Sunday, November 11, 2018

Wherein the first review took most of my reviewing energy, so the second is short and simple: Unsheltered (Kingsolver) and Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars (Emerson)

Seriously, I spend so much time vowing to catch up...  But I use a computer all day at work -- staring at, changing, and rewriting words -- that i just struggle to plug back into one any other time. And I can't quite manage a review on my phone...

The awesome woman who ran my college bookstore (a true bookstore in addition to carrying class materials, assorted products with the school's name emblazoned thereon, and snacks) introduced me t Kingsolver in the mid-late 90s and I've been a fan ever since. Some of her books do miss the mark for me so I get a little nervous and try to tamp down excitement, but this one was a winner.

A house ties Thatcher's tale in the 1870s with that of the modern-day Willa Knox. Thatcher is a science teacher in a semi-utopian community and struggles with a desire to teach about Darwin and lead hands-on science classes while the community's leader forbids any mention of evolution and any sort of investigative exploration. He finds a kindred spirit in his neighbor, Mary Treat, a character that is fictionalized version of a real woman scientist who corresponded with man of the great minds of her time. Willa is also struggling. She "had it all" and suddenly lost it. She lost her job, her husband was denied tenure and has taken a less-than desirable position out of need, her father-in-law is ailing and mean, her daughter is a mystery to her, and her son faces an unexpected tragedy in the earl chapters that brings his infant child into Willa's home. She's living in a home she inherited. As it was when it Thacher's family occupied it (the primary connective tissue between the two tales), the house is in need of major renovations. The home is literally crumbing around both families, a physical manifestation of the world's they have known. Willa does eventually "meet" Thatcher and Mary when she investigates her home's history in the hopes of finding a way to save it.

Many of Kingsolver's books have a sociopolitical message, including a decidedly liberal slant, and this is no exception. The book strongly favors science and honors the natural world. It has an opinion about some types of organized religion, although I think it does allow room for religion to coexist with science. Immigration is front-and-center in Willa's tale as are issues about mental health, the high cost of both healthcare and education, and politics more generally (again, with a liberal POV). Decide if this is okay with you....if it isn't, that's fine. But sit this one out unless you are up for a challenge...

I read for character and I loved the people I met in this book. Mary and Thatcher are exquisite creations. We meet Mary through the eyes of the socially-conscious ladies in Thatcher's home before truly meeting her as they see her lying in the grass seemingly studying the ground in great detail. We later learn that she studies spiders...and sort of hides them in plain sight in her home in a version of miniature terrariums. I didn't like Willa's tale as much, but that's not to say I didn't enjoy it...I just liked the older story better. And Willa's story does feel like it was stuffed with a few too many plot points to "get everything in." As a liberal myself, I appreciated the viewpoints advanced and was okay with the clear agenda and criticism of Trump-ism. But, I'll admit that some of Willa's story felt forced. Still, I liked how the two stories interwove in terms of theme, but also avoided being TOO similar to the point where it simply didn't feel real. As always, I loved Kingsolver's prose.

Four stars. I'd be torn b/w 4 and 4.5 if Goodreads and Amazon permitted half-star ratings. Notably, I put 4.5 and rounded to 5 in a placeholder review soon after reading it, but I do think 4 is the more honest review given that there were a few elements that I'd change. Know what you are getting isn't for everyone, but it ranks among my favorite of Kingsolver's newer books (Animal Dreams and Bean Trees feel a world away). A big thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Okay...I need to follow that with something simpler...
Iolanthe Green is missing. The american actress seems to have disappeared while in London, and everyone wonders why.Anna Treadway, who worked as Green's dresser and assists her as she stars in a play. Anna's life is much simpler than Green's, she is relatively sheltered but certainly knows the value of every pound and understands working hard to support herself. Anna is frustrated by the lack of official effort in the search for Green so she undertakes her own search. She meets a motley cast of characters and sees a completely different London during the effort.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, which perhaps is enough itself to justify a three star rating. It is a mystery. The characters aren't under-developed but they also aren't fleshed out all to the point where they feel real. There's a nice sense of time and place and some interesting which may turn some readers away and which I'll let others choose to spoil. There's a lesson of sort about being on the outskirts of the accepted society, although not one that felt too strained. It is a perfectly good book, just not one that stood out for me and I was ready to put it down when it ended. Others seem to have enjoyed it more. I'd call it an airplane read..enough to keep the time moving and engage the reader, but one you can also put aside when the person next to you needs to get up or you need to switch planes. Thank you to Harper for providing a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

A peek into 1785 with a magical twist (Hermes Gower's The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock) and A modern detective tale with a fun twist (Horowitz's The Word is Murder)

I'd intended to catch up while on plus a few staycation days...but managed to get sick and needed as much rest as possible.   So...let's catch up on a couple...

