Monday, January 2, 2017

Readin' in the Rain -- Commonwealth (Patchett), Mercury (Livesay), I'll Take You There (Lamb)

Yes, I've been mighty remiss in my review-writing.  Working full-time after years of disability IS rewarding, but it is also tiring.

And, then, there's simply the fact that none of the books I've read recently have really compelled me to write a rapidfire, excited review. The first two are decidedly mediocre reviews....there's good in both, but it fights against the not-so-good.  The third is a bit more on the positive side. While I hate writing reviews with a negative slant, I also believe they are important.  In addition to the value they carry in and of themselves (i,e. helping people who are deciding on their next read, creating a "conversation" of sorts with other readers), they also give value to my reviews overall since they increase the validity of the positive ratings. This may all tie back to a kids' movie review show that was on during my childhood about which my stepdad routinely griped "they like everything!"

Commonwealth is the story of a family tree that grows from an infidelity. When Bert attends a christening alone, he ends up kissing Beverly, mother of the child. This sets off the end of two marriages and throws six children into a modern and evolving family tree. We see these players at the day of the christening and at many points over the decades to come. I'm not sure how to say more without saying too much....

This is the type of book I tend to love. It is filled with flawed, multi-faceted characters who matter more than the plots they inhabit. And I write this a month after finishing the book, I really remember none of them. What I do remember is that I was ready to move on far before the last page and it took a lot of work to keep going. There were interesting moments...including moments spread all across the pages...but it just never held me. I mixed up the siblings, and maybe I was supposed to but that isn't for me.

Two stars. This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an open, honest review.  Read Patchett's Bel Canto instead for a much better ensemble. 

I'll open with a disclaimer -- I'm terrified of horses. I can absolutely see their beauty and their power, but put me too close and I'll cry.

Mercury is a portrait of a marriage in decay and a woman obsessed. The first half is told by Donald, the second by his wife Viv. Donald is an optometrist in the Boston area who misses his previous work as an eye surgeon and is still grieving the death of his father, To some extent, he knows that his wife Viv has gotten lost in the shuffle of life. Viv is working at a stables, bringing back a childhood passion for riding and competing. A horse named Mercury is brought to the stables and Viv becomes truly and wholly obsessed, although Donald misses most of the signs that this is going beyond typical love for an animal. There are other players in the story...Donald's good friend who is legally blind, a childhood friend with whom Donald stopped corresponding after a move (I think they were 8ish) which he still regrets, Mercury's owner, and a handful of others. Some see more of Viv's obsession than Donald does, but no one imagines how far it will go.

I don't need to like characters, but I feel like a good book leaves me feeling like I understand them. Here, that simply didn't happen. I certainly didn't get Viv's true, deep obsession with Mercury and the lengths she'd go to protect the horse. While I understand Donald's various distractions...his grief, feeling "stuck" professionally, etc....I didn't get his complete blindness towards his wife's growing emotional/mental imbalance. Further, while I like the concept of looking at blindness from a physical and metaphorical standpoint, it was a bit too heavily telegraphed here.

This certainly isn't without its merits. There IS some lovely writing here. It IS character-driven which I like and they are well-rounded which is essential. There also are enough events for those readers who get frustrated with books where very little actually happens. I also liked seeing the same moments from Viv's perspective after seeing them through Donald's eyes.

Sadly, however, the negatives outweighed the positives and I'm at two-and-a-half stars, probably rounded down where sites force my hand to pick "full stars." I tried to like it (despite the horse!), but I just wasn't drawn in. Might be better for a horse lover. Best-suited for someone who wants a balance of action and character with an accessible chunk of psychology and the examination of a marriage and a woman in turmoil.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An opportunity to read a Lamb book free of charge (in exchange for a review) is one I'm not likely to pass up. Ultimately, this is far from the utter triumph that is She's Come Undone (or The Hour I First Believed & I Know this Much Is True but that didn't make the impression on me that Undone did), but I still enjoyed it.

Felix is a film-lover and film-scholar. He is also the younger brother to two powerful sister, an ex-husband to another strong woman who is an ardent feminist, and the father to a twenty-something woman making her way as a writer. Felix is in an old theater when he is visited by two spirits who, in scenes interspersed with his current day life, show him scenes from his past and even put him firmly into the "film" so he can re-experience moments of his childhood.

There is a LOT in here...a look at the good and bad of beauty contests, an examination of women's evolving place, a brush with eating disorders, a lot about family.  For the most part, Lamb is skillful enough to balance it all, but it still is a bit much at times. I wasn't too fond of the concept of the ghostly visitors, but I liked how it allowed Felix to experience moments both as they happened and with the knowledge of what was to come. Some of the story regarding his middle sister (to say more risks spoiler-territory) could have been a separate book (or maybe a short story) and I think the book would have improved from a few harsh cuts. The reader was also spoon-fed too much of the political/social message about feminism.

Still, it's Lamb and he's magic. He understands the inner workings of people (ok, mostly of women since even with a male narrator, the women dominate the story). I'd put it someplace between 3.5 (solid score for me, worth reading but not worth raving) and 4 stars (veers towards being worth a recommendation, worth a reread some day). I think it would be a good book club read. It isn't his best doesn't even come close...but it is a good book and I enjoyed the visit to its world.