Sunday, June 14, 2020

Two (Very Different) Stories Rooted in Character and Place: Florence Adler Swims Forever (Beanland) and Final Cut (Watson)

Trying to catch up....or at least keep up...a bit. I think the mix of a longer review and one or two shorter ones is the way to go. (NB: Alright, in the end I seem to have written two reviews of similar length except the second lacks the plot summary included in the first. Maybe my next post will be a handful of shorter takes...).

Business first: I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway. While the book was free, my review is my own and, as always, honest.

Most reviews hint at a tragedy that happens early in the book. A few name it, and I'll join them because it really does happen almost immediately and thus doesn't seem like a spoiler at all. Florence is home (Atlantic City, 1934) from college for the summer and training to swim the English Channel. She drowns during a solo practice session. Her family, mostly her mother, decide to keep this tragedy from Fannie, her older sister, who is pregnant and being carefully monitored in the hospital having suffered a late term miscarriage not long ago. Fannie's daughter, Gussie, a precocious eight-year-old, moves in with her grandparents rather than stay with her aloof father. She's moved from her usual spot at her grandparent's apartment because the grandfather has taken in Anna, a refuge from Germany and the daughter of a childhood friend who is hoping to attend college in the fall. The family is Jewish and the only main character who is not is Florence's swim coach, Stuart, who clearly always pined for the young woman he trained.

This is a book about characters, not action. After the initial tragedy, not a whole lot happens. If you've read even a handful of my reviews, you know I read for character so this is fine by me, but I know it is a turn off for some. The characters are developed in large measure by the author's decision to let most of them take turns as protagonists and sharing elements of their pasts. This isn't an unusual trick, but it can go wrong easily. 

I truly enjoyed this novel. Here, the author manages her chosen format with great skill, especially with so many different protagonists to manage and given that this is her first novel. I appreciate that the characters' religion is neither over- nor is simply a part of their background and it factors into but does not wholly govern their actions. The characters aren't perfect...some are more flawed than others, but no one is flawless. Gussie rang the least true for me; she didn't quite feel like a child, let alone a fairly young one. I really liked the depth of the mother's character in particular. Fannie's husband is also well-drawn -- he's the closest thing to a "bad guy" that we see, but he's still very much human and he seems aware of his flaws including his limitations as a father (and as a son).  The author also kept me rooted in the time and place without overdoing the growing threat in Europe; after all, the characters know only the wrongs they've begun to see, but they don't know what's to come (too often authors seem to forget that, especially when they set novels in the pre-WWII timeframe).

Solid 4 stars. Great summer book -- not fluff, but relatively easy to read in a lounge chair whether by the beach or in one's own backyard. 

While not my favorite genre, I can certainly enjoy a good thriller from time to time. There are elements of this one I liked, but each seems matched by one that didn't hold my interest. I enjoyed the looming questions about the events involving Daisy and Sadie, but couldn't come to care about the other missing girls (even after "meeting" the parents of one girl...their appearance seems to be intended to invest the reader in her story, but fell flat for me and I was rather bored by the plot line...). I was curious about what was going on with the two teen girls in the present, but couldn't care less about the main character's possible romance. I thought the author did a good job with the main character's limited memory and the ways it was triggered and how her past was revealed to her and to the reader. but the device of the film she's making about the town fell flat and it almost seemed like the author forgot it at times (more broadly, the setting was important but I never quite felt like I was taken to this small English village). I was ready to move on to another book well before actually finishing this one. I'm glad I stayed in it and saw some of the final twists, but even some elements of that (especially the role of a local woman in the plot) let me down.

Two and a half stars...I feel like rounding down is the more honest choice (in large part because it gives more weight to the times I've rounded three and a half down to three). I really don't like assigning less than three and a half, but also believe that the most useful reviews are honest and that being willing to assign a lower rating to one book makes it mean more when I give a higher rating). From certain glimpses of her ability to construct a story and build a character, I do think the author has a better book in's just my take, but I think she needs to focus on her main idea and add fewer tangents. This review is based on a copy of the book supplied free of charge by the publisher in exchange for my (obviously) honest thoughts. 

Monday, May 25, 2020

Two Heart-Wrenching (Yet Very Different) Studies of Women: Thin Girls (Clarke) and A Woman Is No Man (Rum...a mini-review)

Quarantine has my "to be reviewed" pile growing quicker than my "to be read" pile... My job is always behind a keyboard. But while many people seem to be more closely tied to their devices and using them to connect, I'm even more of the "get me outta here" ilk than usual.

Still, I DO enjoy reviewing....I just need some discipline to do it...

I was very unsure about starting this one. I have a history of binge eating (only recognized as a distinct disorder in recent years DESPITE being oh so common...and very different from occasional overindulging or even comfort eating) and some degree of body dysmorphia. I wasn't sure this was a wise read...and, while it is an insightful and at time stunningly beautiful novel...I'm still not sure it was. I'm not one for a million trigger warnings...never frown on the ability to find out what one's getting into, but sometimes it goes too far...but this is tough territory (and includes a few "tips" of the pro-ana variety).

