Saturday, January 2, 2021

Reviewlettes: Unpopular Opinions

So, one of the things 2020 has brought me unusually high number of books read.  Since I am a garbage blogger but still a blogger in my heart, I feel compelled to comment on all the books I read on the internet before I give them away.  This ends pretty poorly for me considering I reviewed all of maybe five books in 2020, so I'm pretty much just floating around on a wave of books I'm never likely to get around to reviewing.  By way of assuaging my guilt and perhaps letting a few books get out the door and on to their next adventure: reviewlettes!

I read The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue with unfairly high expectations since I count his The Stolen Child among my very favorite books.  Unfortunately, it did disappoint.  It tells the story of Jack Peter and his parents.  Jack Peter is on the spectrum and draws monsters that somehow manifest into real life.  Unsure about how to handle an increasingly violent Jack Peter who refuses to leave the house, his put-upon parents and best friend, Nick, are now harassed by all manner of things that go bump in the night.  It's eerie, and it has an interesting twist, but the characters often felt strange and wooden.  A subplot about a shipwreck seemed unnecessary and odd word choices kept jolting me out of the story.  All in all, the book felt like it was trying very hard to accomplish something, but the something is uncertain and the pieces just never quite added up.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek
 by Kim Michele Richardson was a book club selection, and for once, I have the unpopular opinion on it.  Most of my book group loved it, but I was underwhelmed.  The Book Woman tells the story of Cussy Mary, a packhorse librarian in Kentucky during the Great Depression and also the last of the blue people of Kentucky, marked out as different by the strange blue hue of their skin.  This story had a lot of potential, and Cussy Mary is definitely a lovable character, but the story felt too shallow, electing to cover a fantastic range of topics instead of digging deep into one or two.  If it had only been about packhorse librarians and blue people, it might have been more satisfying  Instead it covered profound poverty, racism, educational failures, union sentiment, medical experimentation, unexpected love, being true to yourself, and more.  The book is riddled with tragedy, but I didn't know the characters well enough to be affected by it.  Richardson clearly did a lot of research into this time and place and the people who lived there and then.  Unfortunately, it felt like she was so attached to all of the research that nothing was left out and the book felt stretched thin.  Nonetheless, this book is well-loved, so I might just be the odd one out on this one.

is the first book I've ready by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and.....I didn't really like it.  Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, a couple in Nigeria whose happily ever after is dismantled when the two have very different immigration experiences, Ifemelu to the United States and Obinze, illegally, to the UK.  As Ifemelu plans her return to Nigeria and imagines being reunited with Obinze, the story unpacks their histories.  I think this book is Important with a capital I, but as storytelling goes, it fell flat.  I appreciated the many insights into our ingrained white American biases presented within the framework of Ifemelu's blog and experience.  Much of this was very eye opening.  I appreciated, objectively, the high quality of the writing.  My biggest problem with the book may have been that I just didn't like Ifemelu.  Her social circles in the U.S., both white and black, were irritatingly pretentious.  Her self-destructive tendencies were aggravating.  I grew weary of the story not seeming so much a story as a message I was supposed to be getting.  I think there's a good non-fiction book hiding in this fictional narrative, and I wish that had been the focus.  I look forward to reading other books by this author, but this one didn't quite work for me.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

The Switch by Beth O'Leary

On my short list of good things about 2020 (it's a very short list), I'd have to say audiobooks would rank pretty high.  Audiobooks are kind of a recent thing for me.  I always thought they felt a little bit "cheaty" as reading goes, plus, I just don't seem to absorb things as well when I listen to them as when I read them, so I always figured a good story would be lost on me if I listened to it.  While they'll never replace my love of the written word, I've really appreciated listening to stories this year.  When you're living alone through a pandemic, it's kind of nice to hear another voice.  It's even nicer when the other voice is reading you an absorbing story.  

