Yiyun Li is a natural story-teller. Her prose is simple and direct and therein lies its power. The Vagrants is set in the fictional small Chinese town of Muddy River in 1979, right after the end of the brutal Cultural Revolution. It follows the lives of a host of characters from the power elite, down to the poorest vagrants. Their lives are intertwined by geographical identity and the overwhelming impact that Mao’s Cultural Revolution had on society. The characters are unforgettable. This is a profoundly sad novel, but its illumination of the human condition is revealing. The Vagrants is a very good book, and one that painlessly teaches much about China’s recent history.
I cannot praise this book, together with the narrator, enough. While it can be read as a sentimental story, it can also be read by those willing to go within, as something much deeper. To place it in a wider context, listen to Joseph Campbell’s first episode (broadcast some 25 years ago and available on youtube) with Bill Moyers in the PBS series “The Power of Myth.” The parallels between the hero’s journey illuminated by Campbell, and Harold Fry’s pilgrimage, are striking. If Rachel Joyce never writes another book, and this was her first novel, she should be remembered for this achievement.
I know that Steinhauer has a legion of admirers, but I guess I'm not smart enough to be one of them. I simply couldn't follow the plot. It's one thing to be in the dark as events are occurring, but at the end, I do like to know how it all turned out, a desire that eluded me in The Tourist. Yes, there were several interesting characters and the action and motives, in isolation, did provide some excitement, but how it all fit together was something I, for one, never figured out.
This beautifully read audio book is a meticulously detailed “page turner.” While it does require some suspension of disbelief, it has all the hallmarks of this genre. My only (slight) criticism is that it is too long in parts. However, it held my interest throughout and I can recommend it to anyone who wants an action piece which he or she can easily become involved in.
Over the years, I've read several novels centering on the Vietnam War, but The Things They Carried is in a class of its own. It is emotionally riveting and powerful, without being didactic or maudlin. Although there is a distinct plot, the various scenes are stories in and of themselves, which depict the total horror of Vietnam and the lasting impact it had on the survivors. By the end of the book, I was emotionally drained. The Things They Carried is contemporary fiction at its best. The narrator was so good, so natural, that his presentation was a large part of what engrossed me.
John Grisham is a master story teller, but of the seven or eight books of his that I've read over the years, Sycamore Row is in a class of its own. Not only is the plot exciting, fast-paced, and entirely realistic, but the characters are developed personalities who fascinated me and about whom I cared. The ending was powerful, emotional, and stayed with me for quite a while. As a lawyer, I found the trial, the legal issues and the trial preparation accurate and plausible. While the book stands on its own as a literary work, the audio production was so good and the reader so outstanding, that I can imagine that listening to this book may have been better than reading it. If I've ever listened to a better audio book, I can't remember what it was. Sycamore Row is as good as it gets.
Back to Blood is journalist-turned-novelist Tom Wolfe’s fourth novel, all best sellers, but it is still a very slight tale. It could be called “Miami Exposed,” as it seeks to paint a portrait of that city’s many warring classes and ethnic territorials, all, in their own way, pursuing the American dream. Most of the characters are so overblown that they are cartoons of real people, and the situations that Wolfe creates for them are so implausible, that the novel is sometimes more farce than drama. Still, Wolfe is such a good story-teller that the reader is nudged onward to find out how it all turns out, which will lead many readers to be disappointed because Wolfe frequently either abandons his characters or fails to resolve situations in which he has placed them. I have now read all of Wolfe’s four novels, and I would recommend that anyone interested in reading Back to Blood, do so only after they have read his earlier works in the order that they were written. Wolfe gets worse with each of his novels, but they’re still good enough to keep him and his readership going.
What saved this book for me, was the superb reader, who made this a better book than it would otherwise have been.
Some days all I really want is for someone to tell me a wicked-good story, and when that mood strikes me, there is no better author to turn to than Jeffrey Archer. His books are simple, fast-moving, thoughtless, and well-constructed, while his characters are either very good or very bad, and almost believable. Archer’s major ability is to grab the reader quickly and never let go, and to somehow make the reader care about what happens in the lives of the characters, in short, to make the reader want to know how it turns out. After quickly finishing Only Time Will tell, the first book in Archer’s projected series, The Clifton Chronicles, I immediately picked up and finished the second book, The Sins of the Father. No doubt about it: I’ll buy each succeeding book as it is published.
SS general Reinhard Heydrich is one of history’s cruelest and most depraved actors. He’s rotten to the core, but Hitler and Himmler like him, so his power and opportunities are unlimited and he rejoices in using them. He was assassinated by two Czech resistance heroes in 1942 in Prague, and HHhH tells the chilling story of the assassination. But the book is more than a narrative of an event that has been extensively researched and retold: It also tells the tale of the author researching and writing the book, sort of a “play within a play.” I found this technique, in the hands of French author, Laurent Binet, extremely effective and interesting, but because it does interrupt the exciting narrative of the assassination plot itself, it was disliked by some reviewers. To me, however, Binet’s literary journey and ideas about historical fiction, complemented the narrative in chief and raised the book from a adventure tale, to literary fiction. It is not clear whether Binet’s part in the book is real or imagined, but it doesn’t matter, this is a terrific book either way. The superb reader greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
I accept that it is not possible to know what it is like to be in combat unless one has actually experienced it, but good literature is as close as one can get. The Yellow Birds, set in Iraq, tells the story of two young American soldiers from Virginia, their experiences and the aftermath. It is not a pretty picture. The genius of the book, a first work by Kevin Powers, is that it uses powerful and artful writing to not only tell a story, but to provide insight into the consciousness of other human beings who are caught in the madness of war and killing. This is not a story of hope or spiritual uplifting; rather, it is an exposition (not an explanation) of existence under this latest version of war. It is sad and unforgettable. Beautifully read.
I’ve been listening to audio books for over 25 years, and I’ve come to know that there are some very good books, which do not work well for me in the audio book format. The Redbreast, by Jo Nesbo, is better read than listened to. According to an online site, it has 82 characters and all of them have unfamiliar Norwegian names. The plot is very intricate and takes place in 107 chapters, which switch back and forth between the years 1942 to 2,000, and within numerous cities of Europe. Quite frankly, I was confused during large parts of the book, a confusion that, if it existed at all, would have been cleared up by reference to the printed page. The omission of a map included in the print edition, didn’t help matters. As for the book itself, it is an excellent book, which is hard to characterize; part WWII history, psychology, existential angst, love, contemporary politics, hate crimes, and detective drama. The Redbreast is such a good book, that I regret my decision to select the audio version, even though the narrator is as excellent as the book.
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