It is 1785. Merchant Jonah Hancock is more than a bit shocked when a sailor returns with the news that he traded Mr. H's ship for a mermaid. The creature...which, while a stark contrast from the mermaid that the word brings to most minds, is largely an aside in this story that doesn't really qualify as magical realism...turns his well-settled life as a childless widower upside down. He is uncertain about how to proceed, though in time the mermaid does become the talk of the town.

Along the way, he meets Angelica. She is one of the other characters who shares the spotlight. Angelica is, in he latter half of her 20s, a courtesan past her prime. The woman who runs the upscale brothel where Angelica used to live takes the protagonist's spotlight in other chapters. We see the strict hand with which she governs and the way she works to develop her young protegees develop into courtesans catering to a certain class.

The prose was quite lovely. The author can draw some very vivid scenes and bring you into her setting. Not surprisingly, there is some sexual content and some that can only be crude (the madam urinating in a carriage pot)...if that bothers you, steer clear. I was surprised by how interesting I found the portions detailing the young women's training, which centers on giving them the education, musical talents, and manners to entertain clients (the latter part of their duties seem to be largely learned on the job...).

While I read for characters far more than plot, I kept waiting for more to happen. I wasn't invested in the characters enough to be pulled along on that alone. The ending was far from satisfying...I don't need things wrapped in a box and a bow, this book seemed to try to do that but somehow failed. I can't quite put my finger on why.

So, let's say 2.5-3 stars. The language is lyrical, some of the subplots fascinating (particularly the story of one of the young courtesans, but that felt somewhat like a short story tossed into the novel and it deserved more).  Man thanks to the publisher for the advance copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

I don't read a lot of detective fiction, but every once in a while one I feel the urge. The publisher offered me the opportunity to receive an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review and this seemed like a good chance to scratch the itch.

Diana Cowper plans her own funeral. And is promptly murdered. Private detective Hawthorne is on the case. And following along is Anthony Horowitz (here it is worth glancing back at the name of the author) who has written some hit young adult books and consulted on television shows (why, yes, so has the book's author). While he should be focusing on a movie deal, Hawthorne has offered him the chance to tag along and eventually pen a novel about the world of detectives and murder (profits to be split, naturally). He gets pulled in, as does the reader, by the Cowper case which takes many an odd turn...a bit of a checkered past, a very famous son, involvement in elite charities and the characters that follow...and has many unexpected details. Lots of references to Sherlock Holmes (Horowitz, the real one, has been given the honor of penning a new Holmes tome) and Agatha Christie novels among my fellow reviewers. 

This was fun to read. And had to be a heck of a lot of fun to write. I didn't see the ending coming until quite late in the game and I'd be sorta curious to reread it now that I know where it is headed. A nice diversion, a great beach read style book -- I didn't read it on a beach, but often think of books in terms of where they are best read..some require the focus of my sunroom, others can handle the interruptions of an airplane, others fit the feel of vacation when you aren't looking for something serious but still want to be drawn in and travel into the tale. Enjoyed the London setting...unobtrusive, as befits the novel, but a good backdrop. 

4 stars. Great choice to satisfy my detective itch.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Growing Up is Hard to Do: Putney (Zinovief) and Whistle in the Dark (Healey)

I've been making slow progress through a long one lately, so I should take advantage of a little catch-up time!

I've seen a good bit of buzz around this soon-to-be released novel, so I'll start here (disclaimer received an Advance Readers Copy from the publisher). It is a bit of a cop-out to begin by calling it a Lolita tale for the MeToo world, but it can also serve as a warning for those who may not like the content...not that I can imagine many people truly LIKING the content...

In 1970s England, the Greenslays live a bit of a bohemian lifestyle....people come, people go, children often fend for themselves amid the varying guests (who are often enjoying some form of drugs...all of which allows plenty of room for the novel's key stories). Ralph, age 25, is one of many arrivals, come to work with the famous father in the clan. As a nine year old girl runs by, Ralph has to shuffle a bit to cover up the obvious effect she has on him. He befriends Daphne and, in a parlance that postdates the youth scenes, grooms her...becoming a friend, telling her he loves him but must keep it quiet, gradual building a physical relationship that leads to sex (aka rape) when she's 13.

