Sunday, February 3, 2019

Oh the Places You'll Go - Tony's Wife (Trigiana) and Labyrinth of Spirits (Ruiz Zafron)


Here's the thing.  I don't write reviews all that often and they often feel tardy to me. But, I also like to write what I (humbly) think are strong reviews.  I want them to be of use to potential readers (or folks curious about other folks' thoughts in the after). I like them to help good writers too...I've been honored to hear from a few...and believe quite strongly that positive reviews are meaningless in the absence of the opposite.  So, this time, no apologies.

And clearing my queue a little bit by admitting there are a few books about which I have little to say. They are getting quick reviews on Goodreads but not here.

I can't pass up advance copies of Trigiana's work. A few have disappointed but others soared. This fell someplace in between. 

Chi Chi and Saverio meet on the Jersey shore in the late 1930s. They share music and Italian blood, coursing through their veins in equal measure.  Chi Chi is part of the big stereotypical Italian family, scraping by but never alone, and with big dreams . Sav has begun following his own but lost some of his past along the way. They fall in live...but with each other or the dream? 

This isn't a typical love story (despite some blurbs, although therite is a deep love tying the leads together.  Really, it is actually about becoming more than loving...becoming who we grow into and, most importantly,  who directs that story.  

If you want a typical romance,  look elsewhere.  But this is a good read about characters and choices. There is plot and story, but characters and setting stand out more. For me, it didn't soar like Shoemaker's Wife...I enjoyed visiting the world in its pages but was ready to leave too (and it could have benefited from a sharper editorial knife). 

Trying to sum it up, I'll call it a good summer read...ideally on the Jersey shore with music playing...put it down, dance, come back.  Chi Chi would approve

3.5 to 4 stars.

This is the fourth book in a....well....unset set. Instead of being sequential, the author intends for a reader to be able to dive in at any point or even read just one book....they are meant to be able to standalone or to wrap themselves into one another so that no book comes first...though this does, nonetheless, bring the story to something of a close.

For most of this book, the Sempre family and honorary member (and comic relief)  Fermin - a crew who were a focal point of two of the other novels - take a back seat to Alicia Gris. With lots of metaphorical baggage...though very few belongings unless you include the physical scars and pain from a childhood incident we witness early on...Alicia has served as something of an unofficial detective. Her boss is tied in with government in the vast machine of Franco's Spain but they are usually called in to answer the stickiest of questions. This time, it is the disappearance of Valls, who featured prominently in at least one of the other novels from his days running a notorious prison where it wasn't unusual for a perceived political enemy of Franco's rising regime to go in and never come out. Now, Valls is a toasted political heavyweight w a very ill wife and a treasured daughter who disappears following a big party at his estate.

I've read two of the other books in the cycle, one I cherished (the title location, the Cemetary of Forgotten Books, is memorable and among the most tempting of fictional spots) and the other was a bit of a letdown. Having a poor memory and a bit of time having passed since then, I refreshed my recollection by reading a plot summary of each. I do think you'd be fine reading this as a wouldn't know some backstories but probably wouldn't know to miss them.

I enjoyed revisiting the Sempe clan and the always-lovable Fermin, but appreciated the new star. Alicia is a fascinating character...though not always likable so if you need to like (or relate to) your protagonist, look elsewhere. The story is all the other books are...and tough to follow at times. It required attention but the thoroughness of the world it creates provides a reward.  Still, I think it could have done with a good 50 page trim.

4 stars. For a literature-minded reader willing to concentrate who likes feeling immersed in a book's world. Not as notable, IMHO, as Cemetary, but still an accomplishment.  Review based on a copy provided free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Wherein the first review took most of my reviewing energy, so the second is short and simple: Unsheltered (Kingsolver) and Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars (Emerson)

Seriously, I spend so much time vowing to catch up...  But I use a computer all day at work -- staring at, changing, and rewriting words -- that i just struggle to plug back into one any other time. And I can't quite manage a review on my phone...

The awesome woman who ran my college bookstore (a true bookstore in addition to carrying class materials, assorted products with the school's name emblazoned thereon, and snacks) introduced me t Kingsolver in the mid-late 90s and I've been a fan ever since. Some of her books do miss the mark for me so I get a little nervous and try to tamp down excitement, but this one was a winner.

A house ties Thatcher's tale in the 1870s with that of the modern-day Willa Knox. Thatcher is a science teacher in a semi-utopian community and struggles with a desire to teach about Darwin and lead hands-on science classes while the community's leader forbids any mention of evolution and any sort of investigative exploration. He finds a kindred spirit in his neighbor, Mary Treat, a character that is fictionalized version of a real woman scientist who corresponded with man of the great minds of her time. Willa is also struggling. She "had it all" and suddenly lost it. She lost her job, her husband was denied tenure and has taken a less-than desirable position out of need, her father-in-law is ailing and mean, her daughter is a mystery to her, and her son faces an unexpected tragedy in the earl chapters that brings his infant child into Willa's home. She's living in a home she inherited. As it was when it Thacher's family occupied it (the primary connective tissue between the two tales), the house is in need of major renovations. The home is literally crumbing around both families, a physical manifestation of the world's they have known. Willa does eventually "meet" Thatcher and Mary when she investigates her home's history in the hopes of finding a way to save it.

Many of Kingsolver's books have a sociopolitical message, including a decidedly liberal slant, and this is no exception. The book strongly favors science and honors the natural world. It has an opinion about some types of organized religion, although I think it does allow room for religion to coexist with science. Immigration is front-and-center in Willa's tale as are issues about mental health, the high cost of both healthcare and education, and politics more generally (again, with a liberal POV). Decide if this is okay with you....if it isn't, that's fine. But sit this one out unless you are up for a challenge...

