Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Interplay of Place and Person: Reviews on Another Brooklyn (Woodson) and The Bones of Grace (Anam)

For the first time in many years, your friendly reviewer's body is allowing her to work a full-time job.  I'm quite tired as my body adjusts, so my reading is slow...but always present.   I prioritize writing reviews for the books I receive in return for a review, but I also have a growing list of books I actually purchased that I'd love to review some time. 
When August returns to Brooklyn to bury her father, her mind (and heart) fills with the memories of her girlhood in the 1970s.  August arrived in Brooklyn with her father and brother at the age of eight.  In the earliest days, she watches from a window and becomes particularly entranced by a set of young girls who are clearly the closest of friends.  In time, as her father gradually allows her to venture out, August becomes part of a tight-knit group of young black girls coming of age in Brooklyn in the '70s.  The reader gets glimpses into lives that are very different and yet tied by the shared experience of their environment.  One girl is pressured to succeed and become a lawyer, one feels the pressure of her family's religion, one hides the dark side of her own family's secrets.  In August's own home, she feels the influence of the Nation of Islam and is impacted by her father's girlfriends and her need to protect her younger brother.  Together, the girlfriends, experience budding sexuality and burgeoning adulthood amidst a rapidly changing city that sees white flight, drug problems, and sexual violence.  It is clear from the start that the girls will drift apart, but they are a fundamental part of each other, a part they even call "home" for a time. 

This is a novel of place first and characters second.  While I'm a character-driven reader, I appreciated Woodson's ability to plunge her reader into a very specific time and place.  The reader sees Brooklyn along with the young girls and watches as the city and the girls themselves evolve.  There is beautiful and evocative language here and the author is a clear talent.  In some ways, it is high praise to say that I wanted more, but it is also why there was a bit of disappointment for me as a reader.  I also wanted a bit of a deeper connection with the characters themselves, even though I know the place was the main, an most developed character.

Certainly a lovely read, just not full enough in some ways for me.  Four stars.  Great for what it is, a short novel looking at a very specific place and how it shaped the lives of the young black women coming of age amid its chaos.  Many thanks to the publisher for providing me a reviewer's edition in exchange for an honest, unfettered review.

I'll start with two "points of order."  First, this is the third in a series of books about different members (and different generations) of a Bangladeshi family.  I did read the second, The Good Muslim, but didn't read the first and each book is fully capable of standing on its own.  Reading the others might help provide insight into the family members at the edges of the subsequent novels, but it is by no means necessary. Second, like with the prior book, I received this from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased, honest review.

To a large extent, this book is a letter to a lost love.  Zubaida is working as a researcher in anthropology when she meets Elijah at a classical concert.  They have a very intense but brief period together before she leaves for a dig in Pakistan where they are hoping to uncover the "walking whale," an important link in a very unique (and apparently quite real) evolutionary chain. The dig is halted very suddenly (I won't reveal details) and Zubaida chooses to return to Bangaldesh and marry a childhood friend rather than pursue what she knows is a truer love with Elijah.  A series of events at home eventually send Zubaida to a very different world where a filmmaker is trying to tell the story of shipbreakers, men (and children) who engage in the very dangerous work of tearing apart old ships for their parts. 

Honestly, there's more to the plot but I hesitate to say too much.  And that also goes to the heart of my problem with this novel, it simply takes on too much.  I enjoyed getting to know Zubaida and could very much feel the way she is torn between true love (and career) and her past (and culture, family, and expectation).  There were moments where I loved this book and the characters in it (who are all very realistically flawed), but it also just overwhelmed me.  

It all combines to a 3.5 rating.  Recommended to readers interested in the pull between culture/tradition and the life one is drawn to by the heart.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Rambler's Summer Reading: The Bridge Ladies (Lerner) and And After the Fire (Belfer)

I typically read in the evenings, but summer has afforded options for both beachside and poolside reading.  I'll take it!

