Sunday, August 8, 2021

Backlist Bonanza: Reviewlettes

This summer has found me reading books that have been on my shelves seemingly forever, with mixed results.  Some I wish I head read long ago.  Others I wish hadn't been burdening my shelves with for so long.  Here are my takes on a few of them.

In Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin imagines what is ultimately a pretty dull afterlife.  When people die, they arrive in Elsewhere on a boat and age in reverse until they are born again to a new life.  Liz Hall, a fifteen-year-old struck by a cab on her way to the mall, arrives in Elsewhere thinking she's dreaming.  When it becomes apparent that she is not, she has terrible trouble adjusting to her new reality, opting to spend all her time looking back at her old life, even tracking the hit-and-run driver who took her life rather than  embracing the chance to get to know the grandmother she never met in life.  I wish more time had been  spent on fleshing out Zevin's creative afterlife than on transporting Liz's teenage angst into the great beyond.  Liz read a little a young for her age, and her Elsewhere love story as well her grandmother's willingness to enable her destructive behavior seemed unrealistic.  All in all, Elsewhere was a quick read about learning to live and love in the now, but ultimately I think it was a little too "young" for this adult reader.

The Bright Forever
turns a lens on the would-be idyllic small town of Tower Hill, Indiana and reveals its dirty underbelly when Katie Mackey, daughter of the owner of the town's glass making factory, goes missing in early July.  Told from the perspective of high school math teach Henry Dees; his neighbors, Clare and Ray Wright; and Katie's older brother Gilley, The Bright Forever taps into all the secrets that lurk beneath this small town idyll.  Junior and Patsy Mackey would do anything for family, except one thing.  Mr. Dees loves Katie a little a too much.  Ray Wright has a thing for pills.  Clare can't bear to be alone, and Gilley will never forget the night he ratted out his sister for not taking her library books back, because she never came back from the library.

This is a sad story and one that will make readers uncomfortable at every turn.  It's at once a riveting page turner with a mystery waiting to be revealed, but also difficult to turn those pages as the flawed characters reflect on their troubling secrets and the pain that brought them to the fateful summer of Katie's disappearance.  Despite the challenge of reading a book with such dark subject matter, The Bright Forever is redeemed by Martin's skilled depiction of summer, small town life and his sensitive handling of his deeply flawed characters.  Never are you inclined to like them, but in Martin's capable hands, these characters become people we can understand.

In The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff reimagines the life of Ann Eliza Young, one of Brigham Young's many wives, who left the Mormon church and set in motion the dismantling of Mormon polygamy.  Interwoven with Ann Eliza's story is the modern-day story of Jordan Scott, who was exiled from his town and church, an isolated fundamentalist enclave where polygamy still thrives.  Returning to help his mother, a 19th wife who stands accused of murdering her husband, Jordan is forced to come to terms with the life that he was made to leave behind and the hold it has on his mother.  

If I had one complaint to make about The 19th Wife, it would be that it goes on just a little too long.  At the beginning of the novel, the pages flew by, but the ending chapters dragged a bit and left me the slightest bit unsatisfied.  Aside from that minor quibble, The 19th Wife stands out as a meticulously researched and well-told historical novel.  Ebershoff reinvents Ann Eliza Young and her family using a variety of fabricated primary sources that add up to a compelling picture of the very human history of the Mormon church and the controversial figure of Ann Eliza.  Jordan's story adds a bit of mystery to the mix as he attempts to unearth the truth about who killed his father.  In the process, he reveals the lasting trauma of living in a polygamous society, the very expected trauma that seemed to drive Ann Eliza to speak out about it so many years before, a trauma so wrapped up with love, family, and blind faith, that it is difficult to understand, much less escape.    

Monday, April 12, 2021

The Syrena Legacy Series by Anna Banks

When Emma literally stumbles into a violet-eyed stranger on the boardwalk of a Florida beach, it's definitely not love at first sight, more like humiliation at first sight.  The encounter is quickly forgotten, though, when Emma's beach trip ends in tragedy.  That is, until the handsome stranger shows up again in her New Jersey high school classroom.  

Galen is a Triton royal given leave to live life on land and be a Syrena ambassador to humans.  When he spots Emma using a gift that has disappeared from among his people, he can't believe it, and he really can't believe she doesn't know she even has the gift.  Determined to find out her secret, he follows her home, but he has to admit that it's not the importance of Emma's gift to his people that attracts him to her.

Unbelievable hijinks ensue as Emma and Galen's relationship blossoms from suspicion to love.  Soon Emma is exploring a world she never knew existed and is suddenly plunged into the dramas of mermaid-kind that strike even closer to home than she could ever have imagined.  

When I'm looking for something a little lightweight and fast reading to enjoy, YA romance is what I

reach for.  The premise of Of Poseidon is a little absurd, but Banks sells it and I couldn't pull myself away from Emma and Galen and their star-crossed romance.  The main character's irritating penchant for childish verbal ticks ("ohmysweetgoodness" or "fan-flipping-tastic") tested my patience, but the fast moving plot saved me from putting this down.  The second book, Of Triton, is arguably the better of the two with Emma maturing into her new life and Galen's chapters revealing more of the Syrena world.  

