Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Published: 1st May 2007 (print)/3 December 2015 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Algonquin Books/Lamplight Audio
Pages: 335/11 hrs and 26 mins
Narrator: David LeDoux, John Randolph Jones
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical
★   ★   ★ – 3 Stars

When Jacob Jankowski, recently orphaned and suddenly adrift, jumps onto a passing train, he enters a world of freaks, drifters, and misfits, a second-rate circus struggling to survive during the Great Depression, making one-night stands in town after endless town. A veterinary student who almost earned his degree, Jacob is put in charge of caring for the circus menagerie. It is there that he meets Marlena, the beautiful young star of the equestrian act, who is married to August, the charismatic but twisted animal trainer. He also meets Rosie, an elephant who seems untrainable until he discovers a way to reach her. 

After years of having this book on my shelf and after even more years of wanting to read it. I have finally read Water for Elephants! I actually chose the audiobook and it was a good listen. There are two narrators, one for young Jacob and one for elderly Jacob and both gentleman did a great job.

The story jumps through time from the present day to Jacob’s early life in the 1930s when he runs away and joins the circus. While the present day begins the story, most of it is told by Jacob’s younger self but there is a constant back and forward, especially in the early chapters. I loved present day Jacob, his thoughts are sardonic and admittedly a bit depressing but there is hope and it is so easy to fall in love with him. He worries about his mind, his memory and while a lot frustrates him, he is a darling.

It was definitely a curious contrast because I loved present day Jacob but twenty three year old Jacob annoyed me a few times. He is a fool but I guess that what comes from being young and naïve, especially in a world he knows nothing about.

The story is heartbreaking at times and tough in terms of content. With an audiobook I definitely had to turn the volume down while I was driving on occasion with some of the animal abuse but thankfully you could tell it was coming and Gruen is restrained in her descriptions so they don’t last long. A lot of it reinforces character development and while it is tough, it was also a reality of the time and the treatment of animals in the circus.

There is diversity of the characters and Gruen sets up the class system well for the train layout and the circus employees. And while it was not essentially part of Jacob’s story, I enjoyed that Gruen manages to casually slip in the prejudices against the African-Americans and other folk as they travelled the various American towns.

There’s hope and triumph through the story but there’s a bittersweet reality to it as well. The stories have always been around about the reality of circuses in those days and while the circumstances were rough, it is also fascinating when you see how many were in operation and makes you realise how amazing it is for those that survived.

This isn’t a history of circuses, but it is a good story about the life of being on a circus, and especially one that isn’t real. The ending was the crowning glory. After hearing Jacob’s life story and seeing his present day circumstances Gruen concludes this story in the best way possible. I barely remember the movie but I know it was a bit different to the book. There is a lot of padding and I was surprised when it was revealed a lot takes place over a few months because it felt like a lot longer as the story was happening. I’m glad I finally read it and while it was enjoyable, I will admit a small part of me found it a tad underwhelming.

You can purchase Water for Elephant via the following

QBD | Booktopia | Book Depository

Dymocks | WorderyAngus and Robinson

 Fishpond | Amazon | Amazon Aust | Audible

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Published:  10th September 2013 (print)/10th September 2013 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
  Little, Brown and Company/Bolinda Audio
Pages: 336/10 discs – 12hrs
Narrator: Morven Christie
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard. 

I quite liked this book. It was slow but not unenjoyable. Kent uses her language with intent and there’s weight behind her choice of words making you feel everything she is telling you with importancemakes you feel the drawn out winters and longer periods of time. The house and the surrounding environment are described in vivid detail that make you understand the close knit quarters and the family dynamic. There is a great sense of heaviness as you read as well; the looming sentence and fear over Agnes’ head, the reluctance of the family, the ostracisation by them towards Agnes, not to mention the mystery over what actually happened.

I enjoyed the historical era that the story is set, the true history it is based on is fascinating as well. I enjoyed learning about the region and the farm as well as the culture and history. It was a lot better than other literature and acclaimed novels I’ve read. I can see how it won the awards, and I’m surprised I enjoyed it as much as I did. I wasn’t blown away, but it kept my attention and even surprised me at times.

You can purchase Burial Rites via the following

Dymocks | Booktopia

Book Depository | Fishpond

Amazon | Amazon Aust

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The Muse by Jessie Burton

Published: 26th July 2016 (print)/26th July 2016 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Picador/HarperAudio
Pages: 445/1 disc – 12hrs (MP3)
Narrator: Cathy Tyson
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction
★   ★   ★  – 3 Stars

A picture hides a thousand words…

On a hot July day in 1967, Odelle Bastien climbs the stone steps of the Skelton gallery in London, knowing that her life is about to change forever. Having struggled to find her place in the city since she arrived from Trinidad five years ago, she has been offered a job as a typist under the tutelage of the glamorous and enigmatic Marjorie Quick. But though Quick takes Odelle into her confidence, and unlocks a potential she didn’t know she had, she remains a mystery – no more so than when a lost masterpiece with a secret history is delivered to the gallery.