I rarely read memoirs, but I was drawn to this selection when offered the chance to read and review an advance copy by the publisher.  Having returned to her native Connecticut, Lerner becomes intrigued by her mother and the other women that make up her mom's bridge circle.  These are Jewish women who live in a upper-middle class suburb and who are devoted to each other in a very unique way.  She speaks in-depth to all of the women about their youth, their loves, and their lives.  Lerner had longed struggled to differentiate herself from he mother, but now tries to truly get to know her mother as a fellow woman.  In the process, Lerner also learns to play bridge herself and appreciate the complexity of the game and the relationships built around it.  Of course, she also finds she learns a bit more about herself in the process.

I enjoyed this book which often felt more like a novel than a memoir.  It took me some time to be able to keep track of all the ladies, but I appreciated seeing both the similarities and the differences in a group of women who came of age in the same time period with similar expectations (largely centered on finding a husband who would provide well and then raising a family).  The "cast of characters" includes some truly interesting women who might seem, on the surface, a bit bland to a more "modern" audience. 

I didn't love the book, but I definitely liked it so 3.5 stars (I'll round up where I can't pick half-stars, but I really do like my 3.5!).  I think it is particularly well-suited for women who might be the daughters or granddaughters of these ladies.
This book spans centuries with the story tied together by a piece of music.  The piece is by Bach and thus inherently considered a masterwork, but it also contains highly Anti-Semitic words.  In the modern-day tale, Susanna finds the piece when cleaning out her uncle's belongings after his death.  Susanna is a newly divorced woman living in NYC, coping with the aftermath of an attack, and working in the non-profit arena.  She takes on the role of the piece's caretaker and devotes substantial time and energy to learning more about it and understanding where it came from and why her uncle kept it hidden for years. 

The modern-day story is interwoven with the story of the piece's prior caretakers starting with a relative of Bach gifting the piece to a young Jewish woman in the latter 18th Century.  A substantial part of the book is about this woman's life, a life she devotes to the arts and to her extended family.  We also watch as the piece is handed to other caretakers, building up to the book's opening scene which depicts the transfer of the piece from a young woman to Susanna's uncle in the days following WWII. 

I enjoyed this book (I read an Advance Readers' Edition supplied to me by the publisher), but it did eventually drag a bit for me.  I definitely preferred the storyline(s) depicting the piece's past caretakers to the modern day story.  The book raises a lot of questions about art as all of the caretakers, including Susanna, struggle to with the conflict between the piece's beauty and the hateful words it contains.  These are interesting issues and I enjoyed thinking about them alongside the characters.  I did get a bit tired of Susanna's story.  I appreciate well-rounded characters but it felt like Belfer tried to put too many ideas into the narrative and tried to hit too many genres (a bit of romance, a bit of growing past tragedy, etc). 

3.5 stars -- Like but not love. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Two Very Different Novels: A Disturbing Look at Teenage Ties (Girls on Fire, Robin Wasserman) and a Stirring Portrait of Family and Community (LaRose, Louise Erdich)

I like to try and tie books together with some sort of theme or even just an apt post title when I'm posting multiple reviews.  I keep failing with this pair since these were such completely different experiences.  I'm posting in the order I read them which also puts the harsher review first and the more positive one second (I always did prefer bad news before good)....
It is the '90s in a small, rural town in Pennsylvania.  Hannah is a quiet girl, the type who gets lost in the crowd, when suddenly Lacey appears on the scene.  Lacey is new to town and she is anything but invisible.  Hannah and Lacey become the closest of friends and Hannah adapts much of Lacey's world including her rebellious attitude, goth-like fashion, and her love for all things Kurt Cobain.  She even adopts a new nickname, Dex.  The friendship develops in the wake of a popular boy's suicide and a cruel bullying incident involving his popular girlfriend Nikki, who is nearly but not quite a third protagonist.  Dex and Lacey's tie takes extremely dark twists and turns with sex, drugs, and violence abounding, all building to an explosive conclusion. 

This is NOT a happy teenage story.  It is VERY dark and readers need to know that (a few moments of bubbly-girlhood only serve to make the dark moments darker).  There are moments that make my stomach turn even as I write this review.  It is hard to put that aside.  I certainly believe there is a place for dark fiction.  I believe that some of the very best books make the reader a bit uncomfortable.  However, I feel like that discomfort needs to serve a purpose and I have trouble finding one here.  I can see the power of Wasserman's prose and I can see that there is an audience for this book.  It's just not really me. 

