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.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Growing Up is Hard to Do: Putney (Zinovief) and Whistle in the Dark (Healey)

I've been making slow progress through a long one lately, so I should take advantage of a little catch-up time!

I've seen a good bit of buzz around this soon-to-be released novel, so I'll start here (disclaimer received an Advance Readers Copy from the publisher). It is a bit of a cop-out to begin by calling it a Lolita tale for the MeToo world, but it can also serve as a warning for those who may not like the content...not that I can imagine many people truly LIKING the content...

In 1970s England, the Greenslays live a bit of a bohemian lifestyle....people come, people go, children often fend for themselves amid the varying guests (who are often enjoying some form of drugs...all of which allows plenty of room for the novel's key stories). Ralph, age 25, is one of many arrivals, come to work with the famous father in the clan. As a nine year old girl runs by, Ralph has to shuffle a bit to cover up the obvious effect she has on him. He befriends Daphne and, in a parlance that postdates the youth scenes, grooms her...becoming a friend, telling her he loves him but must keep it quiet, gradual building a physical relationship that leads to sex (aka rape) when she's 13.

In the present (both frames and interrupts the memory scenes), Ralph is very sick and dying. In an unrelated arc inspired by a piece of art that reflect on what she still sees as an idyllic childhood (that was followed by some rough years of addiction and a bad marriage that did produce a lovely daughter), Daphne's best friend, Jane -- Daphne, Jane, and Ralph all share narration duties -- opens her eyes to the truth of the relationship and how it connects with man of Daphne's struggles. And, of course, there are secrets, confrontation, and more.

In college, I was involved in a group that often talked about experiencing (and embracing, even seeking out) discomfort. This book does this. And it reminds me that discomfort is not always a bad thing. This book was far from emotionally easy, but the writing is lovely and the characters well-drawn, fully-fleshed people. Mental health, drugs, sex (obviously far from ideal sex), and issues of class run though it. The power of denial, of Daphne's belief that it was true, love and the ways even things we can't consciously process can effect our future, are well-rendered.

It isn't a easy read, but it isn't meant to be.  4.5 stars. I can't quite say a true 5...though I can't voice why, but will still round up. Rad a dozen or so reviews, but really curious to see what any of my friends think...
Fifteen-year-old Lana is neither an easy child nor a happy one. When she takes a painting vacation (painting holiday sounds so much nicer, British English does offer some lovely turns of phrase!). she goes missing. Four days later, a farmer finds her in a field. Lana purports to remember nothing from the time he was gone. Her mom doesn't really believe it and becomes a bit obsessed with finding answers. Lana seems to enjoy the brief delay before she has to return to school. Her (a good bit) older sister is expecting her first baby which seems to get lost in he shuffle. And, honestly (b/c it say quite a lot), I finished it several weeks ago and have scant memories of Dad.

More than a mystery about a missing girl (although that does indeed run throughout), this is a look at being a family when one member is a troubled teen (so says this formerly troubled, read: depressed, teen). There were little moments that I enjoyed, but overall it fell a bit flat for me. I also felt pretty mixed on the ending...I appreciate some of Mom's final scenes. Others seem to enjoy it, so maybe it is me  2.5 stars...I gotta go with rounding down...

Regardless, thank you to the publisher for supplying the advance edition in exchange for an honest review). Even if it wasnt for me, I appreciate that I get to read a range of books that I might not on my own, especially those that don't fit into my typical genre.