Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Title: The White Tiger
Author: Aravind Adiga
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: murder and sexual assault

Balram Halawai started life in an Indian village-- the second son of a rickshaw driver with tuberculosis. As a child, he's innocent, naive, and smarter than all of his peers, but that changes as he moves from the prized pupil in his elementary class, to an underling in a tea shop who gives all of his money to his grandmother, to a servant in a wealthy home who rises through the ranks, to the murderer of his employer, to entrepreneur. This is Breaking Bad, Indian-style-- the portrait of one man as he abandons his morals as he ascends the social ladder.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about Indian culture and politics to comment much on Adiga's treatment of these subjects, but there were times when the book seemed satirical, with Balram a bumbling fool. The story itself dragged in places. We knew at the beginning of the novel, which is framed as a series of letters between Balram and a Chinese politician, that he would eventually murder his employer, and the story unfolded in such a straightforward manner, a Dickensian tale of modern India, that I was underwhelmed. I wanted twists and turns, I wanted surprises, and I got exactly what I would have expected from the first page of the first letter. The White Tiger illuminates a culture, but I'm not sure it's especially compelling from a storytelling perspective.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Book Review: Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Title: Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide
Authors: Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Readers may be sensitive to descriptions of gynecological procedures and to the sexual slavery described in the book

First of all, I want to address those readers who might not love it when I take a two-month break from my regular book reviews to delve into the Whitney Awards. I'm back, and ready to review everything I listened to while I was furiously reading the Whitney books. Thanks for sticking around. Secondly, you might notice that I've changed the "This book would be rated" section of my header for each review to "Content Alert." I feel uncomfortable giving books a PG-13 or an R-rating, especially since some people have a different level of comfort with what they read or hear and what they see. And it doesn't feel right to give a nonfiction book a MPAA-style rating of any sort. But I also have readers who trust me to tell them if there might be something in a book that they would find objectionable or difficult to read about. I know it's a slight change, but it's one that makes me more comfortable.

I have heard so much about Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's Half the Sky that I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't feel compelled to actually read it until it became Audible's book of the day, which meant that I was able to buy it for less than five bucks, instead of the 10 or 11 I typically pay for and Audible book. The book talks about how the world has grown more equal in terms of race and religious discrimination, but women, especially women in the third world, are still at the mercy of oppressive men and cultures. Kristof and WuDunn, a married couple who work as New York Times journalists and who won the Pulitzer Prize for this work, traveled around the world, highlighting places, situations, and individual women who have faced oppression. They write about sex slavery in Southeast Asia, female genital cutting in East Africa, the prevalence of vaginal fistulas in Southern Africa, and limited economic opportunities throughout the world.

Half the Sky is an incredibly important book. It's one that I think all women should read, regardless (and because of) the difficulty of the subject matter, especially women like me who enjoy a certain degree of privilege and want to help but don't know how to get started. The book doesn't only talk about the terrible situations that exist, but it also discusses how we, as individual citizens, can get involved (things like Kiva loans), and what things help and do not help. In particular, I was interested in their recommendation that all American college students spend at least one semester living and working in the third world as a graduation requirement. They argue that this experience would change the students to the degree that the future course of their lives would be altered, as well as providing some immediate relief to the daily problems of life in the third world. As for me and mine? We'll start by picking out a new Kiva loan and by watching the PBS documentary (based on the novel) as a family.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What? You don't want to read 40 book reviews? (2013 Whitney Recap)

I don't blame you. But there are some pretty great books in the eight categories this year, and my top pick in each category is a book that I can recommend wholeheartedly. Voters are asked to rank the books from favorite to least favorite, but I think it's a little cruel to publicly list which books I hated most in each category, so for the purposes of being somewhat diplomatic, I'm restricting my comments here to my top pick or top two picks in each category.

General: The competition this year came down to two strong works: Mile 21 by Sarah Dunster, which is very readable and moving with great characterization, and Jennifer Quist's Love Letters of the Angel of Death, the most ambitious, literary and lyrical of the novels in the entire competition. Both stories are about married couples, separated too soon by death.

Historical: Both H.B. Moore's Esther the Queen, the novelization of the story of Esther from the Old Testament, and Carla Kelly's Safe Passage, about an estranged couple brought back together during their escape from the Mormon colonies in Mexico, are great novels-- well written with great characters and compelling plots. 

Romance: Melanie Jacobson's Second Chances was far and away my favorite Romance this year, with the story of a producer who falls for the star of the Mormon Bachelor, who happens to be her ex-boyfriend. The story is witty and wise, and kept me turning pages far into the night. I even had a dream about it. 

Mystery/Suspense: Josi Kilpack's Rocky Road gets my vote. Sadie Hoffmiller's character gets more and more interesting in this, the tenth novel in her culinary mystery series, and the mystery here was pretty tricky too. 

