Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (2018)

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Review #107

The story of two girls living eight hundred years apart—a modern-day Syrian refugee seeking safety and a medieval adventurer apprenticed to a legendary mapmaker. 

Following the death of her husband to cancer, Nour’s mother wants to be closer to her home country and her family. In the summer of 2011, Nour and her family move from their apartment in New York City to Homs, Syria. But Syria is changing, and not for the better. Shells and bombs become a daily occurrence, and when their house is destroyed Nour and her family are forced to flee across the Middle East and North Africa as refugees.

Eight hundred years ago, a young girl named Rawiya disguises herself as a boy and becomes an apprentice to al-Idrisi, a world-famous cartographer who is embarking on a journey to make a map of the known world. Along the way, Rawiya ferocious mythical beasts, epic battles, and real historical figures.

The gorgeous cover art for Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar’s The Map of Salt and Stars is what initially attracted me to this book. I knew little to nothing about the plot, and therefore had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised to find a novel that uses the Syrian Civil War as a backdrop for a story about family, bravery, and finding a place to belong.

A lot of attempts have been made recently to capture the refugee experience. The Map of Salt and Stars tells a deeply personal story. Nour doesn’t care why her neighborhood is suddenly being bombed. She doesn’t understand the political tensions between Libya and Algeria, or why refugee boats are shelled before they can reach shore. All Nour knows is that she has lost everything but her mother and two sisters. She knows that she wakes up every day in a different place, often cramped with groups of other people, all of whom are running away from the destruction and danger of war. By keeping laser-focused on Nour and her plight, Joukhadar ensures that the reader forms a close bond with her.

Also contained within the pages of The Map of Salt and Stars is the story of Rawiya, a young girl who disguises herself as a boy in order to become an apprentice to the esteemed cartographer al-Idrisi. Her 11th century journey with him along a route similar to the one taken by Nour as she flees from country to country. I enjoyed Rawiya’s story and the fresh perspective that it offered. Most of our ideas of the ancient world are from the Greco-Roman viewpoint, but The Map of Salt and Stars shows it through Muslim eyes instead. While Europe was buried in the Dark Ages, the scholars and scientists of the Muslim world made terrific advancements in mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. They also made some of the most detailed maps of the time period, and that is where Joukhadar sets her story.

The Muslim names for the ancient cities of the Mediterranean were unfamiliar to me, and I often found it difficult to know exactly where the ancient adventurers were at any given time. There is a map included along with the table of contents, but it is a bit inconvenient to switch back and forth to the map on an eReader. This may have been one of the reasons why Rawiya’s story fell short in comparison to Nour’s. Rawiya’s struggles against mythical beasts feel far removed from reality, where Nour must fight against an enemy that is far more real and more dangerous.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Map of Salt and Stars here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Kingdom of Ash (ToG #7) by Sarah J. Maas (2018)

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Review #103

The long-awaited conclusion to Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series, Kingdom of Ash sees Aelin and her friends risking everything they have to fight against the dark armies of Morath and the vicious Queen Maeve. Effort was made to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but some key plot points may be revealed.

Aelin has risked everything to save her people―but at a tremendous cost. Locked within an iron coffin by the Queen of the Fae, Aelin must draw upon her fiery will as she endures months of torture. Aware that yielding to Maeve will doom those she loves keeps her from breaking, though her resolve begins to unravel with each passing day.

For her final installment, bestselling fantasy author Sarah J. Maas wants to make sure that she harnesses every available drop of tension and substance from the world she has worked so long to build. I commented in an earlier post that the first installment of ToG felt rather flat and one-dimensional, with the heroine boasting about her prowess a hell of a lot more than demonstrating it. In the six books following Throne of Glass, the world of Erilea has taken on sharp definition and an emotional weight that builds satisfyingly to a final conclusion.

