The Narrow Road to the Deep North: A War Book You Should Read

Review of The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

This novel is, in many ways, traditional military fiction, and sometimes I get a little tired of this genre. Horrors, emotional traumas, tragedies—these elements can make war novels hard to read and process. Yet great literature like this is worth reading regardless of whether we gravitate towards the genre, and this book deserves the praise and awards it has earned.

This novel contains very few descriptions of fighting for being military fiction. Instead of combat, the story focuses on an Australian POW camp on the Thai-Burma Death Railway. While the story pivots around the main character Dorrigo and his time spent in the POW camp, the novel also spends a lot of time on the preceding years, including a love story, as well as examining how the aftermath of the war affected the rest of Dorrigo’s life. In addition, chapters are often written from other characters’ perspectives, including Japanese soldiers, creating an exploration of events, motivations, and consequences that are complex and resistant to quick assumptions.

What makes this novel stand out is the writing, which is strong, beautifully descriptive, and compelling. My example of his writing comes from Chapter 3: “The smell of eucalyptus bark, the bold, blue light of the Tasmanian midday, so sharp he had to squint hard to stop it slicing his eyes, the heat of the sun on his taut skin, the hard, short shadows of the others, the sense of standing on a threshold, of joyfully entering a new universe while your old still remained knowable and holdable and not yet lost—all these things he was aware of, as he was of the hot dust, the sweat of the other boys, the laughter, the strange pure joy of being with others.”

The only (minor) problem that I had with the writing is that Flanagan’s love of elaborate detail sometimes becomes overdone and florid. There are too many long lists of abstract nouns that give the writing a forced literary quality; but I won’t take off a star for this as it feels more like the excesses of a great writer and not necessarily a detraction from the book.

I read books with an eye for their appropriateness for serious book clubs. This book will withstand multiple readings, one of my measures of a great book, and I easily created pages and pages of discussion questions. I highly recommend this book.

For my discussion questions on this book, go here.

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Review of Harvest by Jim Crace

This is a novel of paradoxes. The writing is, at times, quaint but always edgy, pastoral yet menacing, short but will take time to read. The language and plot are simple, yet the story is sophisticated, ambiguous, and full of unknowns. Descriptions are detailed and realistic while also always on the edge of being surreal. It’s as if this book is a peaceful lake, beautiful and breathtaking, with frightful monsters lurking just under the surface of the water.

Set in a time when agriculture is giving away to other industries, this is the story of Walter Thirsk, an outsider in a peaceful, rural English village that becomes transformed over the course of a week.

My favorite part of the book was the vivid, poetic language. The descriptions are narcotic, as if I was reading a realistic version of a drug-induced vision. I’m not saying that the prose itself is dream-like. On the contrary, the narrative is dense with grounded details. Rather, it’s as if the descriptions are a product of a hyper-realistic, paranoid, visionary trip. I was never sure what would happen next nor what to truly believe.

This is a Great Book and should be read far and wide. This will withstand multiple readings. However, this book is demanding and will ask more of the reader than most current fiction.

One of my book clubs tackled this book, and the discussion was intense and illuminating. Many people did not like the book because it lacks any empathy, especially for the main character, nor does the book have a packaged ending, issues that can turn off a lot of readers. But the book provided plenty of depth for a good discussion, a sign of a worthwhile read.

My example quote from the book comes from page 45 when Walter is walking around the village at night:  “But other gentler odors too. The acrid smell-exaggerated by the rain-of elder trees. The bread-and-biscuit smell of rotting wood. The piss-and-honey tang of apple trees. I navigate my midnight village as a blind man would, by nose and ears and touch and by the vaguest, blackest forms.”

I have trouble recommending this to casual readers—this is not a beach read. I do recommend this wholeheartedly to serious book clubs. Not everyone will like the book, but everyone will like the discussion. I also strongly recommend it to any readers who want a substantial novel that challenges them.

You can find my discussion questions here.

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Review of For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

The writing is gorgeous and not at all what I was expecting. I have previously read some of Hemingway’s short stories which had his famous sparse style. The writing in this novel, however, while clear and crisp, has a rhythm and generous beauty that makes the reading almost sumptuous. My only warning for would-be buyers of this book: be patient to get the most from the novel.

The story is set during the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. Robert Jordan, an American professor of Spanish, has come over to help the Republic fight the Fascists as a demolition man. He is sent to blow up a bridge at a specific day and time, creating a countdown where, as a result of the diminishing hours, he spends four intense days with a small guerrilla force, creating tight, intimate relationships.

I’ll be honest. The first half of the book put me to sleep; but I’m not saying this as a criticism, I swear! The language was so mesmerizing, repetitive, and rhythmic, that it created a hypnotic effect that kept making me drowsy. I had to be so patient. I couldn’t read with any distractions and often read only a dozen or so pages at a time to help with my focus.

