Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mini Reviews - The Orphan's Tale by Pam Jenoff, Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara, Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump

Since I have so many reviews remaining from 2016 and another 2 to hit in 2017, I'm going to go ahead and revert to the mini review format, for now. If there are any books that I believe require more depth in reviewing, I'll save them for separate posts. I'll post my December reads, later today.

The Orphan's Tale is my first read by Pam Jenoff, in spite of the fact that she writes about WWII. I don't know what took me so long to get to her books. The story is about two women. Noa was kicked out by her family after falling pregnant at 16, the father of her child a Nazi soldier. Separated from her own child, she has saved a baby found in a freezing train carriage. Astrid was forced to divorce her Nazi husband and leave her home because of her Jewish heritage.

Astrid grew up in a German circus and her family has disappeared. When a neighboring circus takes her in she is grateful but haunted by the loss of her family and perpetually in danger. After Noa shows up with the baby and is also given refuge, Astrid reluctantly teaches her to work on the flying trapeze. When they travel across Germany and Noa falls for the son of a mayor who works closely with the Nazis while Astrid's boyfriend refuses to stop breaking the rules, the dangers sharpen. Will Noa and Astrid be able to keep each other and the baby safe?

There was a lot that I loved about The Orphan's Tale. I liked the fact that I learned about a new facet of life during WWII. I liked the fact that it focused on specific issues that were problematic for women. And, I thought the ending was both heartbreaking and beautiful. There were a couple problems I had with the book, though. The main one was stylistic. The author used the passive voice and it took me ages just to learn to stop mentally rewriting sentences. So many had dones and had beens. The Orphan's Tale needed a dedicated editor to shift its prose away from the passive voice. The other problem was minor: I really don't like circus settings. I thought I would be okay with a circus setting and I did enjoy learning about what it was like within that kind of setting during WWII, but it still was not a setting I enjoyed and I occasionally found myself bored with the details of training someone to be an aerialist.

Recommended but not a favorite - I'm glad I read The Orphan's Tale and I will happily read more by Pam Jenoff but there were some minor frustrations. Definitely a unique setting for WWII and solid storytelling. Crucially, the ending felt perfect in a way few endings do.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara - My classic choice for December, I knew Appointment in Samarra was not going to be a happy tale. I'd read about it a bit and the fable about death finding a merchant in Samarra makes it clear that the ending will not be a pleasant one. But, the writing is superb and I was quickly swept into the story.

Julian English finds one of the members of his club particularly annoying and thoughtlessly tosses his drink in the man's face. The next day, his wife Caroline talks Julian into going to apologize to Harry Reilly, the victim, but Harry is unwilling to see him. It then begins to become clear just how much damage Julian has done to his standing. Slowly, Julian begins to unravel, in the process throwing away everything he's worked for and ruining his closest relationships. What will happen to Julian and Caroline?

Well, the fable makes it pretty obvious but it's still just a bit shocking, in the end.

Highly recommended - Sad as it is, Appointment in Samarra is impressively written and when I look back at 2016's classic choices, I have a feeling it will be one of my favorites.

I ordered a copy of Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump after watching the movie Hunt for the Wilderpeople and finding out that it was based on a book. I love watching a movie and comparing it to the book (better that way than reading the book first and being disappointed, actually) and they were definitely poles apart, although both are set in New Zealand - so, at least the book didn't suffer the fate of being Americanized.

Ricky Baker has been taken in by his Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec. At 12 years old, he's overweight and has spent much of his life being shuffled about. Aunt Bella is warm and loving, a great cook, and happy to step in as a surrogate mom. Uncle Hec is a curmudgeon and former inmate. When Aunt Bella dies suddenly, Hec is heartbroken and decides to head into the bush. But, Ricky will be sent back into foster care if Uncle Hec doesn't take him along. Reluctantly, Uncle Hec agrees to let Ricky come along.  They head into the bush to hide out till Ricky turns 16, when he'll be free of the social system.

That's the book version and they do, in fact, succeed in hiding out for about 2 years, sometimes while being pursued by authorities. Ricky and Uncle Hec make a single friend while on their adventures and Ricky becomes an expert hunter. Because the book is a survival story in which they hide out for literally years, it's quite different from the lighthearted comedy film. But, both are terrific in their own ways. The book is wonderful for being a survival story that ends mysteriously, the movie for its sense of humor. Both describe a building relationship with heart and they both have meaningful, yet extremely different, endings.

Highly recommended - I ordered my copy of Wild Pork and Watercress from Book Depository and it was shipped from Australia. Then, it became available on Amazon. Oh, well. It was worth the wait. I enjoy survival stories and it was fun mentally comparing the book with the movie, as I read. Wild Pork and Watercress has the feel of a YA because Ricky tells the story, although I'm not sure how it would be shelved in New Zealand.

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  1. I really should read Pam Jenoff. One of these days!

    1. Yes, definitely. I had trouble with the passive voice but otherwise she's an excellent writer. I stopped to reread sentences for good reasons, too.

  2. Sounds like some interesting reads. I'm sad to hear you didn't completely love The Orphan's Trane. It sounds really good to me.

    1. It's a good book, Jenny; I just didn't like the use of the passive voice and I'm not a fan of a circus setting. I thought the fact that it was WWII would help me past that and it did, but a circus setting will never be one I love. Having said that, I noticed that a lot of reviewers (at Goodreads, I think) mentioned that they don't normally like a circus setting but had no problem with it, in this case. So, don't let me put you off. It's a good story.

    2. Yeah, it sounds like your issues with it are more personal than general so I might try it.

    3. They are. I hope I made that clear in the review. I would not tell anyone to avoid it. It was clear to me that the research was done well and, passive voice aside, I thought the writing was otherwise skilled. There were sentences that I found myself rereading for their uniqueness or beauty. Anyway, I think you should definitely give it a go if the storyline interests you.


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