Speculative: Jeffrey S. Savage's Dark Memories was creepily reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, where the world is just a half-step away from the one in which we're living. The story of revenge, more than thirty years after the fact, for the death of a young boy in a mine, kept me turning pages. 

Young Adult- Speculative: Kasie West's Pivot Point was far and away my favorite book in this category. Addie is able to see her two separate futures in alternating chapters in this book, and in the end she faces a difficult decision. Addie and her fellow characters in both the paranormal and normal worlds made the story come alive. 

Young Adult- General: Julie Berry's All The Truth That's in Me wowed. The writing was beautiful, the historical setting was realistic, and the choices Judith faced were heartbreakingly real. 

Middle Grade: Liesl Shurtliff's RUMP was a totally delightful retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story in which we learn to sympathize with the little guy and no longer make the mistake of siding entirely with that poor miller's daughter. 

Best Novel by a New Author: RUMP

Best Novel of the Year: Love Letters of the Angel of Death

Best Novel in Youth Fiction: All the Truth That's in Me

In the five years I've been reading for the contest, I've seen the overall quality of the work improve dramatically, and every finalist should be proud of their accomplishments. Good luck!

Book Review: Rocky Road by Josi Kilpack (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Rocky Road
Author: Josi Kilpack
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

In Rocky Road, the tenth of Josi Kilpack's culinary mysteries, Sadie Hoffmiller travels to St. George, Utah, for a bachelorette weekend before her upcoming marriage to Pete Cunningham. And while she was expecting a fun getaway with a girlfriend, she's quickly roped into solving the disappearance of a local doctor. Kilpack does a wonderful job with the southern Utah setting (I was in town a week after I read the novel and had fun picking out the places she mentioned) and also in showing how Sadie is changing as her work as a private investigator affects her. The mystery is a decent whodunit too. Some of the secondary characters are painted with fairly broad brushstrokes. And I finally know definitively that Sadie is not a Mormon without ever talking about the church (which is what I thought in the early days of the series), since she spends a lot of time with the Mormons in St. George.

I think it's fairly common for authors to have a great idea for a first novel, then string that story out into a series of sequels that get progressively less successful. I'm not sure if these authors rest on their laurels and get lazy, or if they find themselves less inspired as the stories wear on, but I get the sense that they're cashing in on early success. I've read six of the ten culinary mysteries "starring" Sadie Hoffmiller, and Kilpack is not resting on her laurels. Sadie has come into her own as a character over the course of the novels. She has developed and deepened and changed, and her motivations for solving crimes are more mature than they were ten books ago. Her relationship with Pete is also progressing in a satisfactory direction. And I feel that Kilpack has grown more self-assured and confident as a writer through this extended exploration of Sadie. Her writing keeps getting stronger and stronger, and I'm sad that this series is approaching its conclusion.

Book Review: Deep Cover by Traci Abrahamson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Deep Cover
Author: Traci Abramson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

I believe that Traci Abramson has had a finalist in the mystery/suspense category every year that I've read the Whitney finalists. And almost every year, her book has been one that has been hard for me to finish. Most of the books were from the Saint Squad series (about Mormon Navy Seals), and I was happy to see that Deep Cover would be a departure from the series. Kelsey Weber returns to her home in Virginia after being pulled out of an assignment where she spent several years working undercover as a governess in the home of a Muslim extremist in the Middle East. She finds that her parents are on a mission, her family believes that she has pulled away from them and the gospel for selfish reasons (she can't divulge the nature of her work), and she's being pursued/protected by Noah, a handsome FBI agent who her parents befriended while she was gone.

Pretty soon, Kelsey and Noah end up on the same interagency task force to thwart a terrorist attack, and (surprise, surprise) the feelings they've started to develop for each other get complicated when Noah realizes that Kelsey hasn't been forthcoming about the nature of her work with him or her family. And then the nature of their work itself starts to drive the narrative. I'm happy to say that Abramson's writing has come a long way since I started reading her work four years ago. While her secondary characters are still relatively undifferentiated, both Kelsey and Noah are rounded and complicated, and the book deals with interesting Mormon cultural issues in addition to the main plot surrounding the terrorist plot. I will say that I absolutely hated the last chapter, from a feminist POV, but overall, I am delighted to say that Deep Cover was an Abramson book I enjoyed.

Book Review: Finding Sheba by Heather B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Finding Sheba
Author: Heather B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

In Finding Sheba, Heather Moore draws on her expertise as an author of historical fiction and turns her attention to historical thriller. In this novel, the discovery of the lost tomb of the Queen of Sheba throws archaeologists, rich guys, and the tenuous peace of the Holy Land into peril.