The truth about the painting lies in 1936 and a large house in rural Spain, where Olive Schloss, the daughter of a renowned art dealer, is harbouring ambitions of her own. Into this fragile paradise come artist and revolutionary Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, who immediately insinuate themselves into the Schloss family, with explosive and devastating consequences. 

I actually read this before I read The Miniaturist and since I didn’t like that, I wonder if I would have picked this up. But since I read it before I eagerly took it up and actually rather enjoyed it. It was steady, not obviously exciting or adventurous, but it was interesting and dramatic in its own way. There was a lot of focus on the characters and their interactions with others to create the drama rather than needing too much outside influence, despite the civil war looming in the background in the 30s, which I must say did add its own tension and a wonderful historical reality.

The story has a dual timeline which switches between 1960s London and 1930’s Spain, a connection between the two we’re not sure of until a painting arrives at the gallery where Odelle Bastien has begun working. Burton switches between the 1960s and the 1930s beautifully, mixing the stories together and revealing what needs to be told at the right times, holding back when needed.

I liked that Burton gave us a few intriguing mysteries to ponder. I had theories about them and changed and altered them based on what happened in the story. Of course, some were predictable in hindsight, but there was always a slight chance that I was wrong, and I guess when I had a bet on either side I was going to right either way. I loved Odelle as narrator. I listened to the audiobook so Tyson did a beautiful accent which brought Odelle to life. But even without that, Odelle is a great character, she is a smart, sensible woman, she has pride and respect for herself and while she is a bit timid at times, she is also loyal and curious. This curiosity gets her involved with her employer and starts her on her own investigation into why there are so many unanswered questions and mysteries surrounding not only her employer but also this new, important painting.

There are many intriguing characters in this story. Isaac Robles and Olive Schloss are complicated in their own ways, as is Teresa. The pressure of their era and the secrets that they must keep haunt them and Burton brings this out in their words and their actions, making each one complex and full. The tone changes between each era are subtle but make a huge difference. Burton doesn’t just tell us we’re in the different decade, her writing has a different tone to it that feels freer or more confined, depending what is needed.

I enjoyed where this story went, I became more invested as it went along in both Odelle and Olive’s storylines. I wanted to know the answers as much as Odelle did and I was curious how Burton would approach their reveal. What resulted was a captivating story with twists and turns that actually did surprise me at times. I loved the chaos of the characters and the human motives behind decisions that alter paths completely.

I found myself wanting to keep going, I looked forward to getting back into the story, and with a curiosity of my own I wanted to see how it ended. Burton has created a story that will delight and surprise you in a multitude of ways. It has great a great historical presence across two defining eras of the 20th century, which has been coupled with fascinating characters that bring their own dramas to the page. Even if you weren’t a fan of Burton’s other work (as I wasn’t), give this story a go because it might just surprise you.

You can purchase The Muse via the following

QBD | Booktopia
Amazon | Wordery
Book Depository | Dymocks

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Published: 3rd July 2014 (print)/26th August 2014 (audio) Goodreads badge
Publisher:
 Ecco/HarperAudio
Pages: 416/1 disc
Narrator: Jessie Burton
Format: Audiobook
Genre: Historical Fiction/ Magical Realism
★   ★  – 2 Stars

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office–leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella’s life changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist–an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways…

Johannes’s gift helps Nella pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand–and fear–the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation…or the architect of their destruction?

I’ve given it two stars, but by the end of it I wanted to give it 1.5. I was told this was a brilliant read, I did not find this. I persevered and hoped for something to come of it. And not only did I get no real answers, the ending was unsatisfactory and I feel a bit cheated. I don’t know whether this has to do with the magical realism side of the story, but I wasn’t a fan.

The beginning started out ok, after a prologue from an unknown voice we’re introduced to Nella and her arrival at her new life. We’re thrust into Amsterdam in the 1600s and all its glory. Burton makes it easy to understand while still having the gravitas it needed and the seriousness to understand Nella’s predicament, and her style of writing feels like it suits the era and is easy to comprehend.

I settled into the story and got used to Nella and the other characters. I was intrigued, I was curious. It does start to go a bit stale and as part two hit I was weary but something finally seemed to be happening. This didn’t last though and the story dragged on. I think Burton tried to include too much. There’s the historical story happening with sugar, plus a lot of religious elements and political components. On top of that is Nella’s place and the mystery of the miniaturist. It makes for a heavy story and one that takes a lot of pages to tell.

Some parts were predictable and it was a case of waiting for the book to catch up with what you already suspected. Other times it felt like every second chapter had a typical twist of some kind and it got to the point it was just “Oh, another twist, sure, why not’. I will give Burton some credit, she actually followed through on a few things I thought she wouldn’t, that impressed me. But in doing that she also added to the unsatisfactory feeling and the sense that while some things appeared to be resolved, nothing felt like it was. We’re left hanging, not even with a sense that we understand how things would keep going, an abrupt finish that doesn’t answer anything.

I found that I wanted to get to the end without reading the middle. I figured I could ignore this middle part and just see what happens and get the answers to the big questions that Burton keeps raising. I wanted to get to the end to find out what the whole point of it was and found nothing but disappointment. It was anticlimactic after the [supposed] build up and it felt flat.

I’d been looking forward to reading this for months and had it praised and recommended to me by a few people so I was eager to see what it was like. Not to mention the beautiful cover. To come out the other end with meagre enthusiasm is a sorry state to be in.

You can purchase The Miniaturist via the following

QBD | Booktopia

Amazon | Wordery

Book Depository | Dymocks

Riot: A 1960’s Love Story by Charles S. Isaacs

Published: 8th September 2015 Goodreads badge
Publisher:
Harpers Ferry Press
Pages: 458
Format: ebook
Genre: Historical fiction
★   ★  – 2 Stars

It’s September 1967. As the Vietnam War and a militant Antiwar Movement hurtle toward explosive confrontation, Steve Harris – white, idealistic, and naïve — begins his freshman year. During that year, he will fight to end the war, fall in love, confront painful truths about his family, and be jailed and beaten by police. Through this crucible, he emerges with a transformed consciousness, of the world and of himself.

The change begins with a rousing antiwar speech delivered by Emma Gold, a Depression-era radical. When Emma introduces him to young Cat Crawford — inter-racial, brilliant and exotically beautiful – his bewitching is complete. The two students’ instant friendship blossoms before long into a passionate love affair. Their bond is tested, though, by the mounting demands of the Antiwar and Black Power Movements, and by their own deep-seated psychological issues.

1968 is marked by campus unrest, urban rebellion, assassinations, and political violence that leads the two into clashes with the Chicago Police and the National Guard. The story builds to a heartrending climax during the street battles surrounding the Democratic National Convention.

This is a complex, fast-paced journey on an emotional roller coaster, punctuated by flashes of self-discovery, and bursting with political and sexual passions. 

Note: I was provided with a copy of this book by the author for review.

I have mixed feelings about this story. The content was interesting; I learnt a few things and felt I was reading through history, but at the same time I didn’t really connect with the characters or their story. I am fully prepared to accept it may have been me so don’t let that deter you, there is no denying the effort and creativity Isaacs has gone to to bring this story to life and pack it with so much history.

Described as a 1960s love story there is a blossoming love but romance isn’t the sole focus of the novel. Steve is a college student who finds love and friendship during a critical time in late 1960s America; the Vietnam War has begun and the civil rights movement is underway. These important moments of history get embroiled with his life and Isaacs tells a story about the life of students and regular Americans who are trying to stop a war no one wanted and survive the tensions between black and white America.

After being fairly oblivious and uninterested in politics and racial conflicts, Steve has his eyes opened when he befriends bookshop owner Emma and fellow student Cat and soon he discovers the world of anti-war protests, boycotts, and the civil rights movement. In doing so you see Steve find his feet and a sense of purpose, he jumps at the chance to become involved.

Steve, Emma, and Cat are the three central characters, detailed and complicated enough which makes them well rounded. Steve is naive but willing to learn, and his eagerness to contribute is admirable. When he meets Emma and Cat you begin to see him grow and become more aware, which in turn affects other aspects of his life and the decisions he makes. Emma is a fiery, strong willed woman who is passionate and willing to fight for what she believes in, she goes out of her way to help people and her generosity and good nature compliments her fierceness really well. Cat is similar in her own way, though her past holds her back and she wavers between fighting for what’s right and holding back. Throughout the story you see the stress of fighting a war affect everyone, especially Steve and Cat, and the strain adds drama to their relationship.

Isaacs mentions at the end that only a very small part of the book is fiction, many names, events, books, and songs mentioned are real and historically accurate, something which helps to bring the late 1960s to life. As you read you recognise key moments in history like protest marches, Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, flowers in rifles, and the fight for civil rights. If you love history then this would probably be a fascinating account of American history to dive into. At almost 500 pages there is a lot of detail and Isaacs paces it accordingly. Things follow at a realistic pace, day by day almost rather than large jumps and in doing so it shows how much actually happened in such a short period of time and the ongoing effort people did behind the scenes before grand demonstrations. This does make it a slow read when nothing seems to happen for a long time, but this  is where the romance and personal relationship elements balance with historical events.

There are a lot of positives about this book, the research is incredible, the detailed exploration of key historical moments, and the subject is interesting, but despite that I found that I couldn’t get into the story. It wasn’t the length, being an ebook I didn’t actually notice it until much later, I just found I wasn’t connecting with the characters or their lives and the writing style was hard to get into. I say this of course contrasted with the fact that it was interesting to read about all the protests and the effort students and people went to show their disapproval of the war, and the campaigns they ran to boycott products. I did enjoy reading about the civil rights, the reactions to King’s speech and the fight for equality. But aside from recognising these moments and learning the details I still couldn’t connect.

There are surprises and a few unexpected moments that add emotion and drama as Isaacs links history with the romance and the fiction, and seeing the everyday person react and interact with history offers great insight away from it being simply a past event. I’m disappointed I didn’t love this book more, but there is no denying that it was an interesting read.

You can purchase Riot via the following

Amazon

Amazon Aust

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