Archive for category Book reviews

Book Review: Beyond the Cascade by A. H. Jessup

My synopsis:

Suzannah cannot stop thinking about the African mountains called the Experience Cascades, ever since she read about them in an old Victorian book. It isn’t just the intriguing hints of a language different from all others that sparks her interest as a linguist although she doesn’t realize that at first. It’s a sense that there’s something deeper, something she longs to find. She’s drifted deep into depression, her stellar research career and her loving friends not enough to provide what she seems to need. Determined to follow her intuition, she heads off into the unknown with a mysterious medicine man, Doc, and his protégé, Muhaybee, to find the waterfall mentioned in the old book.411jdgBsI-L

Beyond The Cascade reminded me a great deal of The Alchemist in the way it takes the central character from one mindset to another, more spiritual one, through a series of difficult experiences. It also reminded me of a movie I saw years ago, in which the characters go in search of Shangri-la by climbing ever higher in some exotic part of the world (I don’t recall the name of the movie, which was very trite in comparison with Beyond the Cascade). Suzannah’s quest is portrayed as something only an unusually strong person would undertake, and she turns out to be just determined and strong enough, with enough willingness or desperation to shed her old beliefs and pass the tests laid out in front of her, to succeed.

With the physical difficulties inherent in climbing remote mountains, battling foes, constant inter- and intra- personal battles, philosophizing, and spirituality, this novel is full of tension and drama. It blends it all into a nearly seamless whole. The prose is beautiful, full of lush descriptions and amusing repartee between Suzannah and Muhaybee, a man who tries to bridge the modern world with the ancient customs of the people of the Cascades.

Early on, Suzannah finds out that she’s won a prestigious award in linguistics and we are shown how deep her depression has become. She couldn’t care less about the award, or her student’s thesis topic. Her life has lost meaning. She can no longer relate to her closest friend. Counseling and drugs don’t help, until she is told to learn something new and begins her quest. Much of this beginning section hit home for me. Her situation reminded me of what I felt about academics and my own depression. Jessup pegged this disillusionment, and the fact that no drugs can solve the underlying issue.

At times I felt so carried away by this novel that I could hardly put it down. There was something deeply satisfying about this quest and the way Suzannah would not give up until she reached her goal. I became very engaged, rooting for her to solve each problem and allow herself to absorb it.

Only a few things marred this novel for me. First, the linguistic and scientific mumbo jumbo is overdone. It get too technical for a general interest novel. The physics sections didn’t even make sense. I would get annoyed and start to put the novel down, but then the jargon would end and the story become entrancing. Second, I got really tired of Doc saying that a woman shouldn’t be able to enter the Cascade, especially a white woman, and Suzannah “proving him wrong.” Maybe this author was trying to be authentic, or something, but it seemed to me that it would have been more authentic to say that someone from a modern culture could not understand this ancient world. Finally, the ultimate lessons for Suzannah were too predictable. Still, since the whole story was so much fun, I give it 4 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it for fans of The Alchemist.

I was given a free copy of this novel from in exchange for my honest review.




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Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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