Monday, April 23, 2018

Red Clocks

Title:  Red Clocks
Author:  Leni Zumas
Publication Information:  Lee Bourdeaux Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0316434817 / 978-0316434812

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Born in 1841 on a Faroese sheep farm, The polar explorer was raised on a farm near In the North Atlantic Sea, between Scotland and Iceland, on an island with more sheep than people, a shepherd's wife gave birth to a child who would grow up to study ice."

Favorite Quote:  "... her okayness with being by herself - ordinary, unheroic okayness - does not need to justify itself to her father. The feeling is hers. She can simply feel okay and not explain it, or apologize for it, or concoct arguments against the argument that she doesn't truly feel content and is deluding herself in self-protection."

The theme of this book is women and the right to choose. The place is a small fishing town in the state of Oregon in the United States. The time is current day. The premise is that a Personhood Amendment grants the rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo. Many medical practises such as abortion and in-vitro fertilization are seen to infringe on that amendment and deemed illegal. The rights of adoption are available only to those deemed a two-parent, typical family.

In this setting, the lives of five women present five different perspectives on these laws. Interestingly, the one viewpoint not presented is of a woman who would believe in the validity of these tenets. In other words, this book is clear on which side of the question it stands on.

Ro, the biographer, is a single woman trying to have a baby on her own. Susan, the mother, is already a mother to two and is looking for life beyond that role. Mattie, the daughter, is a young woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. She is growing up with loving, adoptive parent, and her birth story adds another facet to this conversation. Gin, the mender, is a hermit-like herbalist who is accused of being a modern-day witch. The fifth woman of this story is the anomaly. Eivør Minervudottir, the explorer, is the fictional nineteenth century polar explorer whose biography Ro is researching.

I appreciate the premise of this book. The conversation is an important one. I also appreciate the surreal environment the book manages to create. The surreal feeling mirrors the real life drama today's political environment has become. However, I am not entirely sure what to make of this book. The picture it conjures up is at the same time modern and medieval. It is at the same time plucked from the political headlines and post-apocalyptic and dystopian. The characters are given universal roles, and yet specific individuals with actual names and with lives that intersect.

I can point to two primary reasons why I end up not being the right reader for this book. First is the abundance of graphic descriptions. I understand that this is a feminist book about abortion. However, the same point can be made without medical and physical descriptions and the erotic fantasies and memories.

Second, the narrative of the book gets in the way of the story. This book feels like it is trying too hard to be literary and thought provoking. The use universal titles for the characters doesn't work for they are also given names. The jumping of the story line from one perspective to another with periodic, seemingly random jumps make it challenging to keep engaged. The writing style with occasional phrases and single words thrown in for good measure jars the story. I am left focusing on how the book is written rather than the story being told.

My parting thought as I leave this book ... I hope this remains fiction, although at times reality seems disturbingly close to this fiction.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Winter

Title:  Winter
Author:  Ali Smith
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1101870753 / 978-1101870754

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "God was dead:  to begin with."

Favorite Quote:  "The internet. A cesspit of naivety and vitriol ... Well, the naivety and the vitriol were always there all along ... The internet's just made them both more visible."

I pick this book, having heard about Ali Smith and her work. She is an acclaimed, award-nominated, and award-winning author. This book is the second in a quartet, each featuring a season as a title. The first was Autumn which I have not read, although I believe the books stand alone. I am, however, intrigued that the quartet begins with autumn rather than spring in keeping with the symbolism of the seasons. Metaphorically, to me, the seasons symbolize the cycle and phases of life. I expect a somewhat philosophical read about family, about aging, about ... well life. I expect to leave the book with a lot to think about.

I suppose that does happen to some extent, unfortunately just not in a good way. I am left thinking about the book, but more puzzled than moved. The book description reads, "Ali Smith’s shapeshifting Winter casts a warm, wise, merry and uncompromising eye over a post-truth era in a story rooted in history and memory and with a taproot deep in the evergreens, art and love." What does that even mean?

