Monday, April 2, 2018

Real characters, New settings: Magical Realism in Fine's What Should Be Wild (A GEM!) and Dystopian Fiction by Erdich with Future Home of the Living God

I won't even pretend I'm going to catch up, but I suppose the benefit of having a few books in my "to review" column is that I can actually present two with a genuine theme. Both of these books involve real characters amid an element of the unreal. In one case, the book would likely be labeled magical realism, while the other is more likely to find itself in the dystopian fiction category.

I'll lead with one that I consider a true gem.

I can't say I'm typically a fan of the books folks categorize as magical realism, but this....this felt both real and was like magic in its ability to transport me into its little world.

Maise has never felt a kiss on her cheek, a warm hand in hers, skin-on-skin. With a simple touch, she can kill. Or, alternately, she can revive. There's a beautiful description of her toddling across a lawn, leaving a brown trail of dead grass behind her; they even had to coat the wood used to build their old home or else it would come alive with her touch. Maise's mother died while carrying her and her scientist father most certainly loves her but also treats her as more of a study subject than a daughter. The woman who serves as a housekeeper, nanny, grandmother, and more loves Maise too but also, as Maise learns, has a life outside her job too.

While this is mostly Maise's story - a coming-of-age tale about learning about the worlds and about herself - it is also the story of women who came before. For centuries, there have been women who simply vanished into the woods. We meet them too, women who never felt quite like they fit in the world and are now trapped in someplace other.

To say much more might be to say too much.  I might already have done so. But this book captured me. The language was lovely. The women were strong and powerful, but also flawed and uncertain of themselves. The love is flawed too, from the father-daughter relationship to the relationship with oneself. I can't easily voice (read: type) what it was about this book that captured me, but I was drawn into its world and wanted to know what happened to every character.

There were a few places/subplots that I didn't care for, but this still ranks as the best book I've read in some time. You need to be willing to suspend disbelief, but you'll be rewarded it you do. 4.5 stars, happily rounded up to 5 when that isn't allowed (but still 4.5 given the few pieces that didn't work for me). I can only return to where this review started, the book finds real (fleshy, full) characters and real internal struggles (loving, fearing, growing) in a world with a bit of magic.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

There's an undercurrent of a tale told before, a woman who loves the parents that raised her dearly seeks out her birth family, motivated to action in part by her own pregnancy. She is the teller of this tale, and she is telling it to her unborn child.

Then there's the twist that moves this woman's tale into the dystopian category -- not only has evolution halted, it seems to be moving backward. And humans do not seem to fit into nature's plan. Pregnancy rates seem to be falling, maternal and infant mortality rates are climbing, and many of the babies that are born seem to be something other. In an early review note, I wrote that it is "a society in which wombs have been a commodity." It is hard to decide whether the natural events or man's reaction to them (which includes registries and efforts to corral pregnant women) are more disturbing.

3.5 stars. I found the concept and, in particular, the portrayal of how society might react in response to the unexpected events quite interesting. It is without question disturbing, but it is well-crafted. Erdich is certainly a true talent. Still, a lot of parts dragged which feels odd to say after the plot summary. I tired of the book. Also, I am not someone who needs a neat and tidy ending, in fact I prefer books that leave shades of grey and where the characters journey on after my "visit" to their world. But this book left too much unresolved for my taste. Also, there is an element of Native American spiritualism, which I did like but which also sometimes felt like it was from a totally different story/book.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ruined House (Namdar) and Fools and Mortals (Cornwell)

Two VERY different books...I won't even try to connect them....
So, if you are anything like me, this book may send you searching for a quick primer on how to read ancient Jewish texts. The good news is there's lots of information online and it is actually kind of interesting. The bad news is it isn't always easy,

The main journey in this book is Andrew's. On the surface, he's a successful academic who manages to keep a positive relationship with his ex-wife, his daughters (one grown, one teen), and his young (former student) flame. However, his life starts to slowly dissolve when he finds himself beset by strange dreams - waking dreams or perhaps visions - an intense religious nature. Although he identifies as a Jewish man, he largely attends services on the high holidays and it is more of a cultural identity than a religious one, making these visions particularly perplexing. As these moments grow in intensity, other elements of his life seem to unravel from articles that just won't get written to confrontations in his personal life to an odd obsession with strangely pornographic websites. It's a midlife crisis, but not a typical one. And, to bring back in that first paragraph, the book is peppered with (fake) Talmud sections detailing and explaining elaborate rituals centered around Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.

