Monday, July 29, 2019

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

I had such high hopes for this book at the start.  The Chelsea Girls gets off to a very fast-paced start as Hazel, a perennial Broadway understudy lands in Italy to join the USO Tour, and she is catapulted immediately onto the stage.  The action doesn't let up as Hazel and her new friend Maxine find themselves coming to the aid of a German boy suspected of being a spy.  Hazel and Maxine's days with the USO tour are rendered with the sort of alternating mystique and heartbreak that you might expect of adventures in a new place, but one that is broken by war.

However, when the war ends and the two return to the states - Maxine to a burgeoning career in Hollywood and Hazel to New York City and her mother's oppressive disappointment, the story seems to lose some of its spark.  The Chelsea Hotel and its denizens are well-wrought but Hazel's entrance onto the scene and her "inspired" career in writing and directing is too easily come by to the point of feeling contrived.

The two friends reunite to stage Hazel's Broadway debut, but there are forces at work that stand to rob Hazel of her fifteen minutes of fame.  The communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee puts Hazel in a different kind of spotlight, and leading lady Maxine's behavior becomes more and more bizarre until everything comes to a head on opening night.  Unfortunately, both female main characters seem to grow more wooden instead of less as the story progresses.  Hazel's responses to her circumstances seem to be ill-placed, not occurring when would seem natural but being delayed and then awkwardly inserted for dramatic effect.

Despite its failings, though, The Chelsea Girls successfully tackles an era of history that is often glossed over.  Davis captures the paranoia running rampant in politics during the McCarthy era, the fear that an offhand remark could ruin a life, and the witch trial-esque interrogations where the only option seemed to be to name names or be taken to be a communist yourself.  Between that and a well timed twist that I definitely wasn't expecting, I'd still recommend this book.

(Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I read voraciously when I was a kid.  I miss younger me and how easy it was for me to get engrossed in a book and the admirable pace I could devour them.  The Westing Game was one of my very favorite books read, of the very many books I was capable of reading back then, and so when I happened across a copy, I wanted to see if the magic was still there.  Short answer, no, it appears I've aged and my reading tastes have changed a good deal since I was in middle school (shocking, I know!), but it was still fun to revisit one of my old favorites.

As The Westing Game begins, a large group of tenants is moving into their new home, upscale apartment building Sunset Towers. Little do these tenants know, as they come to inhabit their new abode, that their being brought together is anything but coincidental.  On a hill near Sunset Towers lives the mysterious Samuel Westing, paper magnate and the town's namesake.  Well, at least he did live there until his life was ended by some nefarious means.  From beyond the grave, however, Mr. Westing wants to play a game of inheritances, one that will reveal his murderer is too close for comfort.  The Sunset Towers tenants are his heirs, but one is also a murderer, and only one will win Mr. Westing's game and a staggering inheritance.

What ensues is a fast-paced mystery with a 16 murder suspects who each have their own secrets.  Younger me would have loved the many moving parts and the elaborate puzzle Raskin creates.  Even having at one point read the outcome, I couldn't guess at the truth.  Older me was a little baffled by the shear abundance of characters. In such a short book, it feels impossible to get a picture of any of them that is more than the briefest of caricatures.  Older me prefers character development over a briskly moving plot, apparently.

Nonetheless, The Westing Game is a classic of children's literature, and it's aged surprisingly well.  To read it, you'd hardly guess it was first published over 40 years ago.  The shin-kicking perennially neglected but good-hearted Turtle Wexler makes a great heroine for kids to root for.  As for the adult characters, it's funny to read this book as an adult and realize how recognizable some of these caricatures are from life - the self-important judge, the single-minded track star, the know-it-all intern, the bashful bride who wanted something more from her life, and the insecure person whose continuing efforts to get noticed by her peers make her that much more forgettable - they're all here.

The Westing Game is a clever, fun book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to a new generation.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Abeo Kata lives a charmed life in Port Masi, a city in the fictional country of Ukemby.  Her mother was a model and her father is a well-compensated employee of the government treasury.  After her grandfather dies and her father brings her widowed grandmother to live with the family in Port Masi, Abeo's perfect childhood begins to crumble.  Her father's job is in jeopardy as he stands accused of embezzling, her little brother's health is failing, the family car is broken down, and the house is springing leaks.  While Abeo remains sheltered, her father finds himself being crushed by the weight of this reversal of fortune such that when his mother suggests the old custom of giving Abeo as trokosi to appease the gods and save the rest of his family from ruin, he gives in to the pressure, and Abeo's new, tortured life as a slave of the gods begins.

McFadden's storytelling really shines at the beginning of the book when she is drawing out the idyll of Abeo's childhood.  Well loved and ignorant of the troubles beginning to brew among the adults in her life, Abeo is insulated in her perfect life.  The childlike joy Abeo feels on adventures with her visiting aunt Serafine makes it all the more potent when her perfect life is torn away and she is enslaved at the religious shrine.

After that, things get kind of strange.  McFadden's writing style is blunt and simple.  The book reads quickly moving from plot point to plot point with little embellishment.  In fact, McFadden's writing is so straightforward at times it seems nearly artless.  In the parts where Abeo is enduring torture at the ends of the "priests" at the shrine, this comes across as stark and affecting. However, in later parts of the book, it seems to gloss over the details of Abeo's recovery, oversimplifying the struggle of recovering from unspeakable trauma.

