I received a copy of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival by Jennifer Chiaverini for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

Mrs Lincoln's RivalMrs. Lincoln’s Rival begins in the days leading up to the 1860 presidential election. Kate Chase, daughter of the thrice-widowed Salmon P. Chase, is bright, charming, and firmly ensconced as her father’s political ally and the female head of his household. Despite the Chase family efforts, however, Abraham Lincoln and not Salmon P. Chase ascends to the presidency at the start of 1861. The family ends up in Washington anyway, though, when Lincoln appoints Chase to be Secretary of the Treasury.

What follows is a mash-up of political intrigue, personal life, Civil War strategy, and social engagements. The story follows the Chase family until Lincoln’s assassination in 1865.

My Thoughts:

I had higher hopes for Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival than I should have, perhaps, seeing as I’d never read anything by Jennifer Chiaverini before. Her Elm Creek Quilts novels have never appealed to me, but the premise of Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival sounded promising.

The novel started off quite interesting. Though Kate came across as flat and irritatingly perfect throughout the book, she made a decent lens through which to follow Lincoln’s election and the start of the Civil War. She was, after all, in the middle of things while such events were occurring. I learned a few things , found the history fascinating, and was looking forward to more of the same.

The rest of the book, however, took a different path. It alternated between Kate’s rather predictable (though far from smooth) love life, the social situation of Washington, and her father’s political aspirations and errors. Parts read like a list of historical events, others like morality tales, and still others like snippets from a bad romance novel. It all seemed a bit Frankensteined together. I suspect maybe there was too much to cover, but rather than choose judiciously what to include, Chiaverini just tossed it all in and brushed over the surface instead of giving weight to much of anything. On top of all that, the parts I’d been interested in mostly disappeared. The Civil War was mentioned briefly every few chapters but was largely ignored. Lincoln’s political doings faded into the background. I did a lot of eye rolling and tuning out while the story chattered on in my ears.

The writing in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival was mediocre. In my opinion it relied far too heavily on “tell” and not at all on “show.” We’re told exactly what Kate is feeling, for instance, instead of being invited to infer through a more subtle approach. We know precisely what Kate is wearing most of the time, even when its relevance to the story is highly questionable. The characters are distressingly two-dimensional. It’s hard to make two-dimensional characters develop, so I guess I can’t cite the lack of growth as a separate issue. Kate’s father comes across as a bit of an idiot, her younger sister a wheedling child (even when she’s grown old enough not to be). Kate herself is virtuous and all-knowing and the model of propriety from first page to last. The only person in the book I liked at all aside from Lincoln was a minor character, a friend of Kate’s whom she doesn’t even come close to appreciating. I was willing to put up with all of this when the content itself was interesting to me, but as the book progressed, I lost my patience.

It bothered me quite a lot that the book was titled Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. The rival aspect felt extremely forced and not at all the main angle from which Kate Chase was portrayed in the book. It may have been that an actual rivalry existed — both women were, after all, historical figures — but I suspect the evocation of Mrs. Lincoln in the book’s title was more to borrow her fame than anything else. The reason for the two women being at odds is never really made clear, and the occasional attempts to highlight the rivalry came across as forced.

I’m pretty sure it’s unfair to judge Kate Chase by the way she’s portrayed in Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival. If anything, the novel has made me interested to find out what the real Kate Chase was like. I imagine she must have been more human, more dynamic, than she is in this version of her life. I hope so, at least!

Christina Moore was fine as the audiobook’s narrator. She didn’t sound the way I’d imagine Kate to sound, but there’s nothing I can really fault her on. Who knows, without her steady reading, I may have given up on Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival long before the end!

The Verdict: Lacking

I finished Mrs. Lincoln’s Rival because I’d committed to reviewing it, and a book has to be atrocious for me to abandon such a commitment midway through. Still, in the end I found it rather disappointing and would have given up after the first few discs had I picked it up on my own. Not one I’ll be extolling to anyone who will listen, that much is certain. I won’t be dashing out to pick up another book by Chiaverini, either.

Your Turn!

What novels have you hoped to learn from that ended up letting you down?

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I received a copy of The Good Braider by Terry Farish for review through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

About the Book:

The Good Braider by Terry Farish (Audiobook) (http://erinreads.com/)We first glimpse Viola, just briefly, in the United States. We know she’s safe and doing her best to fit her Sudanese self into her new American life.