In the present (both frames and interrupts the memory scenes), Ralph is very sick and dying. In an unrelated arc inspired by a piece of art that reflect on what she still sees as an idyllic childhood (that was followed by some rough years of addiction and a bad marriage that did produce a lovely daughter), Daphne's best friend, Jane -- Daphne, Jane, and Ralph all share narration duties -- opens her eyes to the truth of the relationship and how it connects with man of Daphne's struggles. And, of course, there are secrets, confrontation, and more.

In college, I was involved in a group that often talked about experiencing (and embracing, even seeking out) discomfort. This book does this. And it reminds me that discomfort is not always a bad thing. This book was far from emotionally easy, but the writing is lovely and the characters well-drawn, fully-fleshed people. Mental health, drugs, sex (obviously far from ideal sex), and issues of class run though it. The power of denial, of Daphne's belief that it was true, love and the ways even things we can't consciously process can effect our future, are well-rendered.

It isn't a easy read, but it isn't meant to be.  4.5 stars. I can't quite say a true 5...though I can't voice why, but will still round up. Rad a dozen or so reviews, but really curious to see what any of my friends think...
Fifteen-year-old Lana is neither an easy child nor a happy one. When she takes a painting vacation (painting holiday sounds so much nicer, British English does offer some lovely turns of phrase!). she goes missing. Four days later, a farmer finds her in a field. Lana purports to remember nothing from the time he was gone. Her mom doesn't really believe it and becomes a bit obsessed with finding answers. Lana seems to enjoy the brief delay before she has to return to school. Her (a good bit) older sister is expecting her first baby which seems to get lost in he shuffle. And, honestly (b/c it say quite a lot), I finished it several weeks ago and have scant memories of Dad.

More than a mystery about a missing girl (although that does indeed run throughout), this is a look at being a family when one member is a troubled teen (so says this formerly troubled, read: depressed, teen). There were little moments that I enjoyed, but overall it fell a bit flat for me. I also felt pretty mixed on the ending...I appreciate some of Mom's final scenes. Others seem to enjoy it, so maybe it is me  2.5 stars...I gotta go with rounding down...

Regardless, thank you to the publisher for supplying the advance edition in exchange for an honest review). Even if it wasnt for me, I appreciate that I get to read a range of books that I might not on my own, especially those that don't fit into my typical genre. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

A Solid Summer Read: The Perfect Mother (Molloy)

I keep vowing to catch up, but alas....

So, here's a single review to keep you in the loop until I stop reading long enough to write :)

Since I had, admittedly enjoyed Big Little Lies (book...haven't seen the show), I was intrigued by this one and scooped it up from the publisher in exchange for this honest review.

The May Mothers met online while expecting and had a number of gatherings both before and after their spring babies arrived.  They decide that it is time for a baby-free frolic and gather for some fun at a bar. It is during this time that the unimaginable occurs and one baby vanishes from his crib. Both that story and the more general look at motherhood unfolds through the vantage point of a small subgroup of ladies who connect despite having quite different lives. And the reader peers in at different moments in the search for the missing child.

This is both a thriller and a look at motherhood today (for the record, I'm not a mom so can't fully gauge the authenticity  here). While the former is the headline plot (yes, I did just make that description up)...and I didn't see the ending coming was the latter that kept me reading. From negotiating the working mom role to dealing with a harder baby and experiencing more than a little emotional turmoil, the different stories of the revolving narrators (a device that risks being overdone but also allows a writer to venture down several paths without making one character take too twisty a road) made me enjoy picking up this one.

Call it a beach read or something of that sort...not a hard read by any means and not in the "literary fiction" arena... and take it as that.  3.5 to 4 stars.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

What We Carry: The Things (Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver) and Memories (The Lost Family by Jenna Blum)

When I opted to read a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review of Property, I felt a bit conflicted. To the extent the words make sense, I enjoyed We Need to Talk About Kevin. I haven't, however, been a fan of the two other pieces by Shriver that I've read, even putting aside the diss on my alma matter (prep school star "So I tossed it. I didn't apply to Yale or Harvard, but Haverford.") in The New Republic. And I'm not usually a huge fan of short stories. Yet, something drew me to this one and, unlike with the last two attempts, I'm glad I did.