There is POWER here and the book deserves praise for that.  I want to recognize that Wasserman certainly has a talent and there are moments that are drawn in very vivid, real-feeling prose.  Still, I was anxious for it to be over and felt like the story just kept piling more and more damage and darkness to the narrative.  It is tough to place a rating on this book because I want to recognize the strengths of this book, but I always promise an honest review (I received an ARC from the publisher) and I end up at 2-2.5 stars.

LaRose opens with tragedy.  Landreaux is hunting a deer, just at the border of reservation land, when he mistakenly hits and kills his neighbor's young son.  Landreux and his wife, Emmaline, choose to follow an old tribal custom and give their own son, LaRose, to Nola (also Emmaline's paternal half-sister) and Peter, the grieving parents.  The arrangement evolves over time and it becomes abundantly clear that the young boy is wise and spiritual beyond his years and he binds the families together while also causing jealousy and resentment at the same time.  The reader learns that he is just one in a line of Larose's, all the rest female, and the reader is taken through time to meet the original LaRose.  Also figuring into the narrative are a minister who has been working on the reservation (and is in love with Emmaline) a childhood companion of Landreaux's whose life took a very different path, and Larose's siblings (in both households). 

I'll start with the broad statement that I very much enjoyed this book.  There are some truly captivating characters, including some who take paths I never expected.  I loved the aura of the Native American heritage that pervades the entire novel, including the elderly reservation residents in the modern day and the LaRoses in the part who struggled to find their place at the intersection of two worlds.  My primary issue with the book is simply that it tries to include far too much.  I can't possibly hit every topic and keep this review reasonably succinct.  I'd have preferred if the author cut at least a few of the storylines.  I do appreciate that the book attempts to paint a big picture of a community at the same time as it is about one little boy, but there are still a few too many branches on the tree.  Still, the writing is gorgeous and evocative.  This is an emotional novel, but while much of it is quite sad it still left me with a feeling of hope and an appreciation of the beauty of its world.

Four out of five stars.  With thanks to the publisher for providing an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Three reviews:Free Men (Smith), Rare Objects (Tessaro), Father's Day (von Booy)

I feel like I've been flying through books lately.  Luckily, my lovely folks at Harper help me keep the shelves stocked (let's pretend I have the new place organized enough for that to be literally true)!
This is the story of four men, three who are fleeing their pasts (and a major shared event in the book's present) and one on their trail.  We are taken through the pasts of all four men and we follow them as they strive towards their different futures.  Bob is a recently escaped slave seeking to journey west in the hopes of finding his own land where he can one day bring his family and live free.  Istillicha has left his Creek tribe after a dispute with the leader who grabbed power after Istillicha's father's death. The third member of their group is Cat, a poor white man, perhaps a bit intellectually impaired, who lived through an abusive childhood, time in an orphanage, and being given to the service of a doctor. Tracking them is Le Clerc, a Frenchman who is supposed to be hunting the men but also finds himself compelled by the developing relationships and desires.  The reader hears each man tell his story and watches as the present unfolds.  

I enjoyed this book, provided to me by the publisher in exchange for my honest review, but can't say I loved it.  It is a story of the search for freedom, in all the many ways that word can be read.  The characters are interesting and I was especially drawn by Cat.  I didn't find Le Clerc nearly as interesting, however, and some of the events of the men's shared journey left me wanting something meatier.  I had some trouble fully buying the event that bonds the men together, which oddly didn't bleed over into the well-imagined relationships that develop.  

This is certainly not a happy tale.  Each man comes from a painful past and their path together is cemented by a bloody event.  However, it is a compelling read particularly for people interested in the vast range of experiences that made up late 18th Century America (notably, and fascinatingly, politics and the Revolution seem pretty meaningless to these men).  

Three-and-a-half to four stars.