That is about my summation of the book. I am not entirely sure what it's about. On its surface, the book is about a small, dysfunctional family gathering for Christmas. However, it begins with a rather disturbing image of the main character who sees a floating head. (For those who may remember, it made me think of the sun in the children's show The Teletubbies! Pretty sure that is not the intention!) Once seen, that image is pretty hard to unsee.

Unfortunately, for me, the book does not improve upon acquaintance. I never quite grasp the characters or the plot; therefore, I never quite care. The writing style is a stream of consciousness going from thought to thought to thought. The very short, choppy sentences add to that feel by creating a staccato beat to the book. The lack of punctuation for dialogue makes this challenge even greater. At times, the writing itself has a hypnotic, poetic feel to it. However, it is prose, and I am left looking for the story in this "post-truth" narrative.

Perhaps, that search is why I am not the reader for this book. In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries named "post-truth" its international word of the year. The dictionary defines the word as "relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." Further explanation provides that the use of "post" does not imply a timeline of after but rather the idea of irrelevance. More often than not, the word is sadly used in the context of politics. This book puts it in the context of a family dynamic.

So, does a "post-truth" era story pulls more to emotions and beliefs rather than a plot for facts? I am not really sure, but that too can work to create a beautiful reading experience. As a reader, I respond to emotion and conviction in a book. Unfortunately, this book does not elicit that reaction either. So, for me, no real plot and no real emotion come through, and I struggle to the end, still searching for either.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Sea Beast Takes a Lover

Title:  The Sea Beast Takes a Lover
Author:  Michael Andreasen
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  1101986611 / 978-1101986615

Book Source:   I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The night before we load you into the crate and watch as the helicopter carries you off to the undisclosed location to drop you into the Atlantic Ocean, we eat dinner as a family."

Favorite Quote:  "Why is time travel important? The answer seems simple enough to the time travelers:  Time travel is important because it is the most objective way to study the unfolding of past events as they actually happened, to cut out history's middleman, with his incomplete record and his limited and hopelessly biased perspective, and go straight to the source - history in its rawest, purest form."

The sea beast in this book is an actual sea creature. The lover is a ship that the sea beast holds firm in its grasp. Choosing a book with such a title, I expect the unusual. This collection of stories certainly delivers. A society that ships off the elderly as if on an adventure to a new life. A girl without a head cared for by her younger sibling. An alien abduction. A saint who carries her completely severed but completely preserved hand on a plate. A boy who becomes a ticking time bomb. And more.

Aspects of some stories are truly disturbing. Reader beware. Different stories center on disturbing ideas - euthanasia of the elderly, sexual assault, infidelity, pornography, abuse, and others. This is by no stretch of the imagination a comfortable book to read. In fact, it is memorable for its discomfort and its completely surreal feel. Another warning - the stories don't really offer a judgment or closure or ending to some of these issues. The stories flow open-ended, more of a moment in time rather than a plot. The content of the stories in this collection ranges from the bizarre to the more bizarre.

Looking below the surface of the stories though, common themes do emerge. Each story seems to find its anchor in a character's need to be loved. Even the sea beast is looking for love. It destroys others in that path, but the need is for love. In these completely unrealistic, science-fiction like stories, the author manages to capture the very human emotion in both its intensity and occasionally its destructive path. It is this intensity that keeps me reading.

Like all collections, the individual stories can be individually reviewed. My reaction to each story depends on the balance between the bizarre and sometimes disturbing content and the very real and sometimes touching human emotions. In that respect, my favorite is the first one which is about the role of the elderly and this society's approach to dealing with the end of life.

My reaction also depends on the visual image the story conjures, and how disturbing that image is. The cover of the book is of course the sea beast; it is more a flight of imagination than a disturbing reality. The image I wish I could unsee is the girl without a head and the disturbing events of that story; that leaves images of the very real abuse and assault against a disabled person that could be and has been found in the news headlines.

All of this is a testament to the writing. The book contains no images except for the cover image. The writing, however, leaves a very visual impact. The fact that the books paints these pictures within the few pages of a short story is even more impressive for each story is completely different in its imagery. This is Michael Andreasen's first book. For this aspect of his writing, I may try whatever he writes next.

