is a compelling tale of our half-trillion-dollar holiday, measuring what we we've become against the ancient rituals of what we've always been.- Amazon
I wasn't sure what kind of angle this book might take, but I was plesantly surprised on the tone and direction the book took.  Hank's writing style makes the book easy to read, but it's not just a narrative of his observations.  He includes history tidbits about Christmas and facts and figures as well. I found myself thinking that I wish I could get my father to read this book.  He's a fanatic decorator (and not just at Christmas) and loves to look at Christmas lights.

My favorite passage from the book:
This is where I'm searching for America's Christmas present.  This is where I've disappeared.  The star in the east would turn out to be a long line of jumbo jets in the lavender dusk, their bright lights aligned in a near-perfect conjunction, on approach to D/FW. (Radiant beams of Thy holy face.  With the dawn of redeeming grace.)  - page 16. 
I'm not a huge fan of holiday books, but I recommend this book because it provides a bit more substance than a typical holiday fiction book. You get the heartwarming story on top of an interesting analysis of the activities that are part of a typical holiday season.

Review: The Bells - Richard Harvell

Chronicling the journey of 18th-century singer Moses Froben from his Swiss village to Vienna, this debut novel strikes many melodramatic notes in an overwrought plot; squalor, beauty, horror, forbidden love, tragedy, and triumph splash broadly, sometimes artfully, but often with operatic excess. Moses, born to a deaf-mute in a belfry, possesses a unique bond to music. Cast from his home, he joins a choir, discovering that he can mold "that ocean of sound... into something beautiful." Harvell, however, shows his own limitations when he seeks to describe the resonance of music. When Moses says, "I wished I could dissolve into sound," the reader shares his frustration. A tormented choirmaster castrates Moses to preserve his beautiful voice, transforming him into a "musico," a soprano whose voice never deepens, and who will never be a man. His ability to sound like an angel brings him into contact with a wealthy family, sparking an impossible love affair with a beautiful but crippled woman. Moses's ardor impels him to Vienna and its vibrant opera scene, where his brief appearance on stage allows love to triumph before, unsurprisingly, tragedy brings down the curtain. - Publishers Weekly
In the past six months, books added to my TBR list have been influenced by the buzz I see on Twitter.  The Bells is a perfect example of this situation.  In turns out this book is also my book club pick for the upcoming year (we aren't officially reading/discussing till June). 

I liked how the story was told from Moses' perspective after he passed away via a letter to his son Nicolai.  Without giving too much away, I really was hoping for more about Moses' career in Venice at the opera.  As a singer myself, I found the description of how Moses felt went he sang -vibrations & making others vibrate/hum - very fascinating.  Those passages made me go back and reread multiple times and try to imagine Moses' singing.

I did feel some of the "opportunities" that Moses got seemed a little unrealistic.  Overall though I liked how the historical aspects of the book were interwoven into the fictional plot.  In a way this book offers a view into the creative side of an opera that patrons of opera might not always see.  Including a well-known composer - Christoph Gluck - within the story allowed the reader to see how a composer might interact with a singer or producer of an opera.

While there is some sensitive subject matter addressed within the book, I would recommend this book to singers and lovers of opera or even just readers who love a good romance story.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Reading Challenge fun

I've signed up for two reading challenges in the upcoming year:  Cannonball Read - Round Three & Off the Shelf Challenge. and a reading challenge starting tomorrow at All About {n} 2010 Holiday Reading Challenge. 

I'm also jumping into the reading challenge pond myself by hosting a challenge over the next year based on The Heroine's Bookshelf.  Feel free to join in the fun!

Update: Two books in the to read for the All About {n} Holiday Reading Challenge - Tinsel by Hank Stuever and Promise Me by Richard Paul Evans.

I also decided to join one more reading challenge hosted by The Book Vixen Outdo Yourself.  This challenge strives to push your total books read next year (2011) to be greater than the total read this year (2010).  Right now I'm at 59 books.   I'm going to join this challenge at the "Out of Breath" level initially.

