Friday, May 30, 2014

still here, still reading, w/ reviews of a novel and collection dominated by place: The Kept (Scott) and The Other Language (Marciano)

Yes, I'm still here!  It has been a crazy period in Rambler-land and there are many updates from the medical to the marital (!!!).  But, since I'm feeling a bit neglectful of my reviewing obligations, I'll start my reappearance off with a pair of book reviews

Elspeth Howell is a midwife at the turn of the twentieth century.  Her husband and five children live an isolated and largely self-sufficient life in upstate New York, while Elspeth leaves for long stretches to go work in various towns.  This routine is violently interrupted when a gang, marked by red scarves, arrives and slaughters the father and four children.  Twelve year-old Caleb survives by chance and he is so afraid that he nearly kills his mother on her return.  After helping her mend, the two set off to search for the red-scarfed-men and for many other answers to a life Caleb had begun to suspect was somehow "off."  The rest of the book details their journey (in winter, of course) and stay in a tough town where Elspeth hides as a man and Caleb ends up in some unsavory company.

I'm afraid it's only 3 stars for this novel (Advance Reviewer copy provided by Harper).  It had promise, but it would have benefited from being cut at least by one-quarter.  The characters don't ring very true to me.  One "secret" was apparent to me from pretty much the start and there's a bit too much that feels incredibly coincidental as things went on.  There is a strong sense of place, always a plus for me but not enough to carry me.

Readers should know the book is quite violent.  That's not an issue for my generally, but it does get extreme, especially with the same scenes revisited multiple times (in the novel's defense, I suppose they are scenes that memory would revisit). Wilderness (within people and in the rough climate) and revenge are dominant themes and I think you'd need an interest in both to be pulled through and stay interested.

This is a collection of short stories tied together by themes of places and change.  The stories are fronted by women of all ages who are facing a wide variety of circumstances, but all are adjusting to change and very much shaped by their setting.

I suppose it is always a potential issue when it comes to reviewing short story collections, but it is one I haven't really faced before.  There are some stories in this collection (provided to me by Pantheon) I'd rank fairly high and others that I struggled to get through.  I struggled through "Big Island, Small Island," where a woman seeks out a man who formerly led her circle of intellectual friends and has disappeared to a small remote island.  I thoroughly enjoyed "The Italian System" in which a woman writes of the Italy that lives in her mind many years after her move to New York.  "An Indian Soiree" bored me and I didn't care about the marriage we peek in on as the spouses travel after a long period of the wife acting as support to the author husband.  The opening tale, which shares the book's title, is a coming-of-age piece with a bit of a shocking middle, and was one of my favored tales.

I think the fair point is a 3.5 and I'm going to resist rounding here and probably go with 3 on one "whole stars" site and 4 on another (I typically post reviews to Amazon and Goodreads).  I applaud the focus on place and character, not to mention the varied but often strong female leads.  Still, something made me really struggle to keep going both in certain stories and overall.