Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Snakes (Jones) and The Perfect Fraud (LaCorte): Two Very Different Books, Two Very Different Reviews

Two very different books...

A road trip, a mini-break. That was the plan when young marrieds Bea (psychotherapist) and Dan (artist at heart, estate agent in every day) leave London for the countryside. The first stop, a crumbling old hotel being run by Bea's brother, Alex. Adding to the cast - and moving from a leisurely stroll w a touch of family drama to full-on trauma - Bea's parents arrive carrying the scent of wealth and secrets.

More would require spoiler tags. It shifts, even after mom and dad join the scene, from a slow study of characters to a study in class to a...well, busier? just more-er?...tale.

I liked the first half more than the second. But, throughout (well, the last pages...let's just forget those...) there's enough there to chew on for a reader who very much favors character over plot.

3.5 of 5. But rounded up because there's something that lurks beyond it. And a thank you to the publisher for the free copy in exchange for an always honest review.

PS Yes, there are snakes. Real and metaphorical, both

Claire is not a psychic...though only the reader and her longtime boyfriend Cal are in on that secret. Since the gift runs through her family, her career path was...well, preordained...and she's working as a psychic in Sedona when a family emergency brings her back home, stepping away from an increasingly complex relationship with Cal and back into a complex relationship with her mom.

Claire crosses paths with Rena, a mother making her own crosscountry journey searching for answers. Rena's young daughter, Stephanie is very ill and Rena is running out of options. Knowing no one and with only the followers of her blog for company -- Rena's relationship with Stephanie's dad collapsed under the pressure, plus he needs to keep his east coast-based and the insurance that comes with it -- Rena moves Stephanie to Arizona, pinning her hopes on a specialist there.

I fully expected this to be closer to a beach read than a work of great literature. There's  nothing wrong with that and I can enjoy the mental equivalent of diner chow. But this just didn't do much for me.  I didn't really connect with any of the characters or feel invested in the story. I had to keep looking while I wrote this review to avoid mixing up the protagonists' names. And I didn't feel anything much in the way of suspense.  Two of five stars...because it isn't horribly written but I just didn't care.

And, regardless,  thank you to the publisher for the advance copy...after all, my good reviews are meaningless in the absence of the opposite to show that they truly don't dictate the "results" of my review!

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 standalone...you 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 complex...as 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 into...it 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 twists....one 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.