Review: The Red Queen - Philippa Gregory

Nobody does the Tudors better than Gregory (The Other Boleyn Girl), so it should come as no surprise that her latest–the War of the Roses as seen through the eyes of Henry VII’s mother –is confident, colorful, convincing, and full of conflict, betrayal, and political maneuvering. Gregory gives readers Margaret Beaufort in her own words, from innocent nine-year-old to conspiring courtier who stops at nothing to see her son on England’s throne. Gregory devotees will note the difference between the supernaturally gifted Yorkist White Queen and Lancastrian Margaret, who, despite saintly aspirations, grows worldly through three marriages; a powerless widow at 13, remarried and separated from her only son by 15, it is not until she’s 29 that Margaret is ready to realize her most audacious ambitions. Gregory clones have made historical novels from a woman’s perspective far too familiar to make this seem as fresh as her earlier works. Yet, like Margaret Beaufort, Gregory puts her many imitators to shame by dint of unequaled energy, focus, and unwavering execution. - Publishers Weekly
I enjoyed this book of Philippa's latest series better than The White Queen.  Both books cover the same time period, but tell the story from different perspective.  I didn't relate to Elizabeth Woodville at all.  I wasn't sympathetic towards Margaret Beaufort, but I could relate.  I was surprised that this book also lacked the court drama and intrigue and really focused on the battles and relationships made outside of the court.

I was able to read this book faster than the first book in the series as well.  I'm not sure if it was because I "knew" the basics of the story already and didn't have to follow closely the relationships of the characters. I am curious what the next perspective that Philippa might write about.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Review : The Wishing Trees - John Shors

I picked up an ARC of this book off the giveaway shelf at work

Almost a year after the death of his wife, Kate, former high-tech executive Ian finds a letter that will change his life. It contains Kate’s final wish – a plea for him to take their ten-year-old daughter, Mattie, on a trip across Asia, through all the countries they had planned to visit to celebrate their fifteenth anniversary.Eager to honor the wife and mother they loved, Ian and Mattie embark on an epic journey that retraces the early days of Ian’s relationship with Kate. Along the way, Ian and Mattie leave paper “wishes” in ancient trees as symbols of their connection to Kate and their dreams for the future. Through incredible landscapes and inspiring people, Ian and Mattie are greeted with miracles large and small. And as they celebrate what Kate meant to them, they begin to find their way back to each other, discovering that healing is possible and that love endures – lessons that Kate hoped to show them all along - New American Library
The story of the young daughter and her father appealed to me.  Also the mother "guiding" them even after her death was a nice twist to the plot.  Each time Ian and Mattie read one of the messages their reaction was different - excitement, trepidation, frustration.  I felt like I was grieving for Kate with them.  Also I love to explore new countries and the travel part of the plot was fascinating to me as well.

This book has a good message at the end, but most of the time I was reading it I felt sad and sympathetic for both Ian and Mattie.  I wasn't sure if Ian could ever move on with his life after Kate's death.  I won't give away what happens at the end, but I did feel that parts of the plot at the end were a little forced.  It would have been nice to not have the ending wrapped up nicely with a bow on it.  I also felt that the reader was left hanging about how Mattie and Ian's relationship changes after their long adventure abroad.  I was hoping for an epilogue looking at Mattie and Ian's life 5 or 10 years later.

Shors definitely plays on some cliches for a single dad - clothing tattered, hard time braiding Mattie's hair, not shopping for dresses with her.  I think though that Ian's depth as a character wouldn't have been deep without those cliches.  By the end of the book, Ian's accent (he's originally from Australia) and mannerisms were becoming a tad bit annoying.

I don't have children or have lost a partner so I can only imagine how tough it is to move on afterwards.  This book uniquely describes how one fictional father & daughter attempts to move on after losing the love of their lives. I recommend this book.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Review: Zoli - Colum McCann

One of my goals this upcoming year is to read additional books written by authors I read last year. Zoli by Colum McCann is the first book towards this goal.  Last November I read Let the Great World Spin and was captivated by McCann's writing style.