Finding Sheba is another book where the Segullah readers had strong and dissenting views. As someone who read all forty books, I tend to judge a book quickly. If the story and the characters don't grab me in the first hundred pages, I'm likely to start skimming. Finding Sheba is a complicated story with lots of main characters. Although the book is an "Omar Zagouri Thriller" (which says to me that there will be/have been others), Omar initially appeared to be a secondary character, since the story opens with a dead American college professor, his protege, Jade, and her French contact in Egypt, Dr. Lucas Morel. I thought they would be the main characters, with the Omar and Mia story acting as a side story. I felt that the double romance, coupled with the puzzle of who killed Dr. Lyon and the main issue of the tombs felt a little heavy for a single story. Dr. Morel felt like a creepy, untrustworthy character, and I kept expecting him to turn out to be a bad guy, so the conclusion to his part of the story felt unrewarding. The story took a long time to get off the ground, which is bad for the contest and impatient readers like me, but I trust my colleagues, who say that the book is richly-layered and rewarding for those who persist.

Book Review: Blackout by Robison Wells (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Blackout (Blackout #1)
Author: Robison Wells
Enjoyment Rating: **
Source: Library Copy
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

A virus is spreading across the United States, infecting teenagers. No, it's not mono, because this virus gives people special powers. The type of power depends on the person, but the result is that some people are using the powers to try to overthrow the government and wreak havoc and the government is responding by rounding up every teenager in the country, putting many of them in a concentration camp in the Utah desert.

I was very hopeful while reading the first few chapters of Blackout. The initial scenes, with the bad guys destroying the Glen Canyon dam, and the high school dance at a rural Utah barn made me hopeful that the whole book would have similar strong setting and past-paced action, but once the characters were rounded up, the story fell apart for me. Furthermore, there were too many competing voices and narrators to differentiate, especially since the characterization was not especially strong, and Wells seemed to rely on the characters to tell the story instead of showing it in scene. This one felt more like a first draft than a well-edited, well-considered finished product.

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Steelheart (Reckoners #1)
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

David is a child who has seen his world destroyed in the ten years since the Epics were created and came to power. When they killed his father before his eyes, two things happened: he saw that the Epics might not be as invulnerable as everyone, and the became determined to help fight them. David wants to join the Reckoners, and he wants revenge against Steelheart, the Epic who took his father's life.

I've said this before and since Sanderson has a finalist almost every year, I'm sure I'll say it again. When I read books by Brandon Sanderson, I recognize that they're good. His plotting is solid, his characters are strong and multi-dimensional, and his writing is clear. Many people love his work, but it doesn't move me. It feels, especially in Steelheart, to be extremely male (if writing can be male or female). This is the kind of book that my teenage son would line up to see if it were made into a movie, but if I were his chaperone at that movie, I would fall asleep almost immediately.

Book Review: Friends and Traitors by C.J. Hill (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Friends and Traitors (Slayers #2)
Author: C.J. Hill
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Kindle
This book would be rated: PG-13 for violence

In Friends and Traitors, C.J. Hill demonstrates how to hook new readers in the second novel in a series. She begins the book with a gripping chapter about a young couple who are traveling on a private plane carrying precious cargo (dinosaur eggs), when the woman goes into labor. This chapter serves to describe how the characters in the Slayers series have the power to fight dragons in the first place, and also gives crucial insight into the mind the Dragon Lord, their nemesis. Over the course of the rest of the novel, new characters are introduced, and other characters, including Tori, the daughter of a prominent politician, are developed. While there's plenty of high-flying (literally) action, Hill doesn't sacrifice internal conflict at the expense of external conflict. The story here is one that has a female protagonist but would be equally accessible to male readers, and it's definitely one that I could see my teen readers enjoying, even if they hadn't read the first book in the series.

Book Review: Heart of the Ocean by Heather B. Moore (Whitney Finalist 2013)

Title: Heart of the Ocean
Author: Heather B. Moore
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Digital Copy
This book would be rated: PG

This year's speculative category included one fantasy novel, three dystopian novels, and one historical/romance/thriller/ghost story, which is Heather B. Moore's Heart of the Ocean. Eliza Robinson is taking a break from the 1840s New York social scene after spurning a marriage proposal, and has come to stay with her Aunt Maeve in Maybrook, a Puritan village in Massachusetts. One day, while out walking on the shore, she hears the voice of a woman, directing her. When she tells Maeve about it, she seems unsurprised, and tells her that a young unmarried woman bore a child while living in the house, and died shortly thereafter. The spirit of this woman continues to speak to and guide Eliza after a tragic incident solidifies her ties to Maybrook.

When I read the books for the Whitneys, I take part in a discussion group with the other women at Segullah who are also reading. While most of them felt that Heart of the Ocean wasn't the strongest book in the category this year, due in part to the genre mixing, the lack of a tight story, and the unsympathetic male protagonist, I enjoyed it more than many of the others. I think that's in part because I'm not a huge fan of the genre, and Heart of the Ocean felt less "speculative" than the others and more like a dark, gothic romance.