Maeve has returned to her native Boston after having fled to New York in search of a more vibrant life.  Her journey ended with a stay in an asylum where she met an intriguing young woman wearing pearls before shock therapy.   Back in Boston, in the midst of the Great Depression, Maeve hides her Irish roots (literally, I suppose, since she dyes her hair) and takes a job in an antiques store.  The store's owners include a kindly older gentleman and a mysterious adventurer who sends his finds back to the store.  May, as she's now known, eventually reconnects with the woman in pearls when she is sent to deliver a special find to the home of a wealthy family.  The friendship that develops changes May's daily life (she grew up quite poor and with only her mother as family) and threatens her well-being because of the casualness of alcohol in her new crowd. 

This is definitely a novel of characters and I like characters.  May is intriguing and, while I'm not sure I liked her, I was interested in her story.  Some of the other characters weren't as well-drawn, even May's friend who has more than one secret but never quite felt real to me.  Nonetheless, this is an easy and enjoyable read with some lovely, quotable language tucked inside.  I might liken it to potato chips, enjoyable and fast but not the truest of sustenance.  Still, I think it is worth taking for what it is and I'll give it 3.5 stars (I'll balance out the review sites between 3 and 4).  Thank you to Harper for supplying the book in exchange for an honest review. 

Aside from a few "flashback"-like moments, this book is generally told in two parts that are interspersed throughout the novel.  The earlier time period involves the aftermath of Harvey's parents dying.  A social worker decides to seek out the young girl's estranged uncle, a man with a history of violence and alcohol abuse who has been living a very solitary existence.  We watch the two learn to be family and we also see them many years later when Harvey is living in Paris.  This second time period involves Harvey anticipating her uncle's (whom she now calls her father) arrival and his visit.  The pair have come to love each other deeply and the visit includes several meaningful Father's Day gifts but Harvey is also a bit nervous because she intends to discuss a secret she's learned about their past. 

This novel (received free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review) fell a bit flat for me.  I like the idea behind it, but I never really felt compelled to dive into the story.  The characters had their faults (well, at least the uncle did), but it still didn't feel like a fully rounded story and I never really believed in either protagonist.  I felt like I was supposed to feel a whole lot more than I actually did.  I don't mean to say it was a bad book, more kinda "meh."

That all said, it was an easy read of the sort that might fit a commuter looking for a simple book to pass the time.  Two (labeled "it was ok" on at least one review site) to two-and-a-half stars. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Moving Joys and Two (Interestingly Related) Reviews: Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape (Orenstein) and Terrible Virtue (Feldman)

So, is it just me or does everyone label a box "Best Books" when they move?  We left Central PA and are now in Alexandria, VA, just outside DC.  Going from a three bedroom house with a large basement to a one bedroom apartment means most of my book collection (the only thing I hoard!) will live in storage for some time, but I can't fathom being book-less so I've got some of my favorites ready to be Virginians.  

Anyway, I've been a bit slower in my progress of late (hello, packing and unpacking!!) but have some reviews to share....

Orenstein's prior book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, a look at the "princess-ification" (my term) of girlhood, remains one of the most interesting book's I've had the opportunity to read in many years.   So, I was really excited to have the opportunity to read a pre-release version of her newest book courtesy of the folks at Harper Publishing.  Short version: It wasn't Cinderella, but it is still a revealing read and should make it onto the shelves of parents of teen and pre-teen girls (and, perhaps, boys as well).

Girls takes up where Cinderella left off and looks at the lives of young women from junior high through college, with a tight focus on intimacy and sexual activity.  There's a lot covered: The rise of the "hook-up culture;" Issues of consent, rape, and assault; Alcohol and it's relationship to sexual activity; Coming out and the LBTQ community; and more.  There is an overriding theme though involving the pressure to act and perform sexually, a pressure that weighs very differently on females than males.  It isn't necessarily groundbreaking, but the lack of reciprocity in sexual relationships (especially with respect to oral sex) is disturbing.  Orenstein's viewpoint and message can certainly be heard throughout the book, including the idea that we need to teach girls that sex can be and, critically, that they have a right to have it be fulfilling and enjoyable.  