The second half of the book, in stark contrast, accentuates the countdown to blowing up the bridge. The plot started to fly by, and I found myself going faster through the writing than I wanted to. I had to really focus on keeping my reading at a steady pace to catch all of the narrative and not skip anything. Again, I found I needed all my patience and focus, but in an entirely different way.

There are no bad parts to this book. The characters, language, pacing, plot, everything is well done. Chapters often set aside the plot for a while as characters give us their personal anecdotal histories or conversations, but these asides add so much depth to the narrative that they seem integral to the whole story.

Here’s my example of his writing style on pg. 323, Chapter 27: “Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond.” There’s nothing about the style here that’s sparse. Repetitive and clear, but so lovely as the time that I find it captivating.

I was in a book club that read this, and I can tell you the only downside to this book is that we all agreed so well upon it, the conversation lacked any good argument or intensity (although we did understood the novel much better afterwards). I encourage book groups to read this book as there is so much depth here to explore; I easily created pages of discussion questions and could create so many more if I spent more time with the book. This would also make an excellent book for anyone interested in reading classics. Someday I’m going to read this book again, and I know that I’ll get even more out of it then.

You can find my discussion questions on this book here.

A New Twist on the Dead Girl Genre: Review of Everything I Never Told You

Review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a book with big social ambitions captured in a small, intimate story.  The narrative starts with the mystery of a dead daughter, but it unwinds itself around the story of a family who must deal with the impact of discrimination and the fallout of broken dreams.

The language is lovely; the themes are complex and deep. Characters are strong, individual, and full of authentic motivations and issues. But the best aspect for me is the flow of the plot: the story itself changes and evolves with its deft narrative style. With the way this book tackles difficult social issues with complex characters and a quick-reading plot, I think this book would be the perfect book for a high school English class!

For an example of the lovely writing and strong social issues this book tackles, I’m choosing an excerpt from pg. 41: “In Chinatown, the lives of all those paper sons were fragile and easily torn. Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.”

I’m docking one point in my review because I didn’t feel like I would get much out of reading this book again. While the issues are complex, the plot isn’t. The characters are fleshed out but not complex enough to offer something more on a deeper read. This has the feel of a one-trick book (although its one trick is a very good trick.)

I would strongly recommend this book as a quick read or as a wonderful book to bring into a classroom. I give this a moderate recommendation to book clubs.

Click here to see my discussion questions on this book.

Review of Lonesome Dove

Review of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a truly epic book. The scope, the landscape, the characters, even the length of the book, give this narrative a grandeur in its story-telling.

The story centers on a couple of retired Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who now own the Hat Creek Outfit, along with one of the employees, Call’s unclaimed son, Newt. There are many other major characters that are given depth in this book, but I can’t possibly list them all in my short review. The plot mostly follows an adventure-filled cattle drive when Call decides to be the first person to bring cattle to Montana and start a ranch there.

The characters are fabulously fleshed out. Everyone is a combination of good and bad traits, with plenty of muddy motivations and emotional handicaps. You will be frustrated with your favorite characters at times, and you will occasionally sympathize with the characters you dislike. And be forewarned, your most-liked and least-liked characters have a high likelihood of dying during the book.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the complexity of the characters’ decisions. The characters all seem to have many reasons for their decisions, often expressed at different times, and motivations are rarely cut and dry. I find this so much like real decision making, and I appreciate an author who can bring to life a slew of emotional issues without weighing down the book in unnecessary contemplation.

The writing is very strong as well. Descriptions are gritty and beautiful here. The tone and use of language feels in keeping with the western setting, but with a high enough skill to be labeled literature. An example I’m going to give of this is from pg. 99: “In a flash, as he stood half-through the swinging doors, Dish’s whole conception of woman changed; it was if lightning had struck, burning his old notions to a crisp in one instant.” From this quote, you’d never be mistaken about reading a western, but at the same time, there’s a flow and sharpness to the language.

I am discounting a point from the review because they are just a few too many times where I’m taken out of the story. Either something too coincidental happens, or the switch in character perspective feels awkward. It was a bit of a burr under my saddle. Having said that, this is a truly great book, and there’s a good chance that you will not have my problem in reading it.

I would like to highly recommend this book to anyone who grew up after the mini-series and think it’s only a western. This would make an excellent book for discussion groups. If you’ve never read this, pick it up now. And if you haven’t read it in a while, pick it up again.

Click here for my discussion questions on this novel.

Review of We Are Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

When I read the summary of this book, I didn’t want to pick it up. A girl raised with a chimpanzee? Well-intentioned but heart-breaking consequences? It sounded like some young adult book that people like because it’s easily digestible. But thank goodness this is not that kind of book. This book is a smart, sometimes funny, often hard look at the underpinnings of living life as a flawed human being.

