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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 18 December 2012
San Miguel is a tiny, desolate island off the west coast of America opposite Santa Barbara. It is an inhospitable place as far as humans, trees and plants are concerned though the sheep appear to thrive. Since the 1880s and throughout harsh economic times, the island has provided some sort of a "living" for anyone foolhardy enough to take on the management of the wool business, wool - and heartache - being the only things the island seems capable of producing.

The book opens, in 1888, with Marantha's story. Will Waters, Marantha's second husband, has persuaded her that the island's climate will be good for her tuberculosis; nothing could be further from the case. Nevertheless, Will drags Marantha, her adopted daughter Edith and their cook Ida to this new life on a remote and windswept island.

The story continues with Edith and her wretched attempts to escape from San Miguel. We then move to the 1930s. Once again, there are hard economic choices to be made and in this third and final part of the book, we meet Elise and Herbie Lester who genuinely love the place and want nothing more than to bring up a family there in peace and tranquillity.

Whilst all the characters are movingly conveyed with complete conviction and credibility, it is San Miguel which is the hero - or rather, the anti-hero - of the book. It is a formidable place realised by a formidable writer. The book is based on three real life stories.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE:

As an avid reader, I am absolutely ashamed to say that I knew nothing of T.C. Boyle's work before reading San Miguel. Indeed, so exquisitely does Mr Boyle capture the very essence of womanhood with his empathetic portrayals of his three main female protagonists, that I actually wondered whether the T and C stood for female names! (I never look at the back fly leaf until the end of a book.) This is a memorable book from a master storyteller and I couldn't recommend it more highly.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a bleak and harsh read, as desolate as the eponymous, unwelcoming island which is almost a character in its own right. Focalised through three women, and set between 1888 and sometime after the second world war, there is little dialogue or external drama in this book, and instead the tensions are internalised. Misunderstanding and gulfs of experience open up between characters, rendering them isolated and frequently shorn of human warmth, even if unintentionally.

The narrative is punctuated by common events: the arrival of the sheep-shearers, the discovery of mice, Christmas. And even the war feels distant as the years flit by.

Ultimately this contrasts the futility and littleness of human lives with the enduring island which remains indifferent to the lives which have been lived upon it.

So not a book to choose if you're feeling even the slightest bit down as this certainly isn't a consoling read. I admired the writing, the control, and the restraint of the book but the austerity of the emotional vision just didn't speak to me.
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VINE VOICEon 17 October 2012
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a story about an island, it's weather and the people who journey there. Following the experiences of three women who travel to the island under different circumstances it follows the changing roles of women within the world from the late 1800's to the late 1940's.

This is a very accomplished novel which really gives you the feeling of the isolation and prison of the island as well as its freedom and solitude. Each chapter deals with a different event and this helps to create a feeling of moving forward in time as well as plot.

Overall this is a very well written novel which helps to confirm T.C. Boyle as one of the best writers of the moment.
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on 29 October 2012
T C Boyle's writing is utterly engaging. He draws his characters deeply, vividly, and empathetically. You get to know them. Their very personal life stories are set in the context of major cosmic issues - the hostility of nature intertwined with the hurt, brutality and warfare of humanity. And yet there is redemptive grace too, irrepressible joys, hospitality. Will Waters is totally in the grasp of the relentless familiar cycle of brutality. The war and the island's tough nature have brutalised him, and he cruelly brutalises Maranatha and Edith. His successor generation, Herbie Lester is war wounded rather than brutalised, and internalises this wound, though this still hurts the wife and daughters he loves. I wanted the book to finish because of the urge to know how the story ended, but I wanted it not to end since I'd so enjoyed feeling part of the event each day I read.
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VINE VOICEon 21 February 2013
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
San Miguel is T C Boyle's 14th novel. Throw in a long list of published short stories. If you haven't read nor heard of him, it's perhaps no surprise. Boyle is rarely visited by Hollywood and maybe that's because they don't come knocking or he doesn't answer. Backcover big life topics that make for the bestseller easy reads? Nope. At least if you've been here before that might be mildly contentious; for after all, T C Boyle is one of American fiction's finest life chroniclers. In a quiet corner sits any Boyle book where humankind is laid out universe large and glinting....