I didn't feel like I learned as much as I did in Cinderella; much of the content didn't feel new but it was valuable nonetheless.  The stories she tells put "faces" on the trends many of us have heard about.  She also provides some "hope" with reference to what most will call "more liberal" sexual education and a climate that accepts sexuality as part of life and part of adolescence.  I'd pick Cinderella over Girls for a "must read" list, but this is still useful.   It would be particularly interesting to parents of teens and pre-teens, including parents of males, but it has value for all of us who in subtle ways take part in constructing the climate in which kids come of age.

Four stars.
Terrible Virtue (which I coincidentally read at the same time as I read Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complex New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein, both received free of charge in exchange for an honest review) is a fictionalized account of the life of Margaret Sanger, generally considered the founder of the birth control movement and a key player in making birth control available to women.  We meet Sanger in childhood where her mother is physically and mentally worn down by her brood of fourteen children (which doesn't include lost pregnancies).  This climate heavily influences her path which takes her through nursing school, passionate love affairs (perhaps trying to capture an intimacy lacking in her childhood), and a (often conflicted) role as a mother herself.  

Sanger works on the birth control movement from a philosophic, political, and practical vantage point.  She without doubt sacrifices a lot to the movement and women today owe her a debt.  Still, one can't say she's a perfect heroine and the novel leaves the reader a bit conflicted.  Sanger made important strides for women and society, but I can't say she's portrayed as likeable.  

I had high hopes for this story, but it never fully drew me in.  I can deal with a less-than-likeable protagonist, but I had trouble relating to Sanger and understanding her actions.  She is very polyamorous which doesn't necessarily bother me in principle but never felt very real.  It is an interesting read and I definitely learned about an important figure in women's history, but I can't really say I'd recommend the book wholeheartedly.  It may be an interesting starting point for people looking to learn more about Sanger (with the clear note that it is fictionalized), but I struggled to pay attention even with a relatively short length.

Three of five stars. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Introducing The Healthiest Sick Gal You Know

Amid the chaos of moving, I decided to split off this blog into two separate sites.  This one will continue to host book reviews and hopefully get back to some of the more random musings that earn me the title moniker.  A new site, launched today, will deal more specifically with health issues (fitness stuff may bridge the two).  Please check out The Healthiest Sick Gal You Know and the first post in a series talking about the use of medications to manage chronic pain (spoiler: I used some tough meds over the years and even after a grueling withdrawal process, I don't regret it and I think it's important to remember these drugs DO have a legitimate use...don't let the "bad guys" stigmatize those who use pain meds to survive actual physical pain in accordance with their doctor's guidance).

Sunday, February 21, 2016

February Hibernation Reads: The Good Liar (Searle) and Green Island (Ryan)

I've been busy squirreling away with blankets and books as we march through February (ha! little pun in there, well sort of).  While I must admit we've gotten off easy with this winter thus far, I still find February a dreary time when it feels like the sun and the warmth have been gone forever and are far from returning.  Still, I know each day is growing longer, and there's the added benefit of it being cozy reading weather.

Without further ado, a few reviews (prioritizing my Advance Reader's reads, taking my time with a couple re-reads and random "new-to-me"s):

This piece of historical, place- and culture-oriented fiction opens as a woman goes into labor with our unnamed narrator.  She is born amid a clash between Taiwanese people and their government which has been passed from Japan to China with little regard for the thoughts of the people themselves.  She is delivered by her father who, after making a simple comment at a community meeting, is dragged off as a political prisoner.  The book tells us about the father's experience as a prisoner for over a decade and the daughter's experience growing up as the youngest of four trying to understand her place in her family and culture.  After over a decade, the father is released and the family tries to navigate the gulf created by the experience.  In time, the narrator marries and moves to the U.S., but the political climate of her homeland remains a major force in her adulthood impacting her marriage (her husband is involved in Taiwan's political struggle as well) and her relationship with her native country.

Before moving on to a more general review, an admission of my own limits and how it impacted my reading experience -- I never excelled at history class (I blame the fact that memory is not my strong suit...), but I'm fairly certain I never learned much about Taiwan or its struggle to be heard.  One of the most interesting parts of this read was the chance to remedy that, at least a small amount.  However, my limited knowledge also proved a hurdle at some points (to the similarly clueless, "Republic of China" and "China" are not synonymous, which the narrator eventually tells her American-born daughter in a latter chapter).  It seems unfair to "blame" the book for my own knowledge gaps, but it did make it a bit challenging to follow the political side of the story.

