Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Very Different Novels: A Disturbing Look at Teenage Ties (Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman) and a Stirring Portrait of Family and Community (LaRose, Louise Erdich)

I like to try and tie books together with some sort of theme or even just an apt post title when I'm posting multiple reviews.  I keep failing with this pair since these were such completely different experiences.  I'm posting in the order I read them which also puts the harsher review first and the more positive one second (I always did prefer bad news before good)....
It is the '90s in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania.  Hannah is a quiet girl, the type who gets lost in the crowd, when suddenly Lacey appears on the scene.  Lacey is new to town and she is anything but invisible.  Hannah and Lacey become the closest of friends and Hannah adapts much of Lacey's world including her rebellious attitude, goth-like fashion, and her love for all things Kurt Cobain.  She even adopts a new nickname, Dex.  The friendship develops in the wake of a popular boy's suicide and a cruel bullying incident involving his popular girlfriend Nikki, who is nearly but not quite a third protagonist.  Dex and Lacey's tie takes extremely dark twists and turns with sex, drugs, and violence abounding, all building to an explosive conclusion. 

This is NOT a happy teenage story.  It is VERY dark and readers need to know that (a few moments of bubbly-girlhood only serve to make the dark moments darker).  There are moments that make my stomach turn even as I write this review.  It is hard to put that aside.  I certainly believe there is a place for dark fiction.  I believe that some of the very best books make the reader a bit uncomfortable.  However, I feel like that discomfort needs to serve a purpose and I have trouble finding one here.  I can see the power of Wasserman's prose and I can see that there is an audience for this book.  It's just not really me. 

There is POWER here and the book deserves praise for that.  I want to recognize that Wasserman certainly has a talent and there are moments that are drawn in very vivid, real-feeling prose.  Still, I was anxious for it to be over and felt like the story just kept piling more and more damage and darkness to the narrative.  It is tough to place a rating on this book because I want to recognize the strengths of this book, but I always promise an honest review (I received an ARC from the publisher) and I end up at 2-2.5 stars.

LaRose opens with tragedy.  Landreaux is hunting a deer, just at the border of reservation land, when he mistakenly hits and kills his neighbor's young son.  Landreux and his wife, Emmaline, choose to follow an old tribal custom and give their own son, LaRose, to Nola (also Emmaline's paternal half-sister) and Peter, the grieving parents.  The arrangement evolves over time and it becomes abundantly clear that the young boy is wise and spiritual beyond his years and he binds the families together while also causing jealousy and resentment at the same time.  The reader learns that he is just one in a line of Larose's, all the rest female, and the reader is taken through time to meet the original LaRose.  Also figuring into the narrative are a minister who has been working on the reservation (and is in love with Emmaline) a childhood companion of Landreaux's whose life took a very different path, and Larose's siblings (in both households). 

I'll start with the broad statement that I very much enjoyed this book.  There are some truly captivating characters, including some who take paths I never expected.  I loved the aura of the Native American heritage that pervades the entire novel, including the elderly reservation residents in the modern day and the LaRoses in the part who struggled to find their place at the intersection of two worlds.  My primary issue with the book is simply that it tries to include far too much.  I can't possibly hit every topic and keep this review reasonably succinct.  I'd have preferred if the author cut at least a few of the storylines.  I do appreciate that the book attempts to paint a big picture of a community at the same time as it is about one little boy, but there are still a few too many branches on the tree.  Still, the writing is gorgeous and evocative.  This is an emotional novel, but while much of it is quite sad it still left me with a feeling of hope and an appreciation of the beauty of its world.

Four out of five stars.  With thanks to the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Three reviews:Free Men (Smith), Rare Objects (Tessaro), Father's Day (von Booy)

I feel like I've been flying through books lately.  Luckily, my lovely folks at Harper help me keep the shelves stocked (let's pretend I have the new place organized enough for that to be literally true)!
This is the story of four men, three who are fleeing their pasts (and a major shared event in the book's present) and one on their trail.  We are taken through the pasts of all four men and we follow them as they strive towards their different futures.  Bob is a recently escaped slave seeking to journey west in the hopes of finding his own land where he can one day bring his family and live free.  Istillicha has left his Creek tribe after a dispute with the leader who grabbed power after Istillicha's father's death. The third member of their group is Cat, a poor white man, perhaps a bit intellectually impaired, who lived through an abusive childhood, time in an orphanage, and being given to the service of a doctor. Tracking them is Le Clerc, a Frenchman who is supposed to be hunting the men but also finds himself compelled by the developing relationships and desires.  The reader hears each man tell his story and watches as the present unfolds.  

I enjoyed this book, provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review, but can't say I loved it.  It is a story of the search for freedom, in all the many ways that word can be read.  The characters are interesting and I was especially drawn by Cat.  I didn't find Le Clerc nearly as interesting, however, and some of the events of the men's shared journey left me wanting something meatier.  I had some trouble fully buying the event that bonds the men together, which oddly didn't bleed over into the well-imagined relationships that develop.  

This is certainly not a happy tale.  Each man comes from a painful past and their path together is cemented by a bloody event.  However, it is a compelling read particularly for people interested in the vast range of experiences that made up late 18th Century America (notably, and fascinatingly, politics and the Revolution seem pretty meaningless to these men).  

Three-and-a-half to four stars.