At the end, I am not entirely sure how I feel about this book. However, I will remember it for its weirdness.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, April 2, 2018

The Ghost Notebooks

Title:  The Ghost Notebooks
Author:  Ben Dolnick
Publication Information:  Pantheon. 2018. 256 pages.
ISBN:  1101871091 / 978-1101871096

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Let me explain, first of all, that I was never one of those people who believed, even a little bit, in ghosts."

Favorite Quote:  "This is a thing that I'm sure is obvious to everyone else but is never-endingly astonishing to me:  that every change, every life, consists of nothing but a series of days."

I am still trying to make up my mind exactly what this book is about - a ghost story or a book about mental illness or a book about the profound impact of grief. The book is all of the above, but never quite comes to a single focal point. It presents the questions but not the answers.

Nick and Hannah are a young couple, struggling in New York City.  Their relationship is filled with disagreement. Hannah has lost her job, and Nick is a musician whose work is not tied to his location. An online job ad leads Hannah to a new job, and both of them to what they hope will be a new beginning.

The new job leads them to the Wright Historic Home in Hibernia, New York. Nick and Hannah become the live-in caretakers and curators of this museum. The museum preserves the legacy of writer and philosopher Edmund Wright and his family. More importantly, the house is said to be haunted for after the tragic death of the Wright's eldest son, Edmund Wright descended more and more into a study of the occult and the after life. The house has a history beyond what is documented in the preserved artifacts.

The adventure comes as a new beginning for Nick and Hannah; there is definitely a honeymoon period at the beginning. They rediscover each other, and find joy in the exploration of their new home. The biggest clue as to what's coming is the reaction of Hannah's parents to the move. They are distraught and warn Nick to watch over Hannah, who has struggled with mental illness. She is, in fact, on medication, to regulate her well being. Both Nick and Hannah ignore the warnings and move forward.

Hannah's struggles are summarized in the book. "Curiosities slide into idle fears slide into terrors without there being any clear points of demarcation." Nick's struggles too are captured in one statement. "There's an impulse, I've noticed, ... to comb through your memory for moments - the more recent the better - when that person last seemed perfectly normal. I just had dinner with him last week. I just got an email from  her the other day. Part awe, I think, and part protest:  but she was just here."

The story of grief and ghosts in this book competes with the story of mental illness. The two overlap and connect, of course; grief impacts our mental and physical well being. However, this book is a bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum.

I am not sure what to take away from this book. Would Edmund Wright have studied the afterlife and been visited by ghosts if his son's tragic death had not occurred? Did his profound grief influence what came next for the Wright family? Was Hannah susceptible to the stories of the house because she struggled with her own mental health? Was is ghosts or was it Hannah's fragile state of mind that led to the events of the book? How much did grief impact Nick's own state of mind? Did he believe in the ghosts or did he want to believe as a means of coping with grief?

The book does not provide the answers; as such, it is neither completely a ghost story or completely a book about mental health. However, it does presents the questions in a slow-paced, atmospheric manner to allow the reader plenty of the time to contemplate their own answers.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Blood Sisters

Title:  Blood Sisters
Author:  Jane Corry
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0525522182 / 978-0525522188

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Careful"

Favorite Quote:  "... it's the cuts we hide inside that really do the damage. They rub and they niggle and they bruise and they bleed. And as the pain and anxiety grow in your head, they become far more dangerous than an visible open wound. Until eventually, you have to do something."

"Three little girls set off to school one sunny morning. Within an hour, one of them is dead." So begins the description of Blood Sisters. It makes me want to know more.

The year is 2001. Sisters Alison and Kitty are walking to school with Vanessa. Sisterly rivalry is embedded in Alison and Kitty's relationship. "Love is close to hate when it comes to sisters. You're as close as two humans can be. You came from the same womb. The same background. Even if you're poles apart, mentally. That's why it hurts so much when your sister is unkind. It's as though part of you is turning against yourself."

A car accident leaves Alison with minor physical injuries, Kitty with a traumatic brain injury, and Vanessa dead. The emotional scars, of course, run much deeper. From the beginning of the book, a realization exists that deeper, darker secrets lie behind what led up to that day and what truly happened the day of the accident.