I snagged a "listen now" copy of The Switch by Beth O'Leary from NetGalley.  I tend to try to make my audio listening a little lighter weight than my reading because I truly do have the attention span of a flea when listening, particularly when multitasking, which audiobooks were pretty much made for multitasking, no?  Anyhow, The Switch totally fit the bill for me.

Leena Cotton is at a loss when she has a breakdown at a work meeting and is forced to take a 2 month sabbatical.  (Seriously, though, why can't this happen to me?)  Having recently lost her sister to cancer and become alienated from her mother in the process, she can't fathom what she will do with two months where she can't lose herself in work.  Meanwhile, Leena's grandmother, Eileen, has been left by her philandering husband at the age of 79.  She'd love to get back out there and meet a new man, but the dating pool in her small Yorkshire village is, well, puddle-sized.  

When Leena discovers her grandmother's list of eligible bachelors in the village, all of whom have been found wanting, she decides her grandmother should try online dating.  Unfortunately, the online dating landscape has little to offer.  That is, unless Eileen goes to London.  An idea is born, and suddenly Leena and Eileen are swapping lives.  Leena will take over her grandmother's spot on the neighborhood watch committee and handle all of her projects, like planning the May Day festival, while Eileen will try out London life, moving into Leena's flat with Leena's roommates Fitz and Martha.

In alternating point of views, narrated perfectly by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Allison Steadman, the two women navigate the unknown, carving out places for themselves in their new surroundings. Each finds her new life challenging but rewarding, and each brings a little of herself to her new situation and leaves the lives of those around her better for it.  Leena finds herself falling for a handsome country schoolteacher while Eileen has a fling with a West End theater actor only to find that maybe she's looking for love in the wrong place after all.  

The book is filled with quirky, lovable, believable supporting characters, and the two Cotton women are admirable main characters.  While definitely part of the romance genre, The Switch goes deeper to explore the need for genuine human connection among friends and even among strangers while also exploring themes of healing after loss.  The Switch is a a lighthearted but by no means fluffy feel-good novel.  

Highly recommended, especially on audio!

Monday, November 16, 2020

Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland

How old is the oldest book on your physical TBR pile?  Girl in Hyacinth Blue has been on my shelves for thirteen years, at least according to LibraryThing which claims I cataloged it there in 2007.  I'm afraid, it's probably not the most shamefully longsuffering of my neglected TBR.  Happily for it, with a boost from a Litsy challenge, it finally got its moment this year.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a novel in short stories.  I usually find this kind of thing to be a bit of a bait and switch.  When I read a novel, I want it to be a novel.  In my middle age, I've developed an appreciation for short stories that has been hard won over a few decades of not caring for them.  Nonetheless, I generally don't like to be surprised by short stories hiding inside a novel.  Here, though, I'll make an exception because how beautifully they're handled and because of the common thread of the painting around which all of them revolve.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue follows a lost, forgotten Vermeer masterpiece from its painting to the study of the son of a Nazi, only it's done in reverse.  As we follow the painting back in time, we meet a son tortured by his father's war crimes so dissonant with the man he knows, a Jewish girl making a sacrifice for safety that is hardly guaranteed, a couple troubled by a husband's former love, a philandering wife matched by a philandering husband, a couple who rescues a baby during a flood, and on back to Vermeer himself struggling to make ends meet and wondering if he shouldn't take a proper job to provide for his impoverished family but unable to turn away from the transcendent beauty that draws his eye and his talent always back to painting.

Though a slim book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue in its journey through history is filled with the richness of human experience and captures all manner of people who themselves are captured by the beauty of  a painting of a girl they will never know and yet feel a kind of kinship with.  The idea of following a painting through history is fascinating on its own.  Vreeland's execution of it is what is truly sublime.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Here we have another book club failure.  All in all, I've been more dedicated to my book group than usual this year, having attended more than once and actually participated in the conversation both times.  In case anybody was wondering, I seem to have no problem reading books or writing about them, but sometimes in conversation I find myself having little to say.  I read And Then There Were None with the intention of attending book group for a record breaking third time time this year.  Alas, it was not to be.  After a wretched week of stressing about work and the world, instead of going to book group, I went full introvert and stayed home to recharge.  Nonetheless, I can still lay claim to having enjoyed the book.

