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.