Sunday, April 19, 2015

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver: Too Much for Too Little

I have some other blog topics playing in my head, but I still struggle with the energy to do "spare time" writing.  In my ideal vision, I'll be on my way to healthy(ish?) soon and then be able to amass enough freelance work to consider it my career.  I can't decide if that would leave me jazzed to return to more active blogging or stymied by writing then being all work...

I am glad, however, that I've already been returning to reading more often and, therefore (to throw too much in one sentence), a review...

Kingsolver was, for a time, my favorite actively-writing author.  Far too often, I seem to fall in love with the type of books that are one-time affairs and I can't pick up additional/future pieces by the author.  For a while, however, after being introduced to her by the manager of my college bookstore way longer ago than I care to admit, Kingsolver was an exception.  Her characters and her gift for place drew me.  

I gradually fell back a bit in my fan-dom, but I was still quite excited to be able to receive an advance-readers'-edition of her newest book from the lovely folks at Harper.  I started it...and I couldn't manage more than a couple dozen pages.  The lines were wordy, still evocative but I felt like the effort had doubled while my interest diminished.  I put it aside.  I recently picked Flight Behavior up again after gaining control of my to-read pile.  This time, I made it through.  

The opening chapter finds Dellarobia (I'll call her Della for ease, although she'd protest) ready to leave behind her husband and two kids for a much younger man.  She's hiking through the water-logged landscape of rural Tennessee when a sight arrests her.  Call it a miracle, call it fate, something amazingly beautiful is hidden on the edge of her in-laws' land and she returns home.  What follows is a many-faceted, complex affair (not the affair Della planned!).  Something has brought "visitors" to Appalachia, visitors that are arrestingly beautiful but carry a complex tale.  Many turn to religion, a powerful force in the world Kingsolver portrays, yet one with a less-than-admirable element of social structure and grown folk acting like popularity-obsessed teens.  Others seem bent on something close to denial.  Eventually, another (human) visitor arrives with a tale of climate change and science that leaves Della evaluating all she's ever known.

I wanted to like this -- I'm amenable to some parts of the social (and liberal) agenda and Kingsolver holds a dear spot in my heart -- but, even on a second approach, I struggled to get through it.  In her early works, Kingsolver drew true-feeling characters, landscapes and stories "with real toads in them" but that remain incredibly readable..simple texts that still managed to be round and full.  Her more recent works have gotten more complex in their language.  Sometimes that works beautifully.  Here, however, she loses me.  The language and the plot itself are, to put it plainly, too much work and, to put it bluntly, not worth it.  She's thrown it all vs. religion, modern vs. traditional, family vs. newcomers...even the often unacknowledged pain of a lost baby.  There are bright spots -- Della's children whose abundant personalities show traces of who they'll become despite their tender ages are far and away my favorite characters -- but not enough.  I'm willing to "work" for a book, I'll read books that are far from easy, but I need to feel the text rewards the effort.  This, sadly, did not.  

Two to two-and-a-half stars.  There are some lovely pieces but they get lost in the 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle without so much as a defined border.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

another "meh" review: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis by Keija Parssinen

I just don't seem to be having much luck with books of late.  Like many others, the following review is just kind of "meh"...the book wasn't bad, but I can't call it good either...and the book I'm reading now isn't looking much better (and is long to odd phrase that appears to have nothing to do with footwear).

Mercy Louis is a star, Illa is not.  Mercy lead the basketball team to the championship game last season where they had an unheard of loss that weighs on her since.  Illa is the team manager who passes through most of her days feeling utterly invisible.  The book alternates between the two girls as they go through the last summer of high school and into their senior year.  Both have complex relationships with their guardians with Mercy's grandmother convinced 12/31/1999 will be the end of days and Illa's mother trapped in a failing body after an explosion at the plant that had been the backbone of their small town.  

The book opens with a grisly discovery by a store clerk of a dead baby.  The discovery leaves all the town's girls marked as suspects based merely on the fact that they are females.  This event is followed by a mysterious condition affecting teen girls starting with an uncontrollable tic in Mercy's arm.  There are many themes here including the danger of religious fervor, the suffering of the town and its economy after the plant accident, and the confusing time of first loves.  

I'm not sure if this is marked Young Adult, but it felt like it based on the text and not just because teens are at the forefront of the story.  There's nothing wrong with that, some wonderful books are marketed as YA, but it seems to hold the book back.  There are too many themes, all explored with too cursory of a stroke.  Some things felt too cliche (ex. the plan developed by Mercy's hyper-religious grandmother) and I never felt the depth of character or plot that make me love a book.  I was definitely more interested in Illa's path than Mercy's but neither compelled me to read excitedly, instead I picked up the book in an effort to reach the finish.  It wasn't a bad book, but (in my humble opinion, an honest one not influenced by having gotten an advanced copy of the book for free from the publisher) it wasn't good either.  Three (of five) stars.