This is the kind of book that leaves me searching for the right words, both to fully describe the text itself and to describe my experience with it. I can't say I truly liked it...I definitely didn't like Andrew (I don't think the reader is expected to....and I can enjoy unlikable protagonists in the right hands) and he wore on me more and more as the book progressed. The sections that mimicked the Talmud fascinated me in the beginning but they also wore on my patience and part of me found the whole conceit a bit offensive (my honest reaction as something of a secular/cultural Jew myself, even if it is by a Jewish man who hails from Israel and originally wrote in Hebrew).

Two and a half stars..rounded up to three because there is some (often strangely) beautiful language here, but it generally left me perplexed. This review is based on an advance readers edition received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I must admit, when this ARC arrived from the publisher (provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review), I did a double-take and it took me a moment to remember that I had indeed asked for it. After all, Cornwell isn't my typical fare. I may like literary fiction set in another time, but true historical fiction is rarely my cup of tea, especially that surrounding war and kings and such. But, this is a bit of an atypical Cornwell novel.

The protagonist is Richard Shakespeare, William's fictional younger brother and a struggling actor. He's typically been relegated to playing women's roles and yearns for meatier (and manlier) dramatic fare (plus, there are younger men who are better suited to the female leads). Through most of the book, the troupe is rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream for a wedding presentation while Will puts the finishing touches on some play about two star-crossed lovers (truth: my least favorite WS play). Along the way, there's a love interest and some intrigue associated with a new competitor looking for plays to showcase in a new theater. 

This was a fairly quick read and generally a fun one. It did drag in places and there are parts of the story that just wrapped up a little too quickly (and off of the main stage, although we get glimpses of its resolution). Yes, the ending was somewhat predictable, but once you know whether you're enjoying a comedy or a tragedy, so is Shakespeare. The characters were fun and there were enough plot lines to keep the reader's interest while also avoiding becoming too many moving parts. I also enjoyed that Cornwell is clearly a researcher and I learned a good bit along the way, including from the author's note which addresses how theater really evolved in the early Elizabethan age (although I imagine it helps to have a basic handle on WS's works and times).

Four stars. Nothing too taxing, but definitely best for someone who enjoyed rather than loathed their own experiences with Shakespeare. 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teen Angst, A Missing Child, A Motley Crew at Work...Three Books I Won't Even Try to Connect: Mirror, Mirror (Delevigne), The Child Finder (Denfeld), This Could Hurt (Medoff_

I'm making good on my promise to myself to make a dent in the book backlog. I love my job, but after sitting in front of a screen all day, I simply can't bring myself to engage with a screen beyond the tv (or the tablet posing as a tv).  But, I AM trying...I'm definitely prioritizing my Harper books since they deserve it for being patient, but I have actually read a handful of others including at least one semi-recent bestseller, a book I missed in the "middle grades" years, and a few random picks.

A brief note -- I'm not usually a reader of young adult novels, but I also know the category holds some of literature's very best from serious stories to jaunts that remind readers young and old that they are not alone. So I harbor no negative association with young adult novels, but they don't make up a very large share of my book collection.

I received this young adult book (def older young adults...I'd say 16+) from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The novel is narrated by Red, one of four high school students who went from being something of an outcast to a member of a much-loved, tight-knit band (one was popular...but, as is easy to see coming, misunderstood). A year or so after they formed, one of the girls suddenly goes missing. This story is about finding out what happened to her, and also about what happened to them...the story of the four kids becoming incredibly close and each kid's struggles with family, friends, and general teen-dom.

I saw several of the "surprises" coming, including the element that Red holds back from the reader for a good chunk of the book. There are a LOT of issues in here, though identifying them would pretty much mean revealing spoilers. I think this could be great fodder for discussion in the right forum...maybe some mix of older teens and parents or something...but it just wasn't quite for me. I certainly didn't despise it by any means, but I felt removed from it. I often read books where I can't relate directly to the plot or the characters, but here it almost felt more like I was watching a made-for-tv movie. I never really connected (admission: maybe I was jealous that I didn't find a little clique like this in HS).