Fast forward to present day. Alison is an art teacher, barely making ends meet and barely able to hang on to a semblance of a life. Kitty's brain injury has left her with extensive brain damage, which manifests itself in so many ways including violent tendencies and an inability to speak. She lives in an institution. Yet, now, the past seems to be finding its way to the present for both Alison and Kitty.

With this setup, the books gradually peels back the layers of this mystery. The book goes back and forth between 2001 and 2016. The story of the past builds to what actually happened the day of the accident and why it has ramifications for Alison and Kitty now. The story of the presents leads Alison to a job as an art teacher at a prison (yes, a prison). Kitty's life, such as it is, is disturbed by a face that triggers memories that Kitty cannot quite hold on to and cannot communicate. These are the "dots" the story eventually connects at its dramatic conclusion.

Of the two sisters, Kitty's character is by far the more interesting one. As children, Kitty is the stronger personality and most definitely the "mean girl". It seems that from the time of the accident, Alison seems to remain at that point in her life. As an adult, Alison is portrayed very much as weak. Her decisions and thoughts portray a victim. Kitty, nonverbal and institutionalized, shows more fight.

Mind you, the facts of the mystery itself are implausible and extreme. The premise itself is based on a sibling rivalry that goes so far beyond just rivalry to some cruel actions. Further, the sequence of events that lead to the eventual solution are beyond believable. No spoilers but let's just say the events are memorable in their implausibility.

The interesting thing is that if you can put that aside, the book is very readable. Because I could not have guessed where this book ends up, it does keep me turning the pages to see how this is all going to turn out. In that, the book successfully maintains its suspense which, I suppose, is the point.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Where The Line Bleeds

Title:  Where The Line Bleeds
Author:  Jesmyn Ward
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2018 (reprint edition). 256 pages.
ISBN:  1501164333 / 978-1501164330

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The river was young and small."

Favorite Quote:  "Everyday, you choose."

Where the Line Bleeds is actually Jesmyn Ward's first book. Initially published in 2008, the book is being reissued this year. My guess is the reissue stems from the success of Jesmyn Ward's later works, which have won countless awards including the National Book Award. The author Jesmyn Ward is also a recipient of the 2017 MacArthur Fellowship (aka the MacArthur Genius Grant) for "exploring the enduring bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans of the rural South against a landscape of circumscribed possibilities and lost potential."

Where The Line Bleeds brings the reader once again to the world of these communities of the South. This book is the story of two brothers. Twins Joshua and Cristophe DeLisle live in the fictional small, rural community of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. They have lost their father to drug addiction; although he is still alive and still in the area, he is not a father to the boys. Their mother left them to the care of others and went off to the city to seek a different life. She does visit and provide some financial support but on her terms and at her convenience. The boys' anchor is their grandmother, who has raised them with love and discipline and a sense of right and wrong.

The book opens as Joshua and Cristophe are about to graduate high school. College and a further education are beyond the realm of possibility. Leaving Bois Sauvage is not possible for the boys will not leave their grandmother. She has cared for them all their lives; it is now their responsibility to care for her. The only possibilities seem to be a handful of local jobs - the McDonald's, the Walmart, and the docks. Honest jobs for honest pay. The boys try, putting in applications everywhere they can think of.

A cousin throws out one more possibility - drugs and drug dealing. It is presented as a short-term solution to earn quick money, achieve some stability, and then get out when a job presents itself. As days pass, Joshua gets an opportunity for a job at the docks. It is manual labor and long days, but there is an honest paycheck at the end of it. This job is cause for celebration and pride. He did it. He has a job. Unfortunately, Cristophe is not given the same opportunity, and a divide appears between the brothers. Cristophe chooses a different path for he has to earn money to help support his grandmother and keep up with his brother.

As in her other books, Jesmyn Ward's writing submerges me completely into this small community, into the love, the poverty, and the desperation that fills the lives here. This book does not have the intensity of Men We Reaped and Sing Unburied Sing. It is a quieter story of the day to day realities of these communities.

The unspoken and unwritten heart of this book is the unfathomable reality that these young men see these limited paths as their only choices. That sense of hopelessness and that lack of possibility is their reality. Part of me goes through the entire book with