Review: “Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb

sweetRaised in a Sufi shrine in Morocco after the early death of her parents, Lilly journeys to Harar, Ethiopia at the age of sixteen and settles into the home of a local woman. While she has trouble being trusted by the local people because of her white skin (which automatically labels her a foreigner), her devotion to Islam eventually allows her to teach Qur’an to many of the neighborhood children. Thus is her life until she falls in love with a doctor, himself equally seen as an outsider despite his grand ideas for change in Ethiopia. As the revolution escalates, Lilly soon escapes to England where she must try to bring together her past and her future, or face that this cannot be done.

I’ve heard such good things about this book, and while I did enjoy it, I don’t think it lived up to its reputation. A lot of it seemed underdeveloped, probably because Gibb is writing about topics she has no direct experience with. I thought that was the first rule of writing – write what you know.

That being said, it does seem like Gibb did some good research about the city of Harar, since she had a lot of good details about the people and the layout of the city. This could be because she visited the city at some point, and so has some knowledge of it.

The book is written in a way that switches back and forth between two time periods. I’ve never liked this method of writing because it disrupts the flow of the writing and keeps me from becoming deeply involved in the story. As for the characters, they were all pretty uninspiring.

Verdict:

I wish I could recommend this one, but I cannot. I’m not sure how it received so many 5 and 4-star ratings on Goodreads. See what others are saying:

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “Vintage” by Susan Gloss

vintageThis is the story of Violet, the owner of a vintage clothing store in Madison, Wisconsin. Approaching middle age, Violet is beginning to wonder more and more often if she will ever have a family of her own. This is also the story of April, an 18-year-old high school dropout who happens to be pregnant and recently left by her fiancé. Added to the story is Amithi, who after decades of marriage comes to learn that her husband has been unfaithful for most of that time. The stories of these women wind together with the stories of the items Violet carries in her store, as the women must learn how to trust and how to forgive.

I just made myself sick writing that synopsis. I think I requested this book from the publisher solely because it’s set in Wisconsin and seemed mildly interesting. I was unaware that it was chick lit. That being said, it really wasn’t terrible. It has all the clichés of women’s literature, like the abusive ex-husband and the new man who, miraculously, is exactly what the woman has been looking for her whole life. It’s feel-good nonsense where everyone gets exactly what they deserve in the end, no matter what. But it was entertaining and amusing at points, so I’ll give it that.

In reality, Gloss is the owner of a vintage clothing store via Etsy and based out of Madison. I’m sure this book will help boost her business. She’s writing what women want to read and I’m sure she’ll make money from the book itself, but I think she could be a better writer is she moved away from women’s literature and tackled more serious topics. Here’s hoping.

Verdict:

Not my thing, but probably good for someone looking for a light read this summer. It’s available today from William Morrow.

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “Sputnik Sweetheart” by Haruki Murakami

sputnikThe narrator of this story, who we only ever see referred to as K, tells the story of his best friend Sumire, a rough 22-year-old girl with a passion for writing and reading. At the beginning of the story, Sumire falls in love with Miu, an elegant and sophisticated women 17 years older than she.

Meanwhile, K is in love with Sumire, and despite knowing nothing will come of it, he continues to answer her 3 a.m. phone calls. When Sumire leaves for an extended stay in Europe with Miu without telling him, K is not resentful. And when he receives yet another 3 a.m. phone call, this time from Miu asking him to come immediately to a small island in Greece because Sumire is in trouble, he does not hesitate.

This is my eighth Murakami novel, and while it’s not my favorite (Norwegian Wood still claims that spot), it comes in a close second. There are few prominent characters, but they’re all well put-together and entirely likable. The book is small (the paperback is 229 pages), but concise with a satisfying pace.

In the past I’ve enjoyed Murakami less than I could have because of how surreal his books can be, which is why I enjoyed Norwegian Wood so much. But in this one, the fantasy aspects don’t come in until the last third of the book, and are relatively subtle (at least compared to 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)As a result, it was great reading for me.

Verdict:

One of the best of the year so far! Recommended for those who want to try something a little bit different, but don’t want to invest in a long read.

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “Me of Little Faith” by Lewis Black

faithAnyone else love Lewis Black as much as I do? His shouty rants about politics and other idiotic things are usually spot on and are a form of catharsis to the rest of us who are frustrated, but can’t go around shouting profanities in public. I always knew he was Jewish by heritage, but in Me of Little Faith he elaborates on his upbringing and how he has approached faith in various ways.

It turns out that Black is not an atheist as I would have expected, but nor is he a follower of organized religion of any sort. It was a surprise to me to learn that he believes in spirits and ghosts, but it was interesting to see how he came to believe in these things, what evidence he had, and why he rejected organized religion.

By the way, if you’ve never seen Lewis Black perform, please click on the photo below for a great segment about Bush and the Old Testament:

lewisblack

 

Verdict:

A great, one-day read for fans of Lewis Black. Worth buying, especially since you can find a used hardcover on Amazon for $0.01.

Amazon | Goodreads

Review: “The Midnight Palace” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

palaceFrom the publisher:

“Set in Calcutta in the 1930s, The Midnight Palace begins on a dark night when an English lieutenant fights to save newborn twins Ben and Sheere from an unthinkable threat. Despite monsoon-force rains and terrible danger lurking around every street corner, the young lieutenant manages to get them to safety, but not without losing his own life. . .

“Years later, on the eve of Ben and Sheere’s sixteenth birthday, the mysterious threat reenters their lives. This time, it may be impossible to escape. With the help of their brave friends, the twins will have to take a stand against the terror that watches them in the shadows of the night—and face the most frightening creature in the history of the City of Palaces.”

I couldn’t even summon the motivation to write my own summary of the book. It’s certainly not Zafón’s best. In fact, it was a huge disappointment compared to The Shadow of the Wind  and the other books in the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series. The characters were under-developed and the plot fell flat. I feel like there was the potential for a good story here, but the number of characters and viewpoints Zafón tried to create made it feel erratic and generally shallow.

Verdict:

Don’t bother. Really.

Amazon | Goodreads

Anne Rice announces new book featuring Lestat

This is insanely exciting news! Sunday night on an Internet radio program called “The Dinner Party Show,” Anne Rice announced that the title of her new book is Prince Lestat, and it’ll be released on October 28th, 2014.

Since I was 14 year old, Anne Rice has been my favorite writer and Lestat my favorite fictional character.  Adding to the excitement, there’s already plans for a sequel.

Of course I don’t expect these new books to measure up to her original Vampire Chronicles. I’m probably not alone in saying I was disappointed by the last couple books featuring Lestat, especially Blood Canticle. But I still have yet to find a separate series that comes anywhere close to engaging me as fully as what Anne Rice has done, and so I welcome some fresh Lestat.

Read more about this from Examiner. Then go add it to your Goodreads to-read list.

P.S. If you didn’t know, Target is selling signed copies of Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. So if you’re interested, go check if your local store still has it. I picked mine up a couple weeks ago!

Review: “Notes from the Hyena’s Belly” by Nega Mezlekia

notesMy second review this weekend of a book about Ethiopia, and while the books are very similar in some ways, there are key differences that make each uniquely worthwhile.

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is the memoir of a man who grew up in an Ethiopian city near the border with Somalia. The town of Jijiga was split between the Amhara Christian north and the Somali Muslim south, but the two sides coexisted peacefully at the time of his birth in 1958.

The story that develops is much the same as what we saw in Cutting for Stone. The revolution creeps in to begin destroying lives, but in this memoir, it happens much more quickly. Mezlekia finds himself involved in revolutionary politics before he knew they were revolutionary, and this gets him in trouble repeatedly throughout his early life, even after he ceases to be an active participant in the struggle. His family becomes part of a sea of refugees escaping the volatile eastern part of the country, and set out to find the rest of his mother’s family further west.

Mezlekia peppers his story with various folktales told to him throughout his life that help illustrate the culture and thinking of the people who raised him. What’s more, his anecdotes about growing up are colorful, funny, and enlightening about a culture most people don’t know much about. The way he writes about the superstitions of his mother, teacher, and others shows the absurdity of what they believed, but also sometimes endears the reader to those who hold the beliefs. For example, he writes about a woman who lived in his family home as he was growing up. She prays to both the Christian saints and to her ancestors; however, when she prays to the latter she closes herself in her room and stops up all light that could filter in so that the saints won’t see her, of course.

A small criticism of Mezlekia is that often he makes it seem that he was always better than or had greater morals than the people around him. Certainly he was better than those that slaughtered children, but I doubt he had the western mindset (as he seems to imply) until he had lived in the west for several years. It was a little exasperating and not credible.

Verdict:

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly is detailed in ways that Cutting for Stone is not, but that’s natural in a memoir. It combines important historical information about Ethiopia with personal anecdotes to create a well-rounded piece of literature.

Amazon | Goodreads