Anyway, twin sisters Rose and Lily are all but one. Lily is a bit more gregarious, but Rose follows closely and is always Lily's number one. Until. As it is wont to do, the girlworld social hierarchy rears its ugly head. And Rose finds a connection in her ability to perfect her anorexic tendencies. Which, sadly, propel her to the top of the pyramid. Lily, initially to "cover" for her sister, eats for two. The book peers back at these adolescent years from their twenties as Rose approaches a full year at an in-patient clinic and Lily dives into a painful-to-watch relationship in which she changes herself, including becoming an adherent to an eating disorder billed as a lifestyle group.

There's a LOT here. And the author either has firsthand experience or delved deep into her topic because so much of the girls' actions and thoughts (we are more privy to Rose's mind than Lily's, but their twinhood makes Rose privy to Lily's mind) ring real (said from some experience of my own and from talking about these issues with some amazing warrior women). True, as another reviewer noted, Rose is more self-aware than most, but she gets at a lot about the intersection of body, selfhood, and sexuality. If you want to get a sense of how someone can disappear down this rabbithole...move from casual dieting to something wholly other...this is a good place to start. The author is certainly a talented wordsmith and an insightful creative mind. I'd love to see another novel from her...and maybe I'd be able to evaluate that more clearly.

But, I can't way it enough, tread with care if you are at all vulnerable. There's a beauty in feeling understood, but if there's any chance it'll feel like validation, then steer clear. 

Rating is hard...3.5 simply b/c it is a default value for me. It probably deserves more....danger doesn't negate beauty, and it is deeply beautiful but also dangerous in the wrong head. Thank you to HarperCollins for the ARC.

I'll catch up more soon...but I need to admit that a few books that won't get the full reviews they deserve. So I want to try and accompany more complete reviews with brief remarks on a book or two rather than leave them out entirely...The plot details are available elsewhere, just some short remarks...
  • A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum - Strong four stars. Beautiful and heart-wrenching at times. But, I'd love to have seen a few counterexamples...not every Muslim woman is as controlled as some of these characters. Many thanks to Harper for the ARC.

Two in the To-Be-Published Queue: Paris Library and Benediction

  • The Paris Library

If you like literary fiction of a certain sort, then it's easy to get a sort of WWII fatigue.  It makes for a good setting...recent enough to be felt but far enough to be fictionalized, and certainly lots of fodder with the wrongs we can do to each other and the pain people can experience so clear, it almost feels fictionalized from the start (or maybe one simply wishes it was).

This book does manage, however, to hit on a unique sliver of history. It focuses on Paris from shortly before the war through Nazi occupation. That's a less common setting than most, but the unique element is a sharp focus on the efforts of library staff to keep the American Library in Paris open and supply books to all...even (especially) frowned upon distribution to French POWs and Jews.  We get a small glimpse of a soldier's story and that of French police, but it's a book about books and book lovers. Oh, and a small modern day thread tossed in.

It's a good little story. I enjoyed the lessons it has to teach...obviously fictionalized but well researched with roots in real people and real actions.  I couldn't not love Olide...a young woman trying to stretch her wings (much to her father's chagrin). Like many, I had less interest in the current day storyline...I saw some of the reason for it but feel like a coda would have handled those.

Well crafted setting. Decent characters...could have been a bit fleshier in some ways (the wrinkles were plot related...characters were round for the sake of plot, not simply for the sake of character)  but that's ok sometimes.  Sometimes you just need a good story to tuck into and this is that.

Notable but eventually dated element: I saw more than one parallel bw life amid a pandemic and life amid a very different "infestation."

Teetering between  3.5 ... that's my go-to rank for "good not great" and books that are more than mass market fodder (though some great books do indeed get deserved attention) but not quite "literature" in my eyes) ... and 4 stars.  Rounding up bc it did what I needed it to do and took me elsewhere for a bit. Not so immersive that I couldn't easily step out to go to sleep etc, but still looked forward to visiting Odile each night).

Thank you to Goodreads, the publisher, and the author. I won this in a giveaway but they never put any restraints on my reviews.

  • Benediction by Kent Haruf 

This wasn't my favorite Haruf, I'm quite certain of that. But any Haruf is loads better than 95 percent of the books out there...and that's guessing low. And it still gets 5 stars without hesitation

As always, you can touch the characters in Benediction. Feel Dad's slackening skin, Alice's rough pigtails (a tad slick from sweat). It's not about plot, it's about plopping back down in Holt, smelling the scent of Willa and Ailene's home (after a certain point, mother and daughter look like sisters...the home smells only every so slightly of potpourri), hearing Reverend Lyle clear his throat. It's quite familiar to those who've been to town before, but also new because only small bits connect this novel to Plainsong and Eventide (those share much more...I'd read those two in order bug this can come before, between, or after the others even if they are a trilogy of a sort)

Quiet. Simple. Perfectly imperfect. Utterly beautiful.