Who might like this?  I'd think it would do best with a younger crowd.  It does have some sex in it, so if that's a problem then steer clear.  It might appeal to people interested in how a powerful message can attract devotees who make dangerous decisions justified by complete, unquestioning belief.  There's plenty of plot here so I think it would interest those who like action/plots but be less appealing to readers who focus more on fully fleshed out characters.  It isn't a hard read so could be read in public situations (ex. on a train, in a coffee shop, etc)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

a trio of book reviews from "meh" to "nah"

It’s that time again, book review time!  I do hope that regular readers enjoy the reviews and readers who stumbled on looking for the specific book find their efforts rewarded.  I’ll admit I’m writing these in the midst of a “winter funk,” but it’s sadly a low scoring bunch.

One of the most widely read novels of 2014, Gone Girl introduces us to several fascinating characters.  After losing his writing job (bc papers are failing) Nick recently moved back to the small town on the Mississippi River where he grew up. His wife, a New Yorker through and through, is definitely displeased.  One day, Amy disappears.  Nick is eyed. There are lawyers, the press, a scavenger hunt, a diary.  While there is certainly action, the heart of the book is more of a character study, a look at modern marriage, the lies we tell even ourselves, violence and, of course, justice.

I found the psychological questions interesting but I’m a character-gal and, while rounded out and complex, the characters left a lot to be desired.  I don’t need to love all my characters, but some of these pushed me too far.  Further, I need to at least care what happens to the characters and I simply didn’t.  Still, there were intriguing “folds” to the characters that showed Flynn is a student of the human race. 

Three stars.  Not recommended for anyone too squeamish or who needs a book to have a hero and a rainbow.  Fits the mold of a psychological thriller and I don’t think it gives anything away to say it is something of a study in evil.

Middle aged sisters Lady, Vee, and Delp are planning a triple suicide to occur on 12/31/99, a fact we learn pretty early on in the book.  They tell us they come from a family of suicides, pointing the finger to one relative whose sins are being taken out on his descendants.  That relative abandoned Judaism because his love for Germany was stronger. He ultimately invented a process for creating synthetic fertilizer, a project that also led to the chlorine gas used on soldiers in WWI (he watched it do the work of many guns) and in the death camps of WWII, a gas later blamed for much of global warming.

Readers learn about some of the other relatives and about the sisters themselves through a joint suicide note-in-progress.  Vee is battling a recurring cancer and is in constant pain.  Of the women, she’s the only one to make a happy match in love, although that too has its tragedy.  Delph hides from the world beneath a mass of hair, only truly feeling free during a span of time partying with gay men, one of whom is probably her true love (from her side).  Lady is the eldest and is devoted to the boss she’s having an affair with after having had a bad marriage.  While distinct, the sisters are at the same time one entity.  They come home to each other, pad around their rent-controlled apartment with wine in hand, and often seem to have no interest in the world around them, although the truth is more complicated.  Their wit helps lighten a generally dark tome.

This novel had potential, but I don’t think it was realized.  I enjoy dark humor, which abounds. I did feel compelled to read, but not always in a good way…more like a mountain I was determined to climb.  Three out of five stars…..points for originality and scattered pieces of interesting tales among others that were kind of dull.  Advance reader copy supplied by publisher in return for honest review.

Meet Kitty, an independent and quirky woman who co-owns a small bookshop with her best friend in Denver in the early 1960s.  She paints her bedroom a cheery bright yellow, eagerly anticipates a daily note from her mother who is on an extended trip to Hawaii, and acts like she’s given up on love but is a hopeless romantic at heart.  When she falls asleep she enters a dream world, one set apart in Sliding Doors fashion by just one altered moment that makes a world of difference.  Here she’s Katherine, wife and devoted mother navigating a busy social scene that is notably missing some of the most important people in Kitty’s world.  Katherine’s story includes a bit of a twist that provides insight into some major societal changes over the past 50-ish years.

I wanted to like this so much more than I did.  It had some interesting themes and touched on some issues of major significance but still felt a bit too “fluffy.”  I wanted a bit more seriousness than I got and major elements simply didn’t feel realistic (ex. Katherine’s all-too-perfect husband).  While I try not to judge a book solely by its ending, the conclusion to this one was a sharp disappointment that clouds my opinion.  Two (maybe 2.5 since I didn’t struggle to finish it like most two star books) stars (of five).  “Chic lit” with a gloss on some serious issues.  Advance reader copy supplied by publisher in return for honest review.