And Then There Were None is among the types of Christies I find most enjoyable.  Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are all well and good, but I've always had a soft spot for the detective-less Christie mystery, and this is one.  The beginning of the book finds ten strangers en route to a mansion on the much talked about Soldier Island.  The island has, of late, been purchases by.....well, nobody knows exactly who it's been purchased by, despite it being a popular piece of gossip in all the papers.  The unhappy ten have been summoned by a Mr. and Mrs. Owen either for work or leisure to the mysterious island.  Naturally, the Owens fail to turn up, but a murderer certainly does.

As the body count rises, Christie maintains the atmosphere of suffocating, terrifying paranoia among the remaining all without tipping her hand as to who the murderer may be.  Indeed, the mystery appears to come to an end without any proper revealing of the killer who has eluded the police's most diligent efforts to unpack the grisly scene at the island.  Then an epilogue ensues that is essentially the magician unveiling just how the trick was done.

Reading an Agatha Christie mystery is about the most fun one can have where murder is involved.  Full of fast paced dialog and the human foibles of its characters all wrapped up in a fast paced thriller, And Then There Were None kept me up late reading.  The story gave me just the faintest hunch of who the murderer could be but otherwise I was as in the dark as each of the hapless Soldier Island visitors.  As murder mysteries go, Christie always delivers.

Monday, May 18, 2020

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

When Vanessa Wye returns to her private boarding school, Browick, for sophomore year, she's uncertain what the year holds for her.  Having lost the friendship of her freshman year roommate, Jenny, she's starting anew and alone.  A scholarship kid at a wealthy school with high expectations, she's easily overwhelmed by the work and embittered at the loss of her friend.  Isolated and vulnerable, she welcomes a newfound connection with her English teach, Mr. Strane, who singles her out, gives her extracurricular books to read, and makes her feel special.  While it seems to begin innocently enough, Strane's behavior soon begins to edge into the inappropriate, oddly personal compliments, stolen touches, and eventually a whole illicit relationship.  But it's what Vanessa wants....or so she thinks.  As the pair's relationship escalates to an inconceivable pedophilic fantasy, Vanessa, believing herself in love, puts everything on the line.

As soon as he says this, I become someone somebody else is in love with, and not just some dumb boy my own age but a man who has already lived an entire life, who has done and seen so much and still thinks I'm worthy of his love.  I feel forced over a threshold, thrust out of my ordinary life into a place where it's possible for grown men to be so pathetically in love with me they fall at my feet.

In alternating chapters, we get a glimpse of Vanessa's adult life as she watches events unfold when another student of Strane's reports his sexual misconduct.  Suddenly, Vanessa's life is in the spotlight as Taylor searches for allies to speak out against Strane, but Vanessa doesn't see herself as a victim, never has.  Her life tells a different story, though.  Struggling under the weight of her wasted potential and broken relationships, Vanessa finally begins to plumb the depths of the damage Strane's attentions did to her.

I think it will be just one of many unbelievable things about 2020 that one of my favorite books of the year will be one about a young girl and the pedophile she loves, but here we are.  My Dark Vanessa is as compelling as it is hard to read.  Vanessa is a marvelously drawn, emotionally complex character, clearly damaged by her high school relationship with Mr. Strane that reaches its tentacles into her adult life, and yet stubbornly unwilling to think of herself or be thought of as a victim.  Russell has achieved that fragile balance of creating a character who really isn't likeable and creating a character who still draws readers' sympathy and hope for redemption.  My Dark Vanessa is a vivid and layered story about power, consent, abuse, victimhood and the far-reaching repercussions of a dark and twisted "romance" that should never have been.  Highly recommended, if you have a stomach for the subject matter.

Copy provided to me by the publisher in exchange for review consideration.