Any gist of this novel will fall short. I’ll tell you what it’s about, but with this fair warning: the description will not do justice to the gripping narration or the intense philosophical and psychological undertones. On the surface this is a story told by Rosemary, a young woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee when she was a very young child, and she now struggles to fit in with her family and society. But on a deeper level, this isn’t a book about a chimpanzee at all. Rather the story is about how the complexity of guilt, memory, humanness, and identity affect the ability to live a normal life.

I immensely loved the narrator. She funny, sharp, and broken. In an example from early in the novel, on pg. 14, Rosemary describes her mother as “an infamous bridge hustler—I’m amazed there are still people who’ll play with her, but that’s how desperate for bridge some people get; it’s like a drug.” The tone is flippant and yet accurate, silly yet authentic. The narration pulled me in and kept me through some very tough issues that arise in the middle of the book.

The issues this book explores are both plot-based and theme-based. Plot issues center around Rosemary dealing with family issues that are so painful and perceptive I couldn’t help but live them with her. The story then dives into the deep end of issues on themes like the use of animals in scientific experiments. You will feel like you can’t breathe during these parts.

There’s also a lot of playing around with psychological theories and real social issues. Nothing heavy handed, but the book creates places where we need to stop and really think about what was just written and how it applies to the world.

My favorite parts of the novel centered around the tenuous nature of memories. (After I wrote this, my husband read it and asked me if the chimpanzee turns out to not be real. This is not what I’m hinting at. There is no cheesy gotcha moment like that.) The author did a bang-up job on capturing how memories shape our world, make us who we are, and yet completely fail us at the same time.

Here’s a favorite quote of mine on pg. 48: “Language does this to our memories—simplifies, solidifies, codifies, ,mummifies. An oft-told story is like a photograph i a family album; eventually, it replaces the moment it was meant to capture.”

Click here to see my discussion questions on this book.

Review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Review: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a charming book in a very young adult novel kind of way. It’s a very easy and quick read, character driven, and a nice balance of angst and growth.

This novel is a story told by fifteen-year-old June in the 1980s, where the death of a beloved uncle from AIDS sends her on a life-changing, soul-searching journey.

There are so many reasons why this should have been classified as young adult. The narrator is only fifteen, with distinctly youthful language and adolescent thought processes. She finds herself grappling with tough life issues without parental help (so typical in YA novels) because her accountant parents are in the middle of tax season, and her life has led her to be estranged from her older sister as well. She struggles with self-esteem and other typical coming-of-age problems like boys, self-identification, and fitting in. Plus, like most YA books, there’s this certainty while reading that everything is going to work out in the end, that the narrator will lose some innocence but gain some wisdom. This let’s us feel safe in following the main characters twists and turns. It’s all just so typical of every other young adult novel, I don’t understand why it isn’t classified as such.

The language and themes are good. Not great, but good. Rarely was I ever taken out of the book, but rarely did I re-read a passage for its beauty either. There’s a nice level of complexity to the characters, but it has its fair share of coincidences, along with a feel that the characters make choices that no one would actually make but which turn out all right in the end. The ending was rather hard to swallow but fit well with the rest of the book.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “If you think a story can be like a kind of cement, the sloppy kind that you put between bricks, the kind that looks like cake frosting before it dries hard, then maybe I thought it would be possible to use what Toby had to hold Finn together, to keep him here with me a little bit longer” (pg. 78).

Young adult literature can still be excellent reading, and this book is like that. If you looking for a light read, do grab this.

While I have included discussion questions, I found that my questions felt rather simple. Unless you have a book club geared to young readers or you attend a book club that likes to drink a lot of wine, I would pass on this book for most discussion groups.

Click here to see my discussion questions.

Review of Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This book is real British jewel. Treasure it’s foreignness. Admire all that sparkles within.

As an American, I seriously felt like I needed a translation. For example, what American would know that a “scout” is a domestic worker at Oxford University? Plus the lives of the rich, landed aristocracy of the 1920s and 30s feels so otherworldly to me—the servants, the brutal and constant sarcasm, the expectations of conduct. However, once I accepted that this book is truly a book of an exotic land in a foreign language, I settled down in it and found it a delightfully good read.

In this novel, Charles Ryder finds himself mixed up in the Flyte family for two decades, from his college years into middle life. The family has so many destructive issues of which the narrator continues to be drawn into.

This isn’t the kind of book that I ever wanted to pick up and dive into; but once I was reading it, I found the pages would fly by. I had to get used to stumbling over the Britishisms. At some point, I figured out that it was useless looking them all up, so I would skip over them and wait to catch up a paragraph later.