Trying to put that aside and moving on....  I'd give this 3.5 stars, a pretty mediocre, decent-but-not-great rating from me.  At times, I was fascinated by both the history and the fiction.  There is some beautiful language here and the author paints some vivid pictures of places and times.  Likewise, parts of the narrator's story (and her father's too) were engrossing and captured me.  However, it got far too long for me.  It is apparently took fourteen years to write and at times felt like it had fourteen years worth of ideas in it.  I got tired, even winded with the effort, which was at times emotionally appropriate but became a more general readiness to be finished.  I didn't care for some of the latter story points and had much more difficulty feeling the narrator's adult relationships than her childhood ties (despite both periods being complex).

This certainly isn't an easy read by any means, including emotionally.  There are many difficult scenes including some involving torture.  I think it is best suited to true lovers of historical fiction and narratives of place.  I'm a character-focused reader (although I do enjoy well-painted places) and I did find some interesting players here, but I'd have preferred a much abbreviated version.  This review is based on an Advance Readers Copy provided by the publisher.

Everyone has secrets -- a truth that forms the backbone of TGL.  Roy is an aging conman out to conduct his final swindle, targeting a woman in her senior years and eventually setting his sights on Betty.  As he moves in to her life, the reader slowly becomes privy to the fact that Betty has her own secrets and her own motives.  While the modern-day tale progresses, we also watch Roy's story in reverse and learn his truths.  The stories eventually coalesce, something the reader certainly expects but in a way I didn't predict.

I only read thriller/intrigue books on occasion, often as a bit of a respite between weightier tales.  I'm not going to reveal where this one goes, but I'll say that it ironically became more like my traditional fare towards the end.  I must admit not seeing the ending coming at all which is a good thing.  Usually.  This ending just felt like it didn't fit.  Still, the characters intrigued me and I felt compelled to continue reading which isn't always a given for me in more mass-market (read: less "literary") books.  

Three stars, maybe 3.5 if the sites would permit it.  A clever tale and a decent representative of the genre.  Fits my "airplane fare" category....enough to keep you interested but easy enough to put away when it's time to deplane.  This review is based on an Advance Readers Copy provided by the publisher.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Two Very Different Journies into History: Ginny Gall (Smith) and The Past (Hadley)

Alas, I'm back and it's a pile o' books compelling me to write.  I do, for the record, greatly enjoy reading and reviewing books.  I think I just get enough computer screen time as it is and that makes me a bit slower than I'd like at getting these up.  If you're curious, you'll also find the reviews on my Goodreads page (each book is linked to its Goodreads profile) and they appear on Amazon (though not until after the release date per Amazon policy....only folks reading advanced copies received via Amazon can review early).

In addition to the following, I also read one book I purchased myself and reread a book that I neve fully reviewed....I'll get to those reviews eventually, but the reviews based on Advance Readers editions deserve priority

Ginny Gal follows the life and the journey of Delvin Walker beginning with the moment of his birth on the steps of a home in the black neighborhood of Chatanooga in (I believe) 1913.  It is Delvin's story and at the same time it is an "everyman's" story.  Delvin learns early about the power (or, more accurately, powerlessness) of his skin color when his mother flees after responding in anger to the beating of her son after he took a small shiny bead from a dress store.  Delvin lives as a traveler.  He finds father figures in the owner of a "colored" funeral home and in the proprietor of a mobile exhibit on the history of blacks in America.  He finds love, true friendship, and a passion for the written word, but he also finds hate, the latter landing him in prison for a crime he didn't commit (this is mentioned in the official synopsis and is telegraphed early in the book so I'm not considering it a spoiler).  Throughout his travels, he is clearly looking for one thing -- home.

This is the type of book I always want to like.  It is about an important part of our own history and told from a perspective that often goes unvoiced, as do almost all non-dominant voices.  As the saying goes, history is old by the victor or, in situations where no one truly wins, the powerful.  In many ways, this is a book about justice or the lack thereof as a legal system tilted against him pursues Delvin throughout his life.  It is also about a period that cast certain people in a nearly inhuman role from the moment they were born (heck, before they were born).  