Then we’re plunged into Viola’s past. Over the chapters that follow, we walk with her on her long and unimaginably hard journey. From war-torn South Sudan to a refugee camp in Cairo to family in Maine, Viola struggles to stay alive, stay true to herself, and find her place in the world.

My Thoughts:

I was skeptical at first; after all, The Good Braider proposes to cover a lot of ground for a book that’s just five discs long on audio. I guessed it would be too shallow to be very powerful, too abbreviated to do its subject justice. I’m happy to report I was very pleasantly surprised.

There is something about the way Terry Farish writes that makes The Good Braider just work. Goodreads says the novel is written in “spare free verse,” which makes sense. Though I listened to the book instead of reading it, the writing has a free verse kind of quality to it. Farish only needs a few words to communicate layers of emotion and significance with power and truth. She calls up vivid images with ease. Her scenes are short, and she dips in and out of time at various intervals, but her ability to zoom in on precisely the moments and details she needs makes the story feel amazingly substantial. The war in Sudan is viscerally real. The relationships Viola has with her family and friends are nuanced and complex. Viola’s feelings of being caught between two cultures yet part of neither seeps from the pages, permeates her viewpoint and her actions. It’s really quite impressive.

Viola is the kind of character you can’t help but root for. You respect her, learn from her, cross your fingers and toes for her. You bear witness to her story and realize what you are seeing is truth. You want her to help you understand her situation, to make her life real for you. And she does. You can’t help but be moved by the time you reach the final page (or track, in my case).

I appreciate that Farish doesn’t shy away from tough issues. She doesn’t sugarcoat Viola’s life or shelter her from reality by any means. At the same time, though, she’s not more graphic in her telling than she needs to be. I never felt like she included an incident or description purely for shock value. Her judicious use of really hard topics makes them all the more powerful, in my opinion.

Cherise Boothe does an exquisite job reading The Good Braider. I could not have asked for more in a narrator. She fit Viola’s voice like a glove, which always makes for a smooth and enjoyable listening experience. It was like the cherry on top of the sundae that is The Good Braider.

I don’t have much else to say. It’s a powerful story, expertly told and seamlessly narrated. I’m happy this little gem happened to cross my path.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

The Good Braider didn’t quite hit the “excellent” level for me, but it was on the very high end of “enjoyable.” If it sounds like something that’s up your alley, give the audiobook a try. I think you’ll like it.

Your Turn!

What apparently simple books have surprised you with their depth, complexity, or thoroughness?

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The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje is one of those books that’s been on my shelf for years. In my efforts to read what I own, and because my library had it on audio, I finally picked it up.

About the Book:

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje cover (http://erinreads.com)Set near the end of World War II, The English Patient tells the story of four people who are brought together in an Italian villa. There’s the nameless English patient, bedridden and burned beyond recognition. There’s Hana, the young Canadian nurse who stayed behind to care for him. There’s Caravaggio, a maimed thief who, long ago, was a friend of Hana’s father. And there’s Kip, a polite and detached Sikh who defuses bombs for the British army.

The English Patient is the story of how their lives intersect. It is riddled with stories from the past, memories, and glimpses of each character’s inner life.

My Thoughts:

I listened to The English Patient, and I believe that was the wrong approach to take. I’ve seen others mention having a similar experience, so I don’t think it’s just me. Honestly, this review is a little tough to write (and will be rather brief) because I hardly remember the details of the book!

I suspect The English Patient really might be quite lovely, but you cannot drift off and still follow along. If you lose the thread of the story even briefly, you have no idea where you are. Not the kind of book that works well on audio, at least for me. A character would pop up in another character’s memory and I’d have no idea who it was or how he or she tied in with the story. Or I’d be lost as to what was happening in the book’s present versus in its past. On top of that, there’s a bit of a mystery about who the English patient actually is, so I felt like I never quite knew what was true in stories that related to him somehow (which, admittedly, might have been the point, but it compounded my feeling lost in the book in general). It also didn’t help that there’s only one narrator: Christopher Cazenove. He did a fine job, but having a single voice covering four characters and the stories they tell made it hard to distinguish who was talking.

My favorite character was Kip. I really liked his story and found his character to be particularly well drawn and intriguing. I didn’t know anything about the squads trained to defuse bombs for the British, so I learned a bit as well. But as you can probably tell, I’m short on remembered details even for my favorite character! I definitely blame my choice of audio over print for that problem.

At the same time, there are other books I’ve listened to and really enjoyed that I’d never have gotten through in print. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts comes to mind. Funny how it can work both ways.