For most of the book, I found the text alternatives between lengthy conversations and poetical descriptions, neither of which were overly floral or difficult to get through. In fact, I would say the language is possibly the best part of this book. The conversations aren’t realistic, but they do convey a great deal about the characters and viewpoints. Descriptions are absolutely beautiful and do the heavy lifting in this story. The plot is mediocre and seems beside the point.

The point of this book, in fact, seems to be the re-creation of the world these people live in. The reader is drawn into it, the sarcasm, the loneliness, the family responsibilities. It’s quite fascinating. Brideshead is the grounds that the book mostly takes place on, and Waugh has such an evocative way of bringing the place to life.

The characters are hideous in a way only a great author can make them. If you want to love the characters in a book, you might struggle with this one. All the characters will have parts of them you will like or find amusing at least, but they all have terribly flawed issues as well. However, their tragedy and complexity make for a good read.

One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.” (pg. 313)

I recommend this easily to any book group or any individual interested in classics. If you happen to be an Anglophile, this is a must-read for you.

Click here for the discussion questions.

Review of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Review: 5 out of 5 stars

This was a whirlwind of a book. Once caught up in it, this novel will breathlessly spin you around and around. I feel that to hold this novel steady, I would need to read it twice, a statement which for me is high praise. Be warned that this review is based on only one read and therefore is only half accurate.

This is the story of several characters whose lives are intertwined in Chechnya between the years 1994 and 2004. The backdrop is the two wars that ravage the area during these years. Characters deal with the normal ups and downs of friendships and relationships, loves and betrayals, all while trapped between two dangerous armies.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel concerns the omniscient narrator. For those who forgot what this is from junior high English class, there’s no character telling the story, rather, it’s just being told to us by a god-like narrator. Sure, this happens in roughly half of all stories, so why should I bring it up in a review? Because this narrator seems to also be a psychic with an obsession for numbers. For example, on page 305, the narrator tells us that one very minor character will one day have eight hundred and eighty-two cats, “all named for his mother, though he would never know that exact figure.” Any object or character can be suddenly alighted upon with these OCD visions. This gives the book a rare quality, a lightness of distance, putting everything in perspective with such a breadth of information.

The language is haunting and beautiful. I almost couldn’t highlight anything because I wanted to highlight everything. My example is early on, page 40: “His love, pity, and revulsion each claimed her, each occupied and was driven from her, and even now, as he sealed a postage stamp-sized square, he was afraid that in moments, when he broke away, his disgust would overwhelm the imprint of his lips.” This language is poetical without being difficult to read, with themes like war and fear woven into the descriptions.

Torture scenes do occur, and they can be a bit gruesome, although I’ve read more worse in other books. This history of the place can also prove a challenge. As a backdrop, it’s hard to keep up with at times. I’m guessing not too many readers out there have much knowledge of Chechnya history. And with the stories hopping back and forth during those ten years, following the timelines can be frustrating. With some slow, mindful reading, though, it’s worth figuring out how the history intertwines with the story, and never does the book feel like a history textbook.

I highly recommend this book to everyone. This is not a beach read, though, so be prepared to dedicate some quiet hours.

Click here to see my discussion questions.

Review of The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecke

Review: 4 out of 5 stars

At 675 pages, you might pass over this book, but pick it up anyway if you like speculative fiction, historical fiction, or just have a long plane ride and only want one book. The writing and plot makes it read like a much shorter book (think of it as a 450-page book instead). Book clubs especially should look into selecting this as themes here are complex and plentiful.

In the novel, a Golem and a Jinni find each other when they both end up in Manhattan, NY in 1899. Their lives becomes more and more intertwined as they learn how to live among humans.

Themes include immigration, isolation, humanness, religion, sexuality, gender roles, and the list goes on and on. All these themes are treated with a reverence and complexity that allows for a more meditation quality. Speculative fiction is at its best when it uses fantastic elements to bring to light human issues, and this book has this in spades. Wecker uses the nonhuman creatures to delve into cultural and religious issues that would feel pedestrian in human characters.

The plot is hardly traditional, but it does bring a mystery with flashbacks as well as solid character progression to keep the reader going. The language is easy and delightful, adding a flourish only in places where it’s needed. The characters are a bit hard to relate to, but they are written with depth and feel authentic enough.

I am deducting a point because of the length. While it reads quickly (and I seriously don’t want anyone to not get it for the length), it would have been that much better if it had been shorter. In the middle of the book, I fatigued of hearing the same character issues and complaints. It has one or two too many characters. And with no character that we easily relate with, the book has to rely on plot to keep us interested. I just feel that everything this book accomplished could have been done with fewer pages. The ending is also a little too neat, but I would forgive that if it hadn’t taken 200 pages to end.

Overall I recommend this book, especially if the genre appeals to the reader.

What to say to make people think you’ve read the book: I pretty sure that if Chava had my job, she would have killed everyone already.

Click here for my discussion questions on this book.