Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I almost didn’t finish Wolf Hall, and I’m not really sure why I did. It tells the story of the Anne Boleyn era of Henry VIII’s reign through the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. I found it to be quite uncompelling. The storyline was confusing to follow because it kept changing perspective, and half the time I wasn’t sure who was talking or who was being referred to. The tone is somewhat distanced and I never grew any attachment to any characters. I didn’t really care what happened to them in the end. It was disappointing as I was looking forward to a good historical novel, but it did not provide the satisfying and captivating story I was looking for.

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A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness
A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Story of Forgiveness by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve had A Human Being Died That Night on my to-read list for several years, and I finally found it at a used bookstore recently and read it. The book is centered around Pumla Gobodo-Madkizela’s interviews with Eugene de Kock, the officer in charge of the apartheid death squads. From this center point she explores how people become evil and the meaning of forgiveness.

I found that she had many insightful things to say. One key point of exploration for her is that of humanness. For example, she comes back multiple times to the moment where she touched de Kock’s hand and felt empathy for him, exploring what it means for her to feel empathy for an “evil” man and how this is frightening for her. Extending this, she explores the threat people in general feel in recognizing the humanness of people who do evil things. On the other hand, she goes into depth on the topic of forgiveness, pointing out that in some cases it allows the victim to regain power, by saying that the perpetrator no longer has power over them to make them feel hurt, angry, or resentful. One of the key prerequisites for forgiveness, however, is for the perpetrator to demonstrate genuine remorse and apology.

Overall I thought she presented a nuanced look at evil and forgiveness. I appreciated that she explors the gray areas and the question of being human, while still being clear that the evil acts committed are morally reprehensible. Although far shorter and more focused, I found A Human Being Died That Night to be a more insightful look into the question of evil than Phil Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect that I read a few years ago.

I highly recommend A Human Being Died That Night.

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A Woman Of Independent Means
A Woman Of Independent Means by Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had never heard of A Woman of Independent Means before, but for some reason it caught my eye on the shelf at the library. It is a short epistolary novel told entirely in letters from the main character, Bess. They span her life from age 10 in 1899 until her death in her 70s, and tell the story of a strong, independent woman. I enjoyed the narrative and it felt as if I could have been reading my great-grandmother’s letters, who was approximately the same generation. The author captured well the changing perspectives and attitudes of the woman as she aged, as well as the changes in society that surrounded her. This book made me nostalgic for the era of letter writing and I am thinking of writing someone a letter now!

I don’t think A Woman of Independent Means is for everywhere, but if you are fascinated with history and the life of ordinary people in the past, as well as with strong female characters (who are far from perfect), you will enjoy it.

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Review: Riding Lessons

Riding Lessons
Riding Lessons by Sara Gruen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rather disappointingly, I didn’t enjoy Riding Lessons nearly as much as the first book I read by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants. Riding Lessons is about a woman who suffered a terrible riding accident in her late teens, cutting off her Olympic ambitions. 20 years later, jobless, getting divorced, and with a difficult teenage daughter, she returns to the family home (where her father is dying) to figure out her life. The book was a quick read and relatively engaging, but I never felt really drawn into the plot the way I did with Water for Elephants. I actually found the main character quite tiresome. She repeatedly does incredibly stupid and irrational things and I felt like shaking some sense into her. The story is told in the first person from her perspective and I didn’t feel like the author did it convincingly enough to make me understand why she was acting the way she did.

Since this was Gruen’s first novel, that is a good sign that she actually improved as a writer. I will certainly read her fourth novel, Ape House, in the hopes that it is more like Water for Elephants, but I don’t know if I will read the sequel to this one, Flying Changes.

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Review: The Shadowy Horses

The Shadowy Horses
The Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great paranormal historical romance by Susanna Kearsley. A well-constructed plot, interesting characters, good history, and good romance made for a perfect travel book.

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Review: Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable fast-paced novel about a hacker in a middle eastern country who gets compromised and in trying to escape falls with the world of the “unseen”. I don’t normally feel that drawn to books that deal with the contemporary, high-tech world, but in this case I felt it was fairly well done. I enjoyed the mix of fantasy/religion with the contemporary theme, and I thought there were several insightful quotes about religion and Islam in particular. However, as a programmer I have high standards for descriptions of programming in novels, and I didn’t feel that this quite lived up to those standards. I think putting programming in a novel is a tough thing to do, and the author clearly knows a bit about it, but she got into some questionable territory. Overall I recommend Alif the Unseen, but don’t expect the next greatest fantasy novel ever.

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Review: Thieftaker

Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An entertaining light read that combines magic and mystery in revolutionary Boston. While I enjoyed it overall, I felt that it was a bit lacking in some ways. The writing itself is nothing special; the book is solely plot-driven. I felt that the magic could have been developed further; there were several magical fight scenes that all seemed to follow the same pattern of the main character getting beaten to a pulp and then somehow finding his way out of the situation through luck or perhaps some “deus ex machina”. In the final scenes his magical skills seemed to improve rather rapidly. Additionally, the entire novel felt like a big build-up to the mystery of who this really powerful conjurer was and why he was murdering people. In the end, the resolution was a bit of a let-down, and the reasons behind the conjurer’s behavior were less than compelling.

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