A major new novel about a Gypsy woman exiled for betraying her people: the novel begins in Czechoslovakia in the early 1930s when Zoli, a young Roma girl, is six years old. The fascist Hlinka guards had driven most of her people out onto the frozen lake and forced them to stay there until the spring, when the ice cracked and everyone drowned - Zoli's parents, brothers and sisters. Now she and her grandfather head off in search of a 'company'. Zoli teaches herself to read and write and becomes a singer, a privileged position in a Gypsy company as they are viewed as the guardians of Gypsy tradition. But Zoli is different because she secretly writes down some of her songs. With the rise of the Nazis, the suppression of the gypsies intensifies. The war ends when Zoli is 16 and with the spread of socialism, the Roma are suddenly regarded as 'comrades' again. Zoli meets Stephen Swann, a man she will have a passionate affair with, but who will also betray her. He persuades Zoli to publish some of her work. But when the government try to use Zoli to help them in their plan to 'settle' gypsies, her community turns against her. They condemn her to 'Pollution for Life', which means she is exiled forever. She begins a journey that will eventually lead her to Italy and a new life. Zoli is based very loosely on the true story of the Gypsy poet, Papusza, who was sentenced to a Life of Pollution by her fellow Roma when a Polish intellectual published her poems. But McCann has turned this into so much more - it's a brilliantly written work that brings the culture and the time to life, an incredibly rich story about betrayal and redemption, and storytelling in all its guises. - Random House
I heard Colum McCann speak last month and I was fascinated with how he "immerses" himself within a book while writing it.  He was speaking (and reading) on Let the Great World Spin, but at times he would refer to his other books as well. While I have read books set around both World Wars, I have never read a book set in Czechoslovakia or about gypsies.  Colum writes the book from Zoli's perspective as told to her adult daughter.  He also writes a few sections from Stephen's point of view and an unnamed journalist trying to write a modern day story about Zoli's legend.

Colum's prose does not let me down.  His descriptive but yet "light" tone that I was awed by in Let the Great World Spin appears in Zoli as well. I was impressed that Colum wrote a poem (supposedly written by Zoli) and included that at the back of the book.  I know from his talk that poetry and writing poems is a big part of his life.  Zoli's perseverance was very prevalent in this story.  While she did experience some comfort while at communist parties, she was raised to make do with little.  When she was exiled from her people that knowledge of how to live with whatever clothes you have on your back and whatever food you can find became a great asset.

I appreciate Colum making Zoli a strong female character but with a few weaknesses as well.  I also appreciated learning about life in Czechoslovakia during the World Wars and afterward.  I felt like that time period was kinda flipped on its head a bit and another vantage point was shown. I'm looking forward to reading another book by Colum in the upcoming months.

Review: The Privileges - Jonathan Dee

No idea if another round of Cannonball Read is going to start up anytime soon, but I'm still planning to use this blog to post reviews and track the books I read.

First book after completing the Cannonball Read II challenge was The Privileges by Jonathan Dee.  I won this book through a Random House Reader's Group giveaway.

Smart and socially gifted, Adam and Cynthia Morey are perfect for each other. With Adam’s rising career in the world of private equity, a beautiful home in Manhattan, gorgeous children, and plenty of money, they are, by any reasonable standard, successful. But for the Moreys, their future of boundless privilege is not arriving fast enough. As Cynthia begins to drift, Adam is confronted with a choice that will test how much he is willing to risk to ensure his family’s happiness and to recapture the sense that the only acceptable life is one of infinite possibility. The Privileges is an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and  guided above all else by their epic love for each other.  - Random House
This book is the second book profiling a marriage from start to finish that I've read in the past year.  The first book was Stiltsville by Susanna Daniel. I don't know if my subconscious is pulling me towards these books because I'm getting married next year or what.  In The Privileges, I kept waiting for them to fall out of love.  Watching TV shows and movies, I'm become jaded in expecting marriages to fall apart.  In a way it was hard to believe that two people so well off wouldn't be cheating on each other.  I'm glad that Jonathan Dee provided a positive example of a wealthy couple still loving each other after a decade of marriage even if it's a fictional couple.

Most of the story is told from the parents' view point, but there are some sections of the book from the kids' point of view as well.  We learn a lot about Cynthia's family but not much about Adam's.  They are only mentioned in the opening wedding scene and Conrad's visit in NYC later on.  In a way I felt the book was a little slated towards Cynthia and her problems.

I thought an interesting characteristic of Cynthia was her gut reaction to fix any problem was her checkbook.  And when she found a situation that couldn't be fixed by her checkbook she was lost.  Again, I'm curious if this characteristic is found in many wealthy housewives or it was just exaggerated for the plot of this book.

I also found it interesting that Cynthia and Adam moved from apartment to apartment within the city and finally to a house on Long Island. In a way, Dee pointed out that wealthy folks don't end up in the big mansions right away.  They move around "upgrading" each time they buy.  I did appreciate in the last third of the book that Adam and Cynthia focused on giving away their money to others to help "make a difference." They reminded me of the work that Bill and Melinda Gates are doing through their foundation. 

This book was a great surprise and was a quick read.  I would recommend it to readers who are fans of the TV show Gossip Girl or the book Nanny Diaries.