As always, Maas gets major props for having a diverse cast of kick-ass female heroines at the forefront of her novel. Aelin’s journey comes full circle here, and the readers have been with her for so long as she struggled towards her destiny that to see her reaching her potential was a wonderful moment. Maas has a tendency to use very dramatic writing when narrating Aelin’s point of view. It gives the proceedings a very operatic feeling, but occasionally goes too far to where it begins to feel like self-parody. The character arcs of other important female figures such as Elide and Manon Blackbeak are also brought to a satisfying conclusion.

As strong as all these characters are, Maas certainly does make sure that they are all happily settled in their committed, monogamous, heterosexual relationships by the end of the novel. I wasn’t necessarily bothered by the very traditional “happily ever afters”, but I definitely did notice that the plot would not allow for such-and-such characters to end up apart from one another. It ended up giving the final climactic scenes a predictable feel, since I knew that any of these matched-up characters would not be permitted to die.

At nearly one thousand pages, the rising action of this novel encompasses nearly two-thirds of the book’s length. There are periods when Kingdom of Ash spins its wheels a bit, and feels the need to check it with various characters even when there is no new information to report. It takes nearly seven hundred pages for all of the main characters to finally get together, which gives the middle section a bloated feel, like some of the slower episodes of Game of Thrones.

Overall, I have fully enjoyed my time in Erilea. These novels aren’t perfect but they’re a lot of fun and creative addition to the YA fantasy genre. I continue looking forward to reading more from Sarah J. Maas.

Full disclosure: I skipped Tower of Dawn, the sixth installment in the ToG series. I didn’t want to spent six hundred pages with Chaol, who I always thought was completely boring. I did not regret my decision, and was able to follow the plot of Kingdom of Ash without difficulty.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Kingdom of Ash as well as the rest of the Throne of Glass novels here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book vs Film: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Earlier this year, I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (GLPPPS) and fell in love with its lively, romantic spirit and quirky characters. When I heard that they were making this novel into a film starring Jessica Findlay Brown, I was eager to see how they translated a plot consisting only of letters into a cohesive narrative. A few days ago I finally got the catch to see director Mike Newell’s 2018 interpretation of GLPPPS. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on the film versus the novel. I will try to keep it as spoiler-free as possible but my give away certain plot points.

1. This film is a Downton Abbey reunion.  Part of the reason I was so excited to see this movie was that at least four of the main characters were involved with Downton Abbey, my favorite drama about rich British people chatting. Lily James, who plays bright-young-thing Rose on Downton appears here as Juliet Ashton, the writer and book lover who is first drawn to the story of the book club on Guernsey. Jessica Findlay Brown is Elizabeth McKenna, the popular but mysteriously absent creator of the club. Penelope Wilton (also from Doctor Who) is a grief-stricken widow and Matthew Goode is Juliet’s friend and publisher. The sight of all these comfortingly familiar faces helps to ground GLPPPS in its historical time period.

2. Lily James is strangely flat in her role. One of the most engaging parts of the novel is Juliet Ashton’s sincere love of books and literature. She is fully capable of defending her opinion on the relevant styles and thoughts of the day, but does so with such cheerfulness that she never comes across as schoolmarmish. Lily James, who was so bubbly and joyful in Downton Abbey and Disney’s 2015 live-action Cinderella, never comes across as a great lover of reading. Juliet Ashton’s infectious curiosity is also missing, and her eventual spontaneous journal to Guernsey happens almost as a lark rather as a deliberate decision to learn more about the lives of the people there. James seems unable to commit to the more dramatic elements of the plot as well, almost as if she is afraid of looking less than pretty.

3. Jessica Findlay Brown is tragically underused. I understand that Brown’s character doesn’t appear in person during the events of GLPPPS. She is a memory, a reference, a figure in a funny or sad story. Despite that, in the book she always felt so full of life, a bright spot in a dark world that everyone remembers with a mixture of joy and pain. This story belongs to Elizabeth McKenna as much as it does to Juliet Ashton. In the film, she is just demoted to just one of many quirky characters that inhabit flashbacks and whispered stories. Her daughter is supposed to be a turning point in the plot, but is instead relegated to a side note in the film. For an actress as beautiful and talented as Brown, I thought director Mike Newell would find a way to make her shine.