There are parts of this book that really shine.  It is a compelling, unputdownable read on the surface.  However, it doesn't seem to stand up to much reflection.  Under scrutiny, it doesn't seem to come together all that well as a whole and the unusual writing style doesn't seem altogether appropriate to the story being told.

(My copy provided by the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.)

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, much more acclaimed for her memoirs of her childhood in Africa, penned this book after moving to Wyoming.  I recognized her name, loved the cover, and was actually in Wyoming, so I couldn't resist picking this up at a gift shop east of Yellowstone.  I started it on the plane ride home and couldn't put it down.  

I've driven across Wyoming twice in my life now, and there's something amazing about it.  It's still got a wild, untamed sort of feel that I've never experienced anywhere else.  Its sprawling miles of mountains and plains are staggeringly beautiful, but they do have that edge of danger about them too.  While passing through, I really wanted to know what it was like to live there, not just passing through on warm late spring day, but what it would feel like to live there year round.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant gave me a taste of it, and not necessarily a sweet one.  Colton is the young son of an oil rig worker.  Never much good at school and always looking to follow in his father's footsteps, it was practically inevitable that Colton himself would one day end up working on the rigs.  Fuller paints a picture of a mostly happy go lucky, good hearted kid, growing up on the high plains of Wyoming, breaking horses, hunting, camping, going out on the rodeo circuit but ultimately heading to work for big oil.

In this lightly re-imagined telling of Colton's life, Fuller manages to bring out that spirit Wyoming seems to wear on its face, indescribable open spaces and mountain vistas that only thinly disguise a harder edge.  The people she introduces readers to are hard living, hard working, decent types carving a life out in a place that's not quite hospitable.  At the same time, Fuller is writing a scathing indictment of big oil, an industry that dominates Wyoming's economy, preying on a lack of other opportunity and an often undereducated workforce trying to eke out a living.

Fuller expertly draws out the lives of Colton and his family and friends, showing us a big hearted, loyal boy who grew into young family man trying to earn a living to support his wife and kids.  Fuller, just as skillfully, lets readers in on the issues with big oil in Wyoming - the hours, the undertraining, the under-penalized safety violations, and countless underhanded ways of sticking it to a labor pool that doesn't have much other opportunity.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is heavy with foreshadowing.  There isn't a moment in the book, even while Fuller amuses us with Colton's childhood antics, that doesn't carry the weight of looming tragedy.  This book is a true heartbreaker of a story and a powerful call to action against the sort of corporate greed that ruins both landscapes and lives.  Highly recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

I have this super duper bad habit.  I buy ebooks like a fiend, not that I don't buy all books like a fiend, but it's a little too easy to fire off $1.99 to Amazon and have a shiny new ebook at your disposal that you ultimately never read because...time.  I love paper books.  99 times out of 100 I will choose to read one of my overabundance of paper books over picking one of the many very exciting titles sitting neglected on my Kindle.  Honestly, it takes my old friend the LibraryThing "choose a random book from your library" function to even get my eyes on an ebook.  Now, if I only I had all my ebooks cataloged there.  That's a work in progress I'll never hope to catch up with.  Happily, though, the randomizer drew one from ebook obscurity for my first read of the year, and I'm glad because it was a winner.

Natural Flights of the Human Mind introduces two damaged, mysterious characters in a seaside village on the English coast.  The first is Peter Straker, a misfit who lives in an abandoned lighthouse that each day grows closer to falling into the turbulent sea.  Despite having no job, Straker lives a regimented life governed by numbers and routine.  Creeping in around the edges of his carefully managed, solitary life are the voices of the 78.  The 78 are the victims of a mysterious accident Straker believes himself to have caused.

Imogen Doody is a school caretaker determined to live life on her own terms after a young marriage that ended in disaster.  Fortified by a powerful anger that gives her the control over her surroundings that she desperately craves, she's willingly walled off from any human companionships, fending of all advances from her family and would-be friends with her prickly attitude.  Fatefully, she comes into some abandoned property from her long lost godfather.  As she struggles to restore the abandoned cottage, Doody crosses paths with the mysterious Straker, and the two make a connection that sets in motion a series of extraordinary events that neither could have anticipated that sets them both on the path to destruction...or redemption.

This books is definitely a slow burn, carefully drawing out the often unlikeable but all-too-sympathetic main characters, peeling off the layers of their stories little by little, revealing their damaging histories, unpacking the troubled pasts that led them to their solitary, broken lives. The seaside village where the two collide, despite its beauty, is rendered starkly, a place of exile for Straker who hopes the whipping coastal winds will one day be powerful enough to sweep him and his lighthouse away.

If you're the sort of person who's ever wondered what the life of somebody foolishly or even unwittingly responsible for tragedy would be like, Natural Flights of the Human mind is a compelling glimpse into that psyche.  I never expected this one to be a page turner, but I found myself rushing toward the finish desperate to see if the troubled characters Morall had brought me to care for would find redemption.  Flights is a haunting and beautiful story of perils of inadequacy and guilt and the power of love and forgiveness.