For now Boyle seems to take his women and his island life very seriously. San Miguel is third in an unconnected run of novels that deal vicariously with the same. Sitting and pondering all from his Santa Barbara home it all seems very close to home. That this is another fictional account of actual events needs to show inspiration enough.

If ever a reader wants to immerse in an alterlife then San Miguel delivers in the perfect script. Over several generations we are borne by the tide to the wilderness of the island and all from the perspective of its women. There is doom and gloom, some joy and much heartbreak but nonetheless some generous affirmation of life in windy conditions. Come the end you will be sad to leave. San Miguel is a book about hardship and devotion, about family and marital obligation, warring history and geography; the human condition and how it adapts and succumbs, controls and disappears. Therein lies Boyle the chronicler, the master of emotions, vital minutia and bringing old forgotten histories and diaries to life.

San Miguel is of course another fine novel from T C Boyle. But it doubtless will not fire the literary world alight. The bestseller commuters and the kindle crime-eaters best look away now.

As effortless as his writing always is, this is a little pedestrian and one can but assume over reliant on others memoirs, without us taking the time to read the references. But and it's a big, big but... there is a guarantee that there are still bright nuggets here if you are prepared to go treasure hunt.

Either way, if you love T C Boyle get in, and if you don't, yet, get a boat.
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on 11 October 2012
Off the coast of California lies the Channel Islands - a harsh, rainy, hilly piece of land suitable for raising sheep. It is called San Miguel. The author weaves a haunting tale about three women who lived their lives, or at least part of their lives, on the desolate little island.

Readers who pick up this book will soon realize that it is a character driven novel, where the author delves deep into the psyche of each woman portrayed. The details and inner thoughts and aspirations of these fascinating characters takes precedence over the plot. It is important to understand this so that readers will know why the plot seems slow. For this novel, it is important to relish the journey and revelations of the strong female characters.

The novel is broken into three parts. The first tells the story of Marantha whose struggle is her fast failing health with consumption (tubercoulosis) and her dislike for the island upon which her husband has taken her to earn a living as a sheep farmer. To make matters worse, the environment only worsens her health issues. This often brings out the worst in her. That author gives us a masterful insight into this fascinating woman and her thoughts as her life draws to an uncontrollable end.

The next part of the novel is about Edith, Marantha's step daughter. Like her stepmother, Edith dislikes life on the island and is desperate to break free and seek her own independence. Her youth fuels her desire for society and friends and all the occasions that come with it. Like Marantha, despite Edith's many failings, the author manages to evoke great sympathy and understanding.

The last part of the story focuses on a woman called Elise who finds life on the isolated island enjoyable, unlike the other two women. Her story takes us into the 1940's and a series of events that enhance the story's conclusion.

The author's strength is most definitely his ability to take us deep into the mindset and emotions of his characters. Although the story is fascinating and set within an intersting setting and era, the pace, at times, can become rather tedious if the reader is not first prepared. Nevertheless, this an interesting read and recommended for those who prefer character driven novels.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Having not read any of T.C Boyle's work before, I was drawn not so much by the name on the cover, as by the picture on the cover. I'm glad I did, because it's been a discovery for me.

It's a lengthy piece of work, but Boyle's style is literary but quite readable, enjoyable poetic without being pretentious. He's an American writer, but there is satisfying absence of American twang in his writing, that somehow feels as comfortable in the 1880s beginning of the book, as it does in the later 1930s part of the book.

I understand this is a quite sedate piece of work in Boyle's oeuvre, but I found it a powerful drama, rooted in an earthy kind of realism; a thoughtful page-turner. That's not to say it is any kind of thriller; it certainly is not. It is a slow-burning work, which digs deep into the minds of its characters. For a male writer, he certainly seems to know how the female mind works. Boyle called it his "first non-ironic, non-comic historical book". It being the first of his work that I have read, I cannot vouch for that, but it is devoid of irony and comedy.

As it covers the lives of three women on the island, it moves along a quite a pace, at times in spite of itself and its beautiful prose. It is unflinching depiction of the three women, who variously endure or love their windswept and sandy rock in the ocean. The oblique-minded men who hinder as much as help them, are also there in wonderful detail, but it's the women who steal the show.