Two-and-a-half to three stars. Liked the mixed formats (text conversations etc.), liked some of what the author had to say. But, it felt like too much tossed together and like other stories that try so hard to not paint cliched portraits that they become another sort of cliche. Oh, and I really liked Ash...the sister of the missing girl who is an unapologetic computer nerd and pretty darn cool (ok, you are probably supposed to think that...but I did....)

FYI -- If you're a parent or just someone who is bothered by such things, know that there is "foul language" and it does include depictions of sex, drug use, and violence (in a range of lights).

Five-year-old Madison wonders off while her family is looking for a Christmas tree in rural Oregon. The bulk of the novel occurs three years later when Naomi, a private investigator known as The Child Finder joins the (stale) search. For Naomi, every lost child is a personal mission. She has only snippets of memories from when she fled from...someplace...and ran to a group of strangers and eventually found herself in the care of an incredibly loving foster mother who also cares for a young boy with his own troubled tale. The reader hears from Madison throughout the novel, so we know quickly that she didn't simply suffer the fate of many a lost hiker who succumbed to the cold. We know she is with a man who keeps her in a below-ground room and, well, "loves" her in ways no adult should love a child.

There's a lot more here. In fact, as with far too many books, there's too much. There are several different plotlines and cutting a few would have. I like complex, full characters, and Denfeld has a talent for creating them. I just wish there had been a bit of extra editing here.  A second missing child case would have made a better short story....or might have been fine here if other lines were trimmed.  The number of plot paths made this book more challenging for me. And I truly disliked portions of Naomi's present-day personal tale. Her romantic storyline failed completely for me.

Still, there were elements here to enjoy. Madison's chapters are a bit unusual, but they rang true to me as a child's effort to survive the unsurvivable. They carried a disturbing beauty that showcases Denfeld's talent. As noted above, I didn't like where Naomi's story went, but I did like the peeks at her past (put another way, her backstory was a positive for me, but her present-day personal life was not). Another positive for me was the mixture of emotions that the ending to Madison's tale carried the shades of grey that tend to make books ring true for me. Both this ending and the chapters about Madison's survival show that this is the same author who crafted The Enchanted.

Overall, the positives were muted by the negatives. I struggled to pick the book up because so much of the novel was a slog through mud, pushing through the parts I didn't care for to get to the moments that felt like gems. Three stars .

Readers should know there are a lot of disturbing elements here and be ready for that...

With organizational charts sprinkled throughout (and used as an epilogue), this book focuses on the members of the human resources team at a large, struggling services company.  We meet a full cast of characters (the charts helped me keep track of who was who!) at various staged of their careers and their personal lives. Some live to work, some work to live. They are all navigating the complex balance between the two and facing the reality that working in an office means working with each other.

There were several places in this book where I stopped and read aloud to my husband (who is mid-career and getting a master's in an HR-related field), usually because a particular passage was at once humorous and observant. I've been in a few workplaces myself, and even worked in recruiting so have an HR element of my own, and I could imagine these characters in the office (or cubicle) next-door.  

I can't say I like every character. I can't say they were all as full and round as I usually prefer. And a large part of the central plot didn't really ring real for me. There's a Weekend At Bernie's style plotline that serves to tie the rest of the book together and I didn't really care for it. But, while it was very much a central driving force, it was also largely a device to tie everything together -- so while I didn't necessarily buy into it, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. 

But that was okay. Some books are nourishment, some are mind candy. Some are literature, some are...well...just books. This was the latter, but sometimes "just books" are perfect for your mood. They have an important place on a complete least for me...a "real" bookshelf versus one for show. It made me laugh and I enjoyed watching the relationships between the characters shift over time. This book was a fun diversion from a stressful time in my world (not work stress...though I can see this being particularly apt as a diversion from workplace drama).

4 stars. Review based on an ARC from the publisher provided in exchange for my honest thoughts.

P.S. Had to smile when I caught the HR chief struggling mightily with orders to rest and finding herself watching a tv movie called Hunger Point....since I group books by the same author together, this one will sit next to Medoff's novel, Hunger Point.