The second book has a satisfying conclusion, while the third, Of Neptune, shoots off in a new direction, a direction with an overprotective love interest and the beginnings of what looked to be an irritating love triangle, not to mention the return of "ohmysweetgoodness."  I decided within 60 pages that while Banks wrote a trilogy, I was happy to leave this series a duology.  

Monday, April 5, 2021

Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

On the afternoon of her daughter Ruby's high school graduation, Flora Mancini, while hunting for an old family photo, stumbles across a lost wedding ring, a ring that was supposed to have been lost and forgotten at the bottom of a pond for years, but somehow has reappeared.  The discovery of the ring throws Flora's life into turmoil and casts her history with her husband, Julian, into doubt.  Flora always thought she and Julian were the real thing, now she's not so sure.  Over the course of the book, Sweeney weaves the present with the past of Flora and Julian and their friends Margot and David, creating a rich drama of family and relationships that comes to a reckoning at the very place where the photo that lead Flora to the ring was taken. 

Poor Good Company seems to be having a rough go of it in Goodreads reviews.  People seem to think it doesn't live up Sweeney's smash hit debut, The Nest.  Lucky for Good Company, I suck at reading books, so I haven't even read the much-acclaimed The Nest, so Good Company gets to stand on its own merits.  And it has them!  Frankly, the way that the plot unfolded, acquainting readers with the characters and the histories by spending time with each character reminded me a bit of Maggie O'Farrell's style, which I love.  I love a story with layers that slowly pulls them off until the characters and their stories feel real, and I long for their redemption as much as they do. I love the slow burn of this style, and I love the payoff, the moment of redemption or the moment when that redemption at least seems possible.  I think Good Company accomplishes that without making things that are hard seem too easy.  

In addition to what Sweeney does with her characters, I appreciated her talent for setting the scenes.  The book takes place primarily in three places - California, where Flora and Julian are finally both making a good living after years as struggling theater actors; New York City, where both characters got their start in the theater; and Stoneham, an idyllic upstate New York farm that hosts a yearly outdoor, avant-garde theater production.  Sweeney captures the languor of a countryside summer interrupted by the excitement of a theater production.  She brings to life a California that was meant to be a temporary stop for Flora and Julia, but a sun-washed spot where they made a home.  New York and the theater scene is arguably the most well-drawn, and Sweeney captures the excitement of the theater people with big ideas trying to make them work and eke out a living, the scraping and struggling for roles, the living in a miniscule apartment, but also the magic of when it all just works.  

I enjoyed Sweeney's sophomore effort, and if it is, indeed, the lesser of her two novels, then I imagine I'll quite love The Nest!  

(Disclaimer: Review copy received from the publisher via NetGalley, but as ever, all bookish opinions are rendered honestly.) 

Monday, February 1, 2021

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

I'm a total sucker for World War II historical fiction, so when the publisher offered me a Netgalley of The Paris Library, it was a no brainer.

We meet Odile Souchet in two stages of life, first in 1939 in Paris, where she has just accepted her dream job at the the American Library in Paris and again in 1980s Montana where a lonely girl named Lily wonders what brought her unusual neighbor to her tiny country town all the way from France.  Young Odile is emotional and impetuous and entirely unprepared for the years of war and occupation that soon overtake her beloved Paris.  Even as she clings to normalcy at the library, where she befriends a rich and quirky cast of characters, her world is changing.  Determined to keep providing books to soldiers and Parisians alike, the staff of the library bands together to stay open, daring even to deliver books to their Jewish subscribers who have been ordered by the occupying Nazis not to enter.

As the war wears on, Odile finds that she doesn't know anyone as well as she thought she did, including herself.  Slowly Odile's eyes are opened to the cold realities of the wartime world even as her blinders to her own privilege fall away.  Unfortunately, when stubborn, outspoken Odile, causes irreparable harm with just a few thoughtless words, her life takes on an unexpected trajectory.

In more modern day Montana, Lily endures a tragedy at home and takes refuge in her newfound friendship with the town's outsider, Odile.  Together the two will finish the learning the same lessons that Odile began to learn in wartime Paris.  Together they'll learn the power of forgiveness and what it means to truly put yourself in someone else's shoes.

Admittedly, I've been a little tired of the dual narrative historical fiction with a modern day perspective thrown in, but I warmed to it over the course of the book.  What's remarkable about this plot device in The Paris Library is that the modern day perspective really pulls its own weight and doesn't become an interlude to hurry away from to get back to the historical story.  Lily is an honest, genuine character and her budding friendship with and curiosity about Odile provides a generous framework for the historical story.

Charles beautifully brings to life her Paris Library characters who are based on the real people who heroically kept the library open through the years of the occupation.  She excellently captures their comradery and the magic of the place Odile loves so much.  Odile herself is a bewilderingly naive character that it took me a little work to like, but as the story proceeds, her coming of age, while slow, is ultimately believable.

 The Paris Library should satisfy World War II fiction lovers and book lovers alike.

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.