The Verdict: Mediocre

In theory, I should have liked The English Patient. It features four very interesting characters. There’s a bit of history. There are details of what life was like for the foursome trying to get by alone in the villa. It’s well written, compelling. I think if I’d read it in print, I’d probably have rated it a level higher. It just didn’t work on audio for me.

If you’re going to give this one a shot, I would opt for the written form unless you have supernatural powers of attention!

Your Turn!

Is there a book you’ve listened to that you think would’ve worked much better in print…or vice versa?

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About the Book:

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (audiobook) (http://erinreads.com)Louis “Lucy” Lynch has loved his small-town life for the whole 60-year span he’s been living it. He’s been married to Sarah, his high school sweetheart, for two thirds of it. They’re about to take a trip to Italy when the book begins, leaving their small collection of convenience stores in the capable hands of their son while they’re away. Meanwhile, in Italy, Robert Noonan — once called Bobby Marconi and Lucy’s best friend — is immersed in the world of a successful but troubled painter. It’s been decades since he and Lucy saw one another, and Noonan is fine with that. He’s too wrapped up in his own problems to care about his roots.

It’s when Lucy decides to write down some of his childhood memories that the past starts to mingle with the present and the long, complicated relationships between the three principle characters begin to unfurl.

My Thoughts:

For whatever reason, Richard Russo is one of those authors I’ve felt I “should” read. There was a short period when I’d pick up whichever of his books crossed my path at a library sale. I ended up with two: Bridge of Sighs and Empire Falls. Of the two, Bridge of Sighs got tackled first because my library had it on audio.

I really had no idea what to expect going in. I don’t even think I knew what Bridge of Sighs was supposed to be about. Which was actually probably a good thing, because I have a feeling it’s one of those books that’s really hard to make sound interesting in a blurb. (You tell me…how’s it sound from the blurb above?) Three people well into middle age, their lives unfolding slowly in the present as they wander back through the early years they knew each other. For 600+ pages (or 21 discs, in my case). True, some books need to be long. I am, for instance, in the middle of Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True, which is even longer than Bridge of Sighs, and that story is positively gripping. But Bridge of Sighs felt long. Really long. Too long.

It wasn’t that I actively disliked the book. There just wasn’t much about it to sway me toward the “liked it” side of the line. It was more that…nothing changed. The characters grew up to be adult versions of their child and adolescent selves. The small town where they grew up stayed the same. Because three different characters were dipping in and out of history throughout the book, some events even got repeated. And not in a way that added much of anything to the event but just sort of rehashed the details I’d already gotten from someone else’s point of view. It all started to feel stagnant and tedious.

It also sort of bothered me that one character (Lucy) spoke in first person, while the other two (Sarah and Robert) shared their few recollections in the third person. I either wanted a narrator who was apart from the characters and could logically delve into each one’s experiences and memories or a single first-person narrator and all the gaps that comes with such a voice. I felt like I knew too much about Sarah and Robert for a book about Lucy, but not enough about Sarah and Robert for it to really be a book about all three.

And then the ending. I really hate it when endings don’t seem to fit their books. I’ve stopped reading Ann Patchett because of the way she consistently snaps any thread of connection I have to the story with her disconcertingly out-of-left-field endings. Bridge of Sighs wasn’t as bad as that, but it still left me rolling my eyes and reaching for a new book before the reader had finished the audiobook credits.

Speaking of the reader, Arthur Morey, though: He was good. I liked his pacing and inflection. He sounded the way I imagined Lucy would sound. That created a slight disconnect when he was reading parts about Sarah or Robert, but that wasn’t his fault.

I do have to say that Russo did a great job building up a world for his characters and populating it with memorable characters. Lucy and his father were particularly well drawn, I thought. True, not much seems to have changed in the 40+ years between the narrators’ present and the past they’re remembering, but that doesn’t make them less memorable. So there’s that.

The Verdict: Mediocre

I feel like I’m being a bit harsh. It wasn’t all bad, just sort of flat. Most likely it seemed even flatter because I was reading Black Swan Green by David Mitchell at the same time. Talk about a tough act to share the stage with! I still plan on trying Empire Falls and will hold out hope of being pleasantly surprised.

Your Turn!

What’s the last book you read that just sort of flopped?

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It’s possible Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is my favorite book of all time. I’ve been meaning to read something else by him ever since I finished Cloud Atlas, which is how Black Swan Green ended up on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the first book I’ve read for the challenge.