As the title hints, this collection has two longer short stories and a series of shorter ones sandwiched in between. They all revolve, in one way or another, around property...from a gift spurned to a home shared to mail undelivered. It could have felt like a gimmick, but it didn't because each story was unique and took a different approach. I greatly enjoyed The Standing Chandelier, which could sound like a trope itself with a friendship between a man and a woman threatened when the man falls in love with a woman, but managed not to feel like a story I'd heard before. I think one of the shortest tales, about a mail man who simply -- though strategically enough to avoid being caught -- stops delivering some of the mail, was among my favorites (the ending was the best part!).

An enjoyable collection for people who enjoy words and pondering the many ponderings they can inspire. 4 stars. 

The last review I wrote was a book I went into with a heavy dose of skepticism. In contrast, this one fell into my traditional wheelhouse. I've read a good deal of Holocaust-related (or -adjacent) fiction and I fall for characters more than story-lines. But, while it started strong, i came away from this one fairly disappointed.

Peter is a chef. When we meet him, he's working in his own fancy restaurant and he's about to meet a woman he'll fall in love with almost instantaneously. But, Peter is very much a man haunted by his past. His restaurant is named after his first wife, who perished along with their young twin girls in the Holocaust. Peter survived, a fate filled with irony since his wife was not Jewish but merely "guilty by association."

Peter goes on, in time, build a new family. But there is a void that they all feel, a void possibly enhanced by Peter's silence.  Other plotlines are too spoilery, though a brief mention of some biological family....called cousins but at least once removed and who lived in the U.S. during the worthwhile.

I really enjoyed the early sections of the book, esp a notable scene from early in Peter's chef days (he was from a wealthy family and the career choice was not popular w his family...nor was the non-Jewish wife) and scenes of the family during the fearful build-up of Hitlervs power.  Sadly, the book really fell off track for me in the present day narrative, esp after a bit of a time jump. I dont need to love every character and I could see her motivations, but the protagonist of the latter section just didn't work for me. Nor did the somewhat predictable outcome for the youngest primary character.

3.5 stars. Interesting portrait of the ripples created by one person's trials on those around him. Just wish the narrative took a diff path...I liked that it focused on after vs the time Peter spent in the camps but maybe would have been better without the present day time jump.....

Based on a free advance copy in exchange for an unbiased review. Typed on my phone so apologies for typos.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Real characters, New settings: Magical Realism in Fine's What Should Be Wild (A GEM!) and Dystopian Fiction by Erdich with Future Home of the Living God

I won't even pretend I'm going to catch up, but I suppose the benefit of having a few books in my "to review" column is that I can actually present two with a genuine theme. Both of these books involve real characters amid an element of the unreal. In one case, the book would likely be labeled magical realism, while the other is more likely to find itself in the dystopian fiction category.

I'll lead with one that I consider a true gem.

I can't say I'm typically a fan of the books folks categorize as magical realism, but this....this felt both real and was like magic in its ability to transport me into its little world.

Maise has never felt a kiss on her cheek, a warm hand in hers, skin-on-skin. With a simple touch, she can kill. Or, alternately, she can revive. There's a beautiful description of her toddling across a lawn, leaving a brown trail of dead grass behind her; they even had to coat the wood used to build their old home or else it would come alive with her touch. Maise's mother died while carrying her and her scientist father most certainly loves her but also treats her as more of a study subject than a daughter. The woman who serves as a housekeeper, nanny, grandmother, and more loves Maise too but also, as Maise learns, has a life outside her job too.

While this is mostly Maise's story - a coming-of-age tale about learning about the worlds and about herself - it is also the story of women who came before. For centuries, there have been women who simply vanished into the woods. We meet them too, women who never felt quite like they fit in the world and are now trapped in someplace other.

To say much more might be to say too much.  I might already have done so. But this book captured me. The language was lovely. The women were strong and powerful, but also flawed and uncertain of themselves. The love is flawed too, from the father-daughter relationship to the relationship with oneself. I can't easily voice (read: type) what it was about this book that captured me, but I was drawn into its world and wanted to know what happened to every character.

There were a few places/subplots that I didn't care for, but this still ranks as the best book I've read in some time. You need to be willing to suspend disbelief, but you'll be rewarded it you do. 4.5 stars, happily rounded up to 5 when that isn't allowed (but still 4.5 given the few pieces that didn't work for me). I can only return to where this review started, the book finds real (fleshy, full) characters and real internal struggles (loving, fearing, growing) in a world with a bit of magic.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

There's an undercurrent of a tale told before, a woman who loves the parents that raised her dearly seeks out her birth family, motivated to action in part by her own pregnancy. She is the teller of this tale, and she is telling it to her unborn child.