4. The film looks absolutely stunning. Though it was shot in parts of Devon, Bristol, and London instead of Guernsey, the harsh rocky landscape of coastal Britain is always breathtaking to look at. The time period is also accurately portrayed, and the attention to detail on the costumes and props is of the impeccable quality usually found in British historical dramas.

5. The beginning of the film attempts to pay homage to the letter-writing style of the book, but doesn’t quite pull it off. During the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, Lily James’ Juliet Ashton is exchanging letters with Dawsey Adams, a farmer on Guernsey played by Michael Huisman. The movie accomplishes this through use of narrative voice-over and long shots of James curled up in various armchairs, reading letters while drinking tea. Although I appreciated that Newell wanted to include a nod to the letter exchanges of the novel, but it came across as a bit too obvious. Especially when it ends abruptly during the first act and is never revisited.

Overall, I thought the film did a good job of capturing the main plot points and historical details of GLPPPS, but a little bit of the novel’s heart was lost in translation. Given it’s almost complete lack of publicity or marketing, I wonder if the studio didn’t see that as well.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah (2015)

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Review #82

Sisters Vianne and Isabelle Mauriac have a strained relationship. Isabelle feels that Vianne abandoned her to a series of convent school and a life of loneliness after the death of their mother. Vianne, still mourning a series of miscarriages, feels that Isabelle is reckless and never stops to think about how her actions may affects others. In a quiet French town in 1940, both sisters are put to the test as the Nazis edge ever closer to the French borders. Vianne believes that France will never fall, and is determined to quietly live and raise her daughter. Rebellious Isabelle longs for a chance to contribute to the war effort. The following years will test their bond, their morality, and their desire for survival.

Earlier this year I read and reviewed Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and immediately fell in love with her writing style and her focus on relationships and the importance of family. I had heard a lot of good things about The Nightingale and was eager to read another book by this author.

There are dozens of novels published every year that deal with World War II and its aftermath. The Nightingale earns its place in the upper echelons of the genre, but ultimately it has to compete with the likes of All the Light We Cannot See and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and sadly it falls a little short. There simply isn’t anything new or surprising presented by this novel. It felt as if Kristin Hannah had a checklist of “Nazi Atrocities” that she was gradually ticked off as she wrote. The things endured by the Mauriac sisters somehow seem obligatory rather than organic.

The novel occasionally includes chapters that are set in the United States in the 1990’s. One of the Mauriac sisters, now elderly and fragile, contemplates returning to France to confront her past and honor the sacrifices made. These chapters are utterly unnecessary and were obviously put there to lead up to a “twist” that lacked any sort of punch.

This novel has been so highly recommended by so many people that perhaps I went in with expectations that were impossible to fulfill. Ultimately, I enjoyed The Nightingale, but apparently not as much as others.

My rating: 3.5/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (2017)

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Review #57

Nineteen year old Charlie St. Clair arrives in London in 1947 with a mission. During the chaos of WWII her cousin Rose vanished somewhere in France, and Charlie is determined to find her. Adding to her troubles is the fact that Charlie is pregnant, unmarried, and struggling to gain independence from her high-society family. Her one clue leads her to the door of Eve Gardiner, a former spy-turned-drunk with twisted hands and a foul mouth. When Charlie turns up with a name from Eve’s path on her lips, the two women set off on a journey to find out the truth, no matter the consequences.

This was my first novel by acclaimed historical fiction writer Kate Quinn, and I can definitely see why she is so popular. In The Alice Network, Kate focuses her story on two women from wildly different backgrounds who find themselves asked to fight for what they want in life. She alternates between Charlie’s narrative in 1947, and Eve’s as she begins her career as a spy in the French city of Lille at the onset of the first World War.