About the Book:

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (http://erinreads.com)Black Swan Green is the story of Jason Taylor, a boy on the brink of adolescence living in a small English town in 1982. He has an older sister, a few friends, and a stammer that drives him crazy (and makes him an easy target for the meaner kids at school). The novel spans a year in which Jason will face challenges, have adventures, learn lessons, and make progress that will surprise even himself.

That might sound ho-hum, but no description I’ve found does the book justice. Black Swan Green is so much more than another typical coming-of-age novel.

My Thoughts:

Oh man. How can I even begin to describe how much I loved this book? Let’s see.

First, there is Mitchell’s ability to create amazing character voices, unique and fantastically three-dimensional and almost unbelievably believable. He managed this feat beautifully in Cloud Atlas, even though he jumped from character to character, never getting to spend too long with any one person. In Black Swan Green, Mitchell gets the chance to really settle into his character. Jason is such a vivid, real human being that I can imagine running into him someday out in the world. His word choice, diction, reactions, the way in which he tells the story, his relationships with family and friends, the details he observes and shares, his little confusions and discoveries…reading his retelling felt like reliving adolescence. Jason is someone you can really get behind and root for. You’re pulling for him the whole way, even as you’re going through everything with him. And every once in awhile, he’ll drop these amazing little bits of descriptive metaphor or nuggets of unexpected wisdom into his narration.

It isn’t just Jason who jumps off the page, though. We do get much more of his perspective, of course, since he’s our narrator. But the other characters (and there are a lot of them) come alive through his eyes. Hardly anyone who wanders across the page comes across as flat, even if the part he or she plays is brief. I can recall a plethora of individual characters. Even if I can’t remember their names, I can describe some trait or quirk or event related to them. It makes Jason’s world feel large — as I imagine it feels to Jason — even though in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t.

Zoom out one level to the narrative structure, and you find another spot where Mitchell shines. Every one of Cloud Atlas‘s six sections felt completely different, like its story had crawled into the skin of its own specific genre. Black Swan Green, in contrast, has a typical novel structure, yet it still feels like Mitchell has found yet another story style to inhabit. Like a hermit crab switching shells, or something. Here it’s a story as told by an adolescent boy. What I’m referring to is deeper than Jason’s voice, which I’ve already gushed about. There’s something about the way in which Mitchell put the book together that feels…right. Each chapter is something of a mini-epic in and of itself. But they’re not crafted to read like isolated, short-story incidents the way an adult might tell them. Instead, most of the chapters just sort of stop at odd points — seemingly wherever Jason feels he’s done relating the important bits — and you have to wait until later in the story to pick up hints about what actually happened. He zooms way into the details of a particular stretch of time, wanders off on a few tangents, then jumps to a later point. You always end up getting the information you need to make a complete story, but the skips somehow fit Jason’s character.

The story itself wasn’t particularly special, which is as it should’ve been. Jason turns relatively ordinary occurrences into adventures for himself, and the way in which he relates them makes them feel like adventures to us. It’s because we’re viewing the story through Jason’s eyes that it becomes interesting and meaningful. It’s through these ordinary events that we watch him grow, change, begin to understand. It never feels preconceived, like Mitchell is going, “Ok, now Jason will go through some event that will make him evolve as a person. Ready? Go.” Rather, it’s like Jason is unfolding as a result of his experiences, working his way through his problems as best he knows how, with no author behind the scenes pulling strings. The result is that the slightly more hopeful or emotional bits don’t feel cheesy or planned or unreal. They feel earned.

And then! Halfway through the book, I had the most delightful surprise. Mitchell drops in a Cloud Atlas reference. I won’t say more, and there’s absolutely no reason you need to have read Cloud Atlas to follow Black Swan Green, by any means. But oh my goodness, was I completely tickled when I realized what was going on. I’m still grinning, dork that I am.

Perhaps I’m making little to no sense. I’ll put it plainly: I adored this book. It’s fantastic. It took me forever to read, in fact, because I didn’t want to rush through and not savor the pages as they turned. And I’m thrilled to discover Cloud Atlas wasn’t a fluke, that at least one of Mitchell’s other books is fantastic, too! (Now I want to read them all…)

The Verdict: Amazing

As a story, Black Swan Green has a very different vibe from Cloud Atlas. Where the latter was almost literary pyrotechnics, the former is a much simpler and more straightforward story. But if you love David Mitchell’s writing style and particular flavor of talent, then go get yourself a copy of Black Swan Green. Then stop by and tell me how you liked it!

Your Turn!

What authors have you read who consistently do not disappoint?

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