So, the topic is important and its a topic that makes me want to love the book.  But, I just didn't.  I found it dragged and even the "action scenes" bored me (and I'm someone who tends to be happy with very little action in the right character-driven novel).  It isn't that I didn't like Delvin, but I never felt compelled to follow him or his journey.  I loved certain lines, but generally the words someone became too much for me (also not typical).  On a very specific note, at least in my Advance Reader's Copy (provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review), certain sections were written in italics which made them hard to read.  Granted, they were also a hard time in Delvin's journey, but he text style distracted me from focusing on an important part of the book.

Two and a half stars....I'll round up when called for out of respect for the chosen topic and the breadth of the journey, but I'd really prefer to stick to the 2.5 because I can't honestly say I'd want to read it again or recommend it to others (aside: I nearly wrote "because I can't honestly say I enjoyed it," but then there's the complex question of ever "enjoying" a tough topic....I do, however, believe one can enjoy a book even if it isn't an enjoyable subject).

A family gathers at an old, slightly-decrepit country estate to decide whether it is time to say goodbye and sell their grandparents' home where they often vacationed as children, a place that carries so much of their family history.  In the present-day, three sisters and one brother along with a selection of extras attempt to spend three weeks at the house to connect and evaluate their next move.  The siblings are a mixed bunch, as are the others who accompany them including one daughter's two young children, the son's teenage daughter, and the twenty-ish son of one daughter's ex-boyfriend (I never quite figured out why she brings him).  The teen and twenty year old dance around a romance with an even more run-down cottage serving as a center-point (the children's exploration of this cottage is also important).  We see the siblings reflect and relate, figuring out who they are in relation to each other and the past.

Then, there's also that past...  Told in a middle section of the book is a part of the country home's history, specifically a time when the siblings' mother (with three of the children in tow) fled to her parent's home to get away from her life and her marriage.  This section helps inform the history of the house and the family itself.  

I'm struggling with what to say about this book.  It was, well, fine.  I read it and it held my interest and I wondered how certain plotlines would resolve themselves though other plotlines failed to capture my interest.  I believed parts, I enjoyed the "dance" of young attraction in the present day story, while other parts felt contrived and thrown-in (e.g., one sister's muddled relationship with the brother's new wife).  There's a lot to like here, but the book suffers from a common problem of simply trying to do too much.  Yes, it makes sense that the house would call up and inspire a range of stories, but I got lost at times and just wanted to get back to "the good parts."

3.5 stars....a decent read but not one I'll shout about from proverbial mountaintops (and I'm leaning towards picking 3 when the review sites refuse my half-stars).  Best for place and character driven readers....there's "action" in the book but the introspective side dominates.  Review is from an Advance Reader's cop provided by the publisher in return for an honest opinion.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

An Update and Two Reviews: Five Stars for Girl Through Glass (Wilson), Three and a Half for The Ex (Burke)

I confess....falling back on the little device I used in this blog's early days is appropriate when I'm so hopelessly behind in my book reviews.  I also continue to have so many other things I want to write about, but intention and action aren't the same thing.

Offering an explanation, not an excuse, for those interested (feel free to skip ahead, my beloved bullet-points should help set off the actual reviews) I'm at an odd juncture healthwise.  In some ways, I am much better than I was and I have worked hard FN1 to reduce my pain medication.FN2  I think this has helped me speed up my reading.  However, I still tire very fast and writing, which remains a passion, can be hard.  Some days, I feel like the words are flowing like they once did, but more often it takes me several times longer to write a piece than it would have before pain took over my life.  Word finding issues still pop up frequently, including both in speaking and in writing  I prioritize the paid piecework I do, including four weekly posts I'd have polished off in a single day but still take double, triple, even quadruple the usual time.  I do still love to write, especially about books and health matters (e.g., chronic pain, fitness, body image), but it is hard to sit back down at the keyboard after I finish my day's "must do"s.