I read for character and I loved the people I met in this book. Mary and Thatcher are exquisite creations. We meet Mary through the eyes of the socially-conscious ladies in Thatcher's home before truly meeting her as they see her lying in the grass seemingly studying the ground in great detail. We later learn that she studies spiders...and sort of hides them in plain sight in her home in a version of miniature terrariums. I didn't like Willa's tale as much, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it...I just liked the older story better. And Willa's story does feel like it was stuffed with a few too many plot points to "get everything in." As a liberal myself, I appreciated the viewpoints advanced and was okay with the clear agenda and criticism of Trump-ism. But, I'll admit that some of Willa's story felt forced. Still, I liked how the two stories interwove in terms of theme, but also avoided being TOO similar to the point where it simply didn't feel real. As always, I loved Kingsolver's prose.

Four stars. I'd be torn b/w 4 and 4.5 if Goodreads and Amazon permitted half-star ratings. Notably, I put 4.5 and rounded to 5 in a placeholder review soon after reading it, but I do think 4 is the more honest review given that there were a few elements that I'd change. Know what you are getting isn't for everyone, but it ranks among my favorite of Kingsolver's newer books (Animal Dreams and Bean Trees feel a world away). A big thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Okay...I need to follow that with something simpler...
Iolanthe Green is missing. The american actress seems to have disappeared while in London, and everyone wonders why.Anna Treadway, who worked as Green's dresser and assists her as she stars in a play. Anna's life is much simpler than Green's, she is relatively sheltered but certainly knows the value of every pound and understands working hard to support herself. Anna is frustrated by the lack of official effort in the search for Green so she undertakes her own search. She meets a motley cast of characters and sees a completely different London during the effort.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, which perhaps is enough itself to justify a three star rating. It is a mystery. The characters aren't under-developed but they also aren't fleshed out all to the point where they feel real. There's a nice sense of time and place and some interesting which may turn some readers away and which I'll let others choose to spoil. There's a lesson of sort about being on the outskirts of the accepted society, although not one that felt too strained. It is a perfectly good book, just not one that stood out for me and I was ready to put it down when it ended. Others seem to have enjoyed it more. I'd call it an airplane read..enough to keep the time moving and engage the reader, but one you can also put aside when the person next to you needs to get up or you need to switch planes. Thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A peek into 1785 with a magical twist (Hermes Gower's The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock) and A modern detective tale with a fun twist (Horowitz's The Word is Murder)

I'd intended to catch up while on plus a few staycation days...but managed to get sick and needed as much rest as possible.   So...let's catch up on a couple...

It is 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock is more than a bit shocked when a sailor returns with the news that he traded Mr. H's ship for a mermaid. The creature...which, while a stark contrast from the mermaid that the word brings to most minds, is largely an aside in this story that doesn't really qualify as magical realism...turns his well-settled life as a childless widower upside down. He is uncertain about how to proceed, though in time the mermaid does become the talk of the town.

Along the way, he meets Angelica. She is one of the other characters who shares the spotlight. Angelica is, in he latter half of her 20s, a courtesan past her prime. The woman who runs the upscale brothel where Angelica used to live takes the protagonist's spotlight in other chapters. We see the strict hand with which she governs and the way she works to develop her young protegees develop into courtesans catering to a certain class.

The prose was quite lovely. The author can draw some very vivid scenes and bring you into her setting. Not surprisingly, there is some sexual content and some that can only be crude (the madam urinating in a carriage pot)...if that bothers you, steer clear. I was surprised by how interesting I found the portions detailing the young women's training, which centers on giving them the education, musical talents, and manners to entertain clients (the latter part of their duties seem to be largely learned on the job...).

While I read for characters far more than plot, I kept waiting for more to happen. I wasn't invested in the characters enough to be pulled along on that alone. The ending was far from satisfying...I don't need things wrapped in a box and a bow, this book seemed to try to do that but somehow failed. I can't quite put my finger on why.

So, let's say 2.5-3 stars. The language is lyrical, some of the subplots fascinating (particularly the story of one of the young courtesans, but that felt somewhat like a short story tossed into the novel and it deserved more).  Man thanks to the publisher for the advance copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

I don't read a lot of detective fiction, but every once in a while one I feel the urge. The publisher offered me the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review and this seemed like a good chance to scratch the itch.

Diana Cowper plans her own funeral. And is promptly murdered. Private detective Hawthorne is on the case. And following along is Anthony Horowitz (here it is worth glancing back at the name of the author) who has written some hit young adult books and consulted on television shows (why, yes, so has the book's author). While he should be focusing on a movie deal, Hawthorne has offered him the chance to tag along and eventually pen a novel about the world of detectives and murder (profits to be split, naturally). He gets pulled in, as does the reader, by the Cowper case which takes many an odd turn...a bit of a checkered past, a very famous son, involvement in elite charities and the characters that follow...and has many unexpected details. Lots of references to Sherlock Holmes (Horowitz, the real one, has been given the honor of penning a new Holmes tome) and Agatha Christie novels among my fellow reviewers. 

This was fun to read. And had to be a heck of a lot of fun to write. I didn't see the ending coming until quite late in the game and I'd be sorta curious to reread it now that I know where it is headed. A nice diversion, a great beach read style book -- I didn't read it on a beach, but often think of books in terms of where they are best read..some require the focus of my sunroom, others can handle the interruptions of an airplane, others fit the feel of vacation when you aren't looking for something serious but still want to be drawn in and travel into the tale. Enjoyed the London setting...unobtrusive, as befits the novel, but a good backdrop. 

4 stars. Great choice to satisfy my detective itch.