Then there's the twist that moves this woman's tale into the dystopian category -- not only has evolution halted, it seems to be moving backward. And humans do not seem to fit into nature's plan. Pregnancy rates seem to be falling, maternal and infant mortality rates are climbing, and many of the babies that are born seem to be something other. In an early review note, I wrote that it is "a society in which wombs have been a commodity." It is hard to decide whether the natural events or man's reaction to them (which includes registries and efforts to corral pregnant women) are more disturbing.

3.5 stars. I found the concept and, in particular, the portrayal of how society might react in response to the unexpected events quite interesting. It is without question disturbing, but it is well-crafted. Erdich is certainly a true talent. Still, a lot of parts dragged which feels odd to say after the plot summary. I tired of the book. Also, I am not someone who needs a neat and tidy ending, in fact I prefer books that leave shades of grey and where the characters journey on after my "visit" to their world. But this book left too much unresolved for my taste. Also, there is an element of Native American spiritualism, which I did like but which also sometimes felt like it was from a totally different story/book.
(Review based on an advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review)

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Ruined House (Namdar) and Fools and Mortals (Cornwell)

Two VERY different books...I won't even try to connect them....
So, if you are anything like me, this book may send you searching for a quick primer on how to read ancient Jewish texts. The good news is there's lots of information online and it is actually kind of interesting. The bad news is it isn't always easy,

The main journey in this book is Andrew's. On the surface, he's a successful academic who manages to keep a positive relationship with his ex-wife, his daughters (one grown, one teen), and his young (former student) flame. However, his life starts to slowly dissolve when he finds himself beset by strange dreams - waking dreams or perhaps visions - an intense religious nature. Although he identifies as a Jewish man, he largely attends services on the high holidays and it is more of a cultural identity than a religious one, making these visions particularly perplexing. As these moments grow in intensity, other elements of his life seem to unravel from articles that just won't get written to confrontations in his personal life to an odd obsession with strangely pornographic websites. It's a midlife crisis, but not a typical one. And, to bring back in that first paragraph, the book is peppered with (fake) Talmud sections detailing and explaining elaborate rituals centered around Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year.

This is the kind of book that leaves me searching for the right words, both to fully describe the text itself and to describe my experience with it. I can't say I truly liked it...I definitely didn't like Andrew (I don't think the reader is expected to....and I can enjoy unlikable protagonists in the right hands) and he wore on me more and more as the book progressed. The sections that mimicked the Talmud fascinated me in the beginning but they also wore on my patience and part of me found the whole conceit a bit offensive (my honest reaction as something of a secular/cultural Jew myself, even if it is by a Jewish man who hails from Israel and originally wrote in Hebrew).

Two and a half stars..rounded up to three because there is some (often strangely) beautiful language here, but it generally left me perplexed. This review is based on an advance readers edition received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I must admit, when this ARC arrived from the publisher (provided free of charge in exchange for an honest review), I did a double-take and it took me a moment to remember that I had indeed asked for it. After all, Cornwell isn't my typical fare. I may like literary fiction set in another time, but true historical fiction is rarely my cup of tea, especially that surrounding war and kings and such. But, this is a bit of an atypical Cornwell novel.

The protagonist is Richard Shakespeare, William's fictional younger brother and a struggling actor. He's typically been relegated to playing women's roles and yearns for meatier (and manlier) dramatic fare (plus, there are younger men who are better suited to the female leads). Through most of the book, the troupe is rehearsing A Midsummer Night's Dream for a wedding presentation while Will puts the finishing touches on some play about two star-crossed lovers (truth: my least favorite WS play). Along the way, there's a love interest and some intrigue associated with a new competitor looking for plays to showcase in a new theater. 

This was a fairly quick read and generally a fun one. It did drag in places and there are parts of the story that just wrapped up a little too quickly (and off of the main stage, although we get glimpses of its resolution). Yes, the ending was somewhat predictable, but once you know whether you're enjoying a comedy or a tragedy, so is Shakespeare. The characters were fun and there were enough plot lines to keep the reader's interest while also avoiding becoming too many moving parts. I also enjoyed that Cornwell is clearly a researcher and I learned a good bit along the way, including from the author's note which addresses how theater really evolved in the early Elizabethan age (although I imagine it helps to have a basic handle on WS's works and times).

Four stars. Nothing too taxing, but definitely best for someone who enjoyed rather than loathed their own experiences with Shakespeare.