Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble

I think I'm too young and too happy with my life to identify with the characters in this book. None of my "rough patches" have been similar to theirs. This all sounds awful to say, but it very well may be why I found this book so boring. Granted, a lot does happen and the pace of the narrative was excellent - I just never cared for the characters.

The Reading Group brings together five women for a year's worth of monthly book club meetings. While they do talk about the books (although extremely briefly) the novel is more about the lives and families of the women and how much can happen in just one year. The book takes place in England, all the characters are British - a fact that doesn't usually bother me, but this time I kept getting hung up on the unfamiliar slang. Not understanding all the references that were made might have softened the impact of certain events in the story for me.

It's pretty easy to sum up our ladies into stereotypical characters: one whose husband cheats, the divorcee finding love again, one suffering a female mid-life crisis, the one coming to terms with the mortality of a parent, and lastly the one who thought she knew what she wanted in life but really had it all wrong. I think the simplistic packaging each of these women can fit into really detracts from the ability to form an emotional attachment to them unless you've gone through what they're experiencing. And, while they endure more than just what their stereotypical definitions entail, I found myself unable to be sympathetic.

If you look at the book as a whole, without concentrating on the characters themselves, I do really like the message - that it's the hard spots in life that can bring a group of people together. Especially when women come together, the bond that forms is unbreakable. It's amazing having close female friends to talk to about everything. I just didn't feel like this message was the main trust of the book. To me, this book was written to prove the point that life can be crap and is a lot of the time, but things usually work out (Oh, and read books). Not really a message I need to wait 400+ pages to get to though.

Pick this up if a) you're in a book club or b) you're past the point in your life where everyone you know is newly married or first-time parents.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

A little magic, some Salem history, and a missing book being traced through multiple generations of uniquely gifted women; The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane is a fictionalized account of a book containing recipes to heal just about anything. For me, the setting was the lure. Our main character, Connie, studies at Harvard and spends the one particular summer where we meet her in Marblehead, Mass. She's also in-and-out of Salem and Boston - my old stomping ground. So, the setting drew me in, but the story itself kept me speeding through the story.

The narrative shifts between the generations of women who have owned the Physick Book and Connie's search to find the book which has been lost for a few centuries. I'd say present-day when referring to Connie's part of the story, but her portion actually takes place in the early 90's, a more fitting setting since the lack of technology in everyday life at this time plays perfectly within in the story. Cell phones and laptop computers are replaced with pay phones and card catalogues.

Connie is in search of the Physick Book in order to uncover a new, original source from the Salem witch trials that will help launch her academic career. We see Connie's path to locate the book at the same as flashbacks to how the book was used centuries ago.

The great thing about this mystery story is it's not just about the mystery. Howe puts as much energy into her characters as she does the book and its historical context. We meet Connie's roommate, mom, academic advisor, grad student she's mentoring, and more as fully-formed characters (not just tiny side pieces). We get flashbacks into Connie's own memories as she begins to put the book's mystery together so we learn more about her beyond her search. Even Connie's Grandmother's house, Connie's home base in the novel, feels like a character. Howe doesn't assume that solving the mystery will be enough for the reader - she gives you so much more to be interested in.

Then, there's the element of magic. It's so subtle and yet important. No wands or any big fanfare, it just feels real. Unlike other books, the magic here is just an additive to our world, not some secret layer existing alongside the reality we know. It's something organic and feels like it belongs.

This book combines so many genres - historical fiction, mystery, fantasy - that is really does have something for everyone.