Anyway, that's the background.  On to a few reviews:

I usually write reviews chronologically, but I feel compelled to review this one first because it is without question one of the best books I read in 2015.  To be clear upfront, this is a great novel but it is often an unpleasant one and the topic(s) will turn off some readers.  It is far from identical...this is much broader, focused on a different player, and involves a very different relationship...but I couldn't help but think of Lolita, a beautiful telling of a disturbing tale and a reference made by the author herself in interviews about the book.

The book is told from two viewpoints, young Mira's and adult Kate's.  We meet Mira at eleven when she is rising in the world of ballet from a talented child to a true star.  She pushes ever harder, struggling for the perfection in her art that she lacks in her home life.  Mira meets Maurice, a man obsessed with her dancing and a vision of her a the perfect ballerina, developing a relationship we know from the start can't be "right."  Although we know where its headed, parts of their story still come as a surprise and the story still manages to shock the reader who has been waiting for it all along.  Meanwhile, middle-aged Kate struggles in her professional life as a college instructor while trying to make peace with her past life as a young dancer.

There is a lot here.  For me, the book is largely about "the gaze," about performance, about watching and being watched.  Wilson explores what an intense gaze does to the watcher and the watched,.  She explores how the gaze turns person into object and what that does to the mind, especially when the watched is just a child.  An attentive reader can't help but notice her own role as watcher as the story unfolds.  Maurice's relationship with Mira is central to this story, but far from the book's only theme.  We see a crumbling marriage, the impact of dysfunctional parents on an attentive child, the sacrifice artists make for art, the internal struggle for perfection, and the complex relationship between our adult selves and our child pasts.  Ballet plays a role in this book, but I'd hesitate to call it a book about ballet.

This book, in language and theme, is mesmerizing and beautiful.  It isn't for everyone, but readers willing to delve into often uncomfortable territory will find beauty in the language (that parallels beauty in performance).  It is a book that makes you think and makes you feel.  The reader anticipates certain scenes, knowing they must be coming while still hoping somehow they won't.  Five stars.

This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I don't read a lot of detective fiction or legal thrillers, but sometimes I like a little break from my norm.  The protagonist here is Olivia, a skilled defense lawyer called to the aid of a man from her past.  Jack Harris lost his wife in a shooting spree and has since focused on raising his daughter while continuing a successful career as a novelist.  Now, Jack stands accused of being the perpetrator of another shooting spree.  Olivia feels compelled to help because she is convinced Jack could not have committed the crime, an opinion informed by her complex history as Jack's college sweetheart and her guilt about how that relationship ended.  As the evidence piles up, Olivia is forced to examine her personal bias and consider whether she truly knew the man she once loved.

I didn't have much trouble figuring out the whodunit side of this book.  Still, it kept me reading, largely to understand the complex web of relationships and love among the many players in the tale.  As a "recovering lawyer," I was also interested in Olivia's professional career and her transition from a large law firm to the very different world of criminal defense.  This book didn't really stand out for me, but I wasn't bored either.  I'd categorize it as "airport fiction," a book you'd pick up to read during a flight when you want an enjoyable diversion but know the environment won't support a book that requires deep focus.  Three and a half stars (rounded down to a three star "I like it [but don't love it]" rating on sites that don't support half star ratings).

This review is based on an advance reader's copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

FN1: I do not regret my pain med use which was always under expert supervision.  I needed occasional pep talks from the clinical pharmacist who helped me remember that these meds are more than okay for those who need them, even for people like me who need somewhat high doses.  I continue to work hard and I am committed to seeing where I am when I'm pain med free.  It''ll be a few weeks or even a couple of months after I finish the taper and stop all meds before I can really evaluate things since the withdrawal can mess with the brain and cause extra pain.  Also, he probably won't see this but apologies to my husband for the tough-to-describe tingling that kicks in around 6 or 7 AM at this pintleads to semi-involuntary shakes and has me tossing and turning enough to impact him even with a fancy mattress

FN2: I'd feel remiss if I didn't note that pain meds, even the "biggies," have an important place and are critical for people who truly need them.  Abuse dominates the headlines but, and I could go on for eons about this but will control that impulse, there is a proper use and even those who use them for the right reasons and as directed by specialized experts experience the physical dependence that I'm battling now.