Maeve has returned to her native Boston after having fled to New York in search of a more vibrant life.  Her journey ended with a stay in an asylum where she met an intriguing young woman wearing pearls before shock therapy.   Back in Boston, in the midst of the Great Depression, Maeve hides her Irish roots (literally, I suppose, since she dyes her hair) and takes a job in an antiques store.  The store's owners include a kindly older gentleman and a mysterious adventurer who sends his finds back to the store.  May, as she's now known, eventually reconnects with the woman in pearls when she is sent to deliver a special find to the home of a wealthy family.  The friendship that develops changes May's daily life (she grew up quite poor and with only her mother as family) and threatens her well-being because of the casualness of alcohol in her new crowd. 

This is definitely a novel of characters and I like characters.  May is intriguing and, while I'm not sure I liked her, I was interested in her story.  Some of the other characters weren't as well-drawn, even May's friend who has more than one secret but never quite felt real to me.  Nonetheless, this is an easy and enjoyable read with some lovely, quotable language tucked inside.  I might liken it to potato chips, enjoyable and fast but not the truest of sustenance.  Still, I think it is worth taking for what it is and I'll give it 3.5 stars (I'll balance out the review sites between 3 and 4).  Thank you to Harper for supplying the book in exchange for an honest review. 

Aside from a few "flashback"-like moments, this book is generally told in two parts that are interspersed throughout the novel.  The earlier time period involves the aftermath of Harvey's parents dying.  A social worker decides to seek out the young girl's estranged uncle, a man with a history of violence and alcohol abuse who has been living a very solitary existence.  We watch the two learn to be family and we also see them many years later when Harvey is living in Paris.  This second time period involves Harvey anticipating her uncle's (whom she now calls her father) arrival and his visit.  The pair have come to love each other deeply and the visit includes several meaningful Father's Day gifts but Harvey is also a bit nervous because she intends to discuss a secret she's learned about their past. 

This novel (received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review) fell a bit flat for me.  I like the idea behind it, but I never really felt compelled to dive into the story.  The characters had their faults (well, at least the uncle did), but it still didn't feel like a fully rounded story and I never really believed in either protagonist.  I felt like I was supposed to feel a whole lot more than I actually did.  I don't mean to say it was a bad book, more kinda "meh."

That all said, it was an easy read of the sort that might fit a commuter looking for a simple book to pass the time.  Two (labeled "it was ok" on at least one review site) to two-and-a-half stars. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Moving Joys and Two (Interestingly Related) Reviews: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape (Orenstein) and Terrible Virtue (Feldman)

So, is it just me or does everyone label a box "Best Books" when they move?  We left Central PA and are now in Alexandria, VA, just outside DC.  Going from a three bedroom house with a large basement to a one bedroom apartment means most of my book collection (the only thing I hoard!) will live in storage for some time, but I can't fathom being book-less so I've got some of my favorites ready to be Virginians.  

Anyway, I've been a bit slower in my progress of late (hello, packing and unpacking!!) but have some reviews to share....

Orenstein's prior book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a look at the "princess-ification" (my term) of girlhood, remains one of the most interesting book's I've had the opportunity to read in many years.   So, I was really excited to have the opportunity to read a pre-release version of her newest book courtesy of the folks at Harper Publishing.  Short version: It wasn't Cinderella, but it is still a revealing read and should make it onto the shelves of parents of teen and pre-teen girls (and, perhaps, boys as well).

Girls takes up where Cinderella left off and looks at the lives of young women from junior high through college, with a tight focus on intimacy and sexual activity.  There's a lot covered: The rise of the "hook-up culture;" Issues of consent, rape, and assault; Alcohol and it's relationship to sexual activity; Coming out and the LBTQ community; and more.  There is an overriding theme though involving the pressure to act and perform sexually, a pressure that weighs very differently on females than males.  It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships (especially with respect to oral sex) is disturbing.  Orenstein's viewpoint and message can certainly be heard throughout the book, including the idea that we need to teach girls that sex can be and, critically, that they have a right to have it be fulfilling and enjoyable.  

I didn't feel like I learned as much as I did in Cinderella; much of the content didn't feel new but it was valuable nonetheless.  The stories she tells put "faces" on the trends many of us have heard about.  She also provides some "hope" with reference to what most will call "more liberal" sexual education and a climate that accepts sexuality as part of life and part of adolescence.  I'd pick Cinderella over Girls for a "must read" list, but this is still useful.   It would be particularly interesting to parents of teens and pre-teens, including parents of males, but it has value for all of us who in subtle ways take part in constructing the climate in which kids come of age.

Four stars.
Terrible Virtue (which I coincidentally read at the same time as I read Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein, both received free of charge in exchange for an honest review) is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Sanger, generally considered the founder of the birth control movement and a key player in making birth control available to women.  We meet Sanger in childhood where her mother is physically and mentally worn down by her brood of fourteen children (which doesn't include lost pregnancies).  This climate heavily influences her path which takes her through nursing school, passionate love affairs (perhaps trying to capture an intimacy lacking in her childhood), and a (often conflicted) role as a mother herself.  

Sanger works on the birth control movement from a philosophic, political, and practical vantage point.  She without doubt sacrifices a lot to the movement and women today owe her a debt.  Still, one can't say she's a perfect heroine and the novel leaves the reader a bit conflicted.  Sanger made important strides for women and society, but I can't say she's portrayed as likeable.  

I had high hopes for this story, but it never fully drew me in.  I can deal with a less-than-likeable protagonist, but I had trouble relating to Sanger and understanding her actions.  She is very polyamorous which doesn't necessarily bother me in principle but never felt very real.  It is an interesting read and I definitely learned about an important figure in women's history, but I can't really say I'd recommend the book wholeheartedly.  It may be an interesting starting point for people looking to learn more about Sanger (with the clear note that it is fictionalized), but I struggled to pay attention even with a relatively short length.

Three of five stars.