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Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I'm Reading: October 2008

This month I read two completely different historical fiction titles and a popular nonfiction one.

I first encountered The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti when reading reviews and, as I often do when a review strikes me, put the title on hold. Many times I end up returning the book before reading it, but this title seemed too good to pass up, and thankfully I was correct. The Good Thief has been described as being reminiscent of Dickens, and I think that is very much true. The time period, class issues, and the plucky orphan main character all lead one to that comparison.

Here are the details. The Good Thief is Tinti's first novel. We begin the story in 19th Century, New England, in a Catholic orphanage. 12-year-old Ren has lived here for as long as he can remember. He also has no recollection of how he came to lose his hand either. Ren is worried about his future because he is nearing the age when, if not adopted, he will be sold into the army and never know what it is like to have a home and a family. One day, Benjamin arrives,claiming to be Ren's brother, and adopts Ren. As you can imagine, Benjamin is not who he claims to be and the two begin an exciting adventure together.

The Good Thief is, refreshingly, a traditional adventure story (with a historical background) in a literary landscape where adventure is being consumed by thrillers and terrorism plot lines. It is fast paced, the hero is resourceful and lucky (maybe unbelievable so, but that goes with the genre), and it has a resolved, happy ending. Tinti uses many of Dicken's own tricks and themes to propel her story along., including a wonderful cast of eccentric secondary characters such as a dwarf who lives on the roof, a murdering giant, and a hard of hearing landlady. The novel is appropriately funny, heart-warming, melodramatic, and bittersweet, with each occurring in the right places.

I would suggest this novel to anyone looking for a fast paced, old fashioned story. Although it is not a gentle read (there are murders and the exhumation of bodies), it is good for a wide range of readers. I would especially suggest this in audio form to a family with middle school and older children to listen to on a driving vacation.

Specific readalike titles would of course include anything by Dickens. But for more modern authors and titles, those interested could try the hugely popular The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski which also has a disabled but plucky, young male protagonist (here he is mute), and a coming-of-age theme; it also loosely follows the plot of Hamlet. A less mainstream suggestion would be another well received first novel, When the Finch Rises by Jack Riggs. Here the reader follows two young boys in the 1960s South, their tough lives, their coming-of-age, and the strength of their friendship that pulls them through. It is important to note that this novel does have touches of magical realism. Finally one of my back list favorites that I would be a perfect match for readers who liked Ren is The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall.

For those who really enjoyed the 19th century, New England setting, you could always try works by or about Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. All three writers captured this time, as it happened, and are still read today.

I also read another historical fiction with some adventure elements and a similar title, but with a completely different setting and tone. City of Thieves by David Benioff is a WWII drama. St. Petersberg (or Pitter as its residents refer to it) is under siege by the Nazis and Lev, the son of a poet (and victim of Stalin) is literally starving while protecting his beloved Pitter. One evening he is caught out after curfew, thrown in jail, and awaiting his punishment...death. In his cell, Lev meets an army deserter and university student named Kolya. The two are offered a reprieve by the Colonel if they can locate a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake in less than a week's time. The boys set out into the wild streets of Pitter, and eventually slip behind German lines. Along the way, as Lev narrates, the two form a true friendship, meet many interesting people, and come to understand the beauty and horrors of war.

City of Thieves has both a war and coming-of-age theme, much like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. Also, the popular and well reviewed thriller, Child 44 by Tom Rob Smtih, has a similar setting, but a faster pace and a bit less historical detail. Both would make good readalikes, but possibly not for the same reader.

For nonfiction suggestions, there are literally millions of books on WWII, but this link will lead you to a list of books about the Russian Front, giving any interested readers more information about the setting of Benioff's novel.

Finally, this month I also listened to Simon Winchester reading his latest books, The Man Who Loved China. First comment, Winchester is a wonderful writer, but probably not the most exciting reader. That being said, if you are interested in the West's first true and fair encounter with China and the creation of what is still considered to be the best reference guide of the history of china, read this book. Joseph Needham, the man referred to in the book's title, was not only brilliant, but also interestingly eccentric. In true Winchester style, Needham and his work are raised in importance and links are drawn between Needham and larger world issues, such as the Unibomber.

As I have written on NoveList Plus in my readalike for Winchester, similar authors would include Mark Kurlansky, Jared Diamond, John McPhee, Dava Sobel and Susan Orlean. I would highly suggest checking out these authors if you like Winchester's work.

But specifically, as I read this book, a few novels about Cambridge and China that I had read recently kept popping into my head. I really don't have a subjective reason why, but Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stout and the novels of Lisa See came into my mind often as I read The Man Who Loved China. For what it's worth, I have linked to blog entries where I discussed these novels.

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