In 1915, Eve is recruited by the British Army to infiltrate a restaurant owned by a war profiteer. Seen by others to be of limited intelligence due to her stutter, she is exhilarated to be given a chance to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way. Her starry-eyed innocence is a radical change from the Eve Gardiner of 1945. Since we as readers already know from the onset that things are not going to end well, this creates an atmosphere of heightened suspense that drives Eve’s narrative forward with the force of locomotive.

Unfortunately, this does tend to make Charlie’s passages pale in comparison. Not that her story isn’t compelling, but it simply cannot hold a candle to the pathos evoked by the unraveling of Eve’s past. Also, Charlie’s quest for her cousin often feels a bit like a MacGuffin. Quinn needed her characters to come together with a combined sense of purpose, and the search for Rose gives them that; but it often feels like little more than  plot device. Since the reader is unacquainted with Rose except through Charlie’s eyes, her potential predicament is incapable of inspiring a similar level of intensity to Eve’s.

The treatment of women during WWI and WWII is a central focus of The Alice Network. One of Eve’s fellow spies is based on the true story of Louise de Bettignies, a Belgian spy who helped pass essential information to the Allies from German-occupied France. One of the reasons that de Bettignies was able to succeed in her position for so long was that no one thought that a woman had any invested interest in the war, nor the courage to undergo the dangers inherent in espionage.

Louise and those like her were able to pass valuable information by appearing silly and foolish. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. I found myself enraged early in the novel when Charlie was unable to withdraw her own finances from a bank without permission from her father, and later when a sleazy pawn broker attempts to take advantage of her unmarried status. One of the main themes presented in this book is how women can use the ignorance of those around them to overcome their difficulties, and also how women often need to ignore the social strictures of the previous generations if they hope to achieve their goals.

I truly enjoyed this novel, and would definitely recommend it to fans of the historical fiction genre. I will be on the lookout for more novels by Kate Quinn.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Alice Network here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

 

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

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Review #52

In 1996, the city of Sarajevo is trying to recover after a brutal and devastating siege. Many of the city’s priceless artifacts have been destroyed by the bombings. One special book, however; was smuggled out. The Sarajevo haggadah, an illuminated book used by those of the Jewish faith at Passover, has made its way safely out of harms way. Rare book expert Hanna Heath is summoned from her home in Sydney to analyze and conserve this priceless and beautiful relic. Tucked inside its pages she finds several odd artifacts – an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain. Author Geraldine Brooks creates a fictionalized history of the book tracing it back to its creation.

I was immensely pleased while I was reading this novel to discover that the Sarajevo haggadah is a genuine artifact that was smuggled out of a museum by its curator during the bombings of the mid-90’s. The book, believed to have been crafted around 1350, is one of the few examples of a Jewish manuscript that contains illuminated pages, since Jewish people at this time had strict laws against the making of “sacred images”. Furthermore, it contains an image of what appears to be an African woman dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, which has baffled historians for centuries.

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An image from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The “African Moor” is in the foreground on the left.

Rare book expert Hanna Heath is thrilled when she is offered the chance to study and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah is preparation for its display in the National Museum. Feeling a stronger connection to books than people, Hanna is immediately intrigued by the rich and unique history of the manuscript. As she finds interesting items tucked into the book’s binding, the reader is then transported to the time and place in history when each particular curiosity was added to the book’s overall mystery. We meet a girl fleeing for her life from the Nazis who ends up finding refuge in a Muslim home. A Catholic priest who saves the book from the fires of the Inquisition. A Jewish family in Barcelona who struggle after being exiled from their home. And a young slave in Seville who is responsible for the book’s stunning illuminations. Each piece of history fits into the overall puzzle of the Sarajevo haggadah to form the picture of a society that is constantly torn apart and brought together by the differences of religion.

This is a fantastic premise for a novel, and I went in to The People of the Book with very high hopes. However, I found myself struggling to truly engage with the characters in Geraldine Brook’s novel. Hanna, as the anti-social and biting protagonist, isn’t given much to do besides marvel over wine-stained pages and lament the destruction of its original bindings. She meets with a variety of people who know more than she does, each of whom are able to further explain the various curiosities found between the pages.

As each mystery is explained, a chapter follows introducing the characters who interacted with the haggadah during that time in history. The difficulty is that each of these chapters are one-offs. We are introduced to these individuals, begin to understand and empathize with their lives, and then are abruptly pulled back to 1996 to hear more of Hanna’s defensive whining. Due to this back-and-forth, The People of the Book is strangely uneven and at times was downright tedious.

There is a pattern apparent in this novel of religion being a driving force for dividing or unifying people throughout the centuries. Too many people believe that the Jews and the Muslims have always been enemies, and forget that they were in fact allies and partners in many advanced civilizations. The Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish community for hundreds of years, and yet there were groups of devout Catholics that risked their lives to shelter and protect those not of their faith. From this perspective, The People of the Book shows that a seven-hundred year old manuscript can still have something to teach us about working together.

This is a book for book lovers. It’s interesting to note that I received my copy from the Toronto Public Library, and it was definitely in a well-loved condition. The spine was pulling away from the bindings, and the pages were dog-eared and stained. While reading this novel I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the history of this copy, where it had been and who had read it before me. Every book has more than one story to tell, after all.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The People of the Book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer (2008)

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Review #45

London: 1946. The war is finally over, and Britain is trying to put herself back together after the horrors of the blitz. Journalist Juliet Ashton begins exchanging letters with the residents of Guernsey, who are enjoying communication with the wider world after five years of German occupation. As she learns more about them, she begins to be drawn into their lives. Beginning as a mutual love of books, she soon learns all about their island, their relationships, and the impact that the war has left on each of them.

There are so many historical fiction novels that center on World War II and its aftermath. Most of them focus on the horrors of the time period, and the grimBook Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (2017) determination of the people who struggled to survive its ravages. Given the scarring that World War II left on the collective consciousness of humanity, this does not come as any surprise. What does surprise is when I stumble across a novel like Guernsey Literary Society, which has the potential to be just another look at the bleak circumstances faced by the residents of the occupied Channel Islands but instead manages to be funny, uplifting, and utterly charming.

Mary Ann Shaffer’s epistolary novel does not shy away from describing in detail the hardships undergone by the people of Guernsey. The constant fear and hunger of German occupation are given full attention, and the reader is never in doubt as to the difficulties that these people have had to overcome during the course of the war. However, Shaffer writes her characters with an irrepressible sense of humor that shines through the pages of the book. Small things, such as discovering how the group chose the highly unusual name for their book club cannot help but bring a chuckle even though the characters are in very real danger at the time.  Shaffer details the small victories, triumphs, and friendships that allowed the residents of Guernsey to survive the presence of the soldiers on their island. In a lesser novel these characters may have been described as “plucky” or “quirky”. But Shaffer fleshes them out and gives them distinct personalities which blend together seamlessly to create the picture of a group of people who banded together during a dark time and are sticking together as they rebuild.

If I had to point out one small flaw in this novel, it would be that Shaffer treats the writing of letters rather like the sending of text messages. I cannot envision that someone would send letters back and forth to friends and colleagues multiple times a day, or that these messages would consist of only one or two sentences. How are these messages winging through London or across the English Channel with such speed?

“That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive – all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.”

This is a book for book lovers, and as a lifelong book lover I found myself completely delighted and enthralled by The Guernsey Literary Society. The main plot of the story begins as two strangers discuss the works of English poet Charles Lamb. Although I haven’t read any of Lamb’s work, I immediately felt comfortable with the two characters who find themselves drawn to one another in order to discuss their favorite section and passages of a book. I have made lifelong friends in much the same way.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy Reading everyone!