Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Review: The Neruda Case

Neruda Case, TheRoberto Ampuero, The Neruda Case (trans. Carolina De Robertis)

Cayetano Brulé, one of the most respected private investigators in Valparaíso, is on his way to meet a prospective client when he stops at a restaurant for lunch. When he opens the menu, he sees a photograph of Pablo Neruda and immediately recalls his first case as a detective, in which his client was the Nobel laureate himself. Suddenly it’s 1973, and Cayetano (a Cuban by birth) is somewhat adrift in his adopted homeland of Chile. At a political party with his wife, Cayetano meets Neruda for the first time, and they soon strike up a conversation. Later, Neruda invites Cayetano to his home and makes a surprising request: he wants Cayetano to find a missing person, a doctor whom Neruda knew many years ago. Cayetano’s search takes him to Mexico City, Havana, and even East Berlin, and he eventually learns that Neruda’s desire to find the doctor is not as straightforward as it seems. Meanwhile, Chile is also experiencing a period of upheaval, as Salvador Allende’s Marxist government is succeeded by the dictatorship of Pinochet.

This novel attempts to do many different things, with mixed results. As a mystery, I think it falls flat; there is no real urgency to Cayetano’s search, and the results of his investigation ultimately don’t matter very much to the story. The book is more successful at painting a portrait of Pablo Neruda at the end of his life. I feel like I got a sense of his personality and his importance to Chile as a political figure. Best of all, this book does a wonderful job of depicting the political situation in Chile at the time and relating it to the wider issue of global politics. It’s no coincidence that Cayetano mostly visits Communist countries, in an era dominated by the Cold War and the ideological conflicts between socialism and capitalism. The novel is definitely not neutral on this subject; both Cayetano and Neruda favor Allende’s government, while Cayetano condemns his wife’s more radical Communism. Overall, I was fascinated by the setting much more than I was by the story. So I’m glad I read this book, but I won’t be seeking out any more installments of the series.