I found it a delightful read, for its story and for its accomplished but understated attention to detail. It is not lightweight or a bundle of laughs, but it is a satisfying read, and I'm very interested to read another of his books.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
'She was coughing, always coughing, and sometimes she coughed up blood. The blood came in a fine spray, plucked from the fibres of her lungs and pumped full of air as if it were a perfume in a atomiser.'

T.C Boyle's fourteenth novel opens on New Year's Day 1888 when Marantha travels to the smallest of the Channel islands 100 miles from Los Angeles, 26 miles from the mainland, in the hope of cleansing 'virginal' air and a return to health as she has TB. She looks forward to a new life with her husband and adopted daughter and is determined to be positive. However, the freezing house that awaits means that she quickly realises that husband Will's promise that the climate will be healing and that they will make a success of the sheep farming will come to nothing. 'Her first impression was of nakedness, naked walls struck with penurious little windows, a yard of windblown sand giving onto an infinite vista of sheep-ravaged scrub that radiated out from it in every direction and not a tree or shrub or scrap of ivy in sight.'

The novel has three narratives focused on San Miguel and and its inhabitants up to the early 1940s as war nears and the USA ends an era of isolation following Pearl Harbour. The second narrative focuses on Edith, Marantha's daughter who is semi enslaved by Will and who is desperate to escape the island, and the last section follows the Lesters, who become a type of Swiss Family Robinson media sensation.

T.C Boyle is a masterly writer - I am amazed at the quality of his writing given that he is so prolific. The first novel I read of his was The Tortilla Curtain, a biting satire on immigration and one of my favourites. I understand that Boyle used diaries from islanders in his research and he has written historically before - The Road to Wellville is based on Dr Kellogg, Frank Lloyd Wright is explored in The Women and Dr Kinsey features in The Inner Circle. In this novel though he doesn't seem to have the same energy that are obvious in the others I've mentioned. The island is wonderfully evoked and Boyle's prose is excellent as ever. Will is a veteran of the Civil war, and Lester of the first world war and the men are aiming to set up their own utopias on the island. However, Boyle seems constrained by the real life diaries and the novel does not have his usual pace and freedom. Enjoyable nonetheless.
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VINE VOICEon 29 January 2013
I'd not read anything by T C Boyle before this but on the strength of 'San Miguel' I may well look to read some of his earlier novels (which is about as good a recommendation as one could give, really). The book is split into three parts, spanning the 1880s through the 1940s, each with its own narrative arc: each 'arc' follows the life of a different woman trapped on the same remote island of San Miguel (a little wasteland somewhere off the coast of California): Marantha (a TB sufferer who has come for healing air); her teenage daughter Edith; and lastly Elise, a librarian who comes from New York looking for a self-sustaining life. The novel works very well as a presentation of this enclosed island world and the effects of isolation on the women stranded there, each of whom is left facing her own set of hardships. Boyle's narrative can be hit and miss, but there's more hits than misses, and his evocations of the landscape are suitably vivid... together with a very credible cast of characters, who lend the book a real sense of 'the Epic' and make for a much richer and more rewarding novel than I'd been expecting going off the synopsis alone. Interestingly, I see that Boyle's source materials included actual family memoirs written by real-life colonists of San Miguel, some of whom give their names to his characters. which perhaps helps explain why they work so well and so plausibly.
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San Miguel is this author's fourteenth novel, but the first I've read. Most of the story is set on the island of San Miguel, the most north-westerly of the California Channel Islands. It's a strange book, with no real plot as such, just narrative. It follows the lives of two pioneering families who come to the island to be sheep ranchers, and live an isolated and hard existence without many of the things mainland society takes for granted. The Waters family arrive in 1888 (Captain Waters, his wife Marantha and their adopted daughter Emily) and the second family the Lesters, arrive in 42 years later. We do not know who lived there in the meantime, following the end of the story about the Waters people.

Boyle's writing is intimate, imaginative and atmospheric. Never more so than when describing the island itself, and the effect the seasons have on the people living there. However I kept expecting to discover that the two families were related in some way, or that a new character would suddenly appear to bridge the gap between the two stories. Yet neither of these things happen. The only link seems to be the island itself, which on reflection appears to be the most prominent character of all in this book.
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