I thoroughly enjoyed The Kashmir Shawl, by Rosie Thomas, and found that it kept me far more engaged than anything else I’ve read recently. It is long (over 450 pages) but I read it more quickly than many shorter books because I didn’t want to put it down. The story is an “epic romance” and follows two intertwined plot lines: a woman in contemporary time who discovers a beautiful Kashmir shawl when going through her deceased parents’ belongings and sets out to discover its origin, and her grandmother who accompanied her missionary husband to Kashmir before and during WWII. Thomas creates interesting, three-dimensional characters and describes both the places and the character’s emotions vividly. I almost felt as if I were there in Kashmir, and I felt connected to and cared about the characters. I highly recommend The Kashmir Shawl! I would like to read more by this author but my library does not seem to have any other books by her.
I was very disappointed with Beguilement given the high quality of Bujold’s other fantasy novels (such as the The Curse of Chalion). In her other novels Bujold demonstrates an amazing ability to create a unique and interesting fantasy world and tell a compelling tale of adventure. This novel started off promising but quickly became a run-of-the-mill romance novel. The world she creates in this book has a lot of potential, but she pretty much completely drops it in favor of the romance. In the end, the story doesn’t even end – apparently this is more like the first half of a novel – but I don’t feel particularly compelled to continue on with it. Her characters were not even as interesting in this book as her others, either. The woman (girl, really) is unbelievably (and annoyingly) naive, and the man has potential but gets completely caught up in love and doesn’t do anything all that interesting.
I enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett, but I found that it fell a little flat. It tells the story of a young bookseller who discovers an old manuscript that might prove the truth about Shakespeare’s identity. The plot line was engaging for the most part and the mystery wrapped up very neatly at the end. However, it was rather predictable and I guessed at two key points (although not a third) well before the end. I also found it a bit annoying that the story jumped around in each chapter – essentially there were three separate storylines going on: the present, Peter’s college years when he met his wife, and a historical story of this particular manuscript. In some books this works but here I found it didn’t add anything and possibly detracted. My final issue with the book is that the storyline with Peter’s wife, Amanda, was extremely painful without being really crucial. When I read in the book jacket that the main character was an antiquarian bookseller recovering from his wife’s death, I assumed they were an older couple, but in fact they are only in their early 30s when this tragedy occurs. It just struck me as an unnecessarily tragic part of the story.
Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is an engaging and well-written novel that tells the story of a disparate group of people whose lives overlap, from a young Italian innkeeper in the 1960s to a young woman aspiring to be a film producer in the 2000s. It is difficult to describe the plot line, but it is about more than the plot – it is about human imperfection and the lives we create and dream and live. The writing itself is excellent and a large part of what makes it a good book. The chapters jump around in time and focus on different characters, which I can find quite jarring. However, Walter made it work with writing that quickly engages the reader in whichever story is currently being told. Some of the chapters even felt like they could exist as short stories in their own right. Walter also managed to write a book about heavy topics with a light touch that kept it from being a downer and had plenty of humor. I definitely recommend this book!
In The Lemon Tree, Sandy Tolan follows the lives of two people, an Arab and a Jew, who lived in the same house in Palestine/Israel – the Arab before 1948 and the Jew after. These people met in real life in 1967 and continued to interact, write, and see each other over the years up to the 2000s. They had hard discussions with each other over how the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should be resolved, and continued to stay in interaction with each other despite being on opposite sides of the issue.
Tolan does a good job presenting these two people’s story, and their story itself is one of hope, although it does not have a nice happy ending (clearly, since the conflict is ongoing). However, I felt that he spent far too many pages describing the historical context in great detail. I understand that some historical context is necessary to understand the story being told, but I think it could have been done much more succinctly. I found these sections boring and I skimmed some of them in order to get back to Dalia and Bashir’s story.
Overall the book is interesting, but not compelling. I did not come away from it with any new insights into this conflict – although perhaps that is because I am not the target audience, since I already believe that humanizing the other is the only way to move forward in an intractable conflict. I mildly recommend the book but cannot give it a strong recommendation.
I got two-thirds of the way through The Hamilton Case before abandoning it. It takes place in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the early 20th century when it was still under British rule. The first third was fairly promising, with first person narration by the main character leading up to the titular event, the murder of a white man. However, at this point it switched to third person, the “Hamilton Case” was not mentioned again, and it became very boring. It went on for pages about the main character’s mother, who is going mad in the jungle and the story was not going anywhere at all. From the title and jacket cover I was led to believe it would be centered around a murder mystery, but that did not seem to be the case. It seems that rather this is meant to be a big metaphorical story about the rule of Britain over Ceylon, and it did not work for me. I was uninterested in the characters and didn’t see the point of the narration.
Another great fantasy novel by Lois McMaster Bujold, The Hallowed Hunt takes place in the same world as the two other books by her that I’ve read (The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls). Like the other two, it has interesting, well-drawn characters, a compelling plot line, and is well written. It made for great trip reading and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I plan to try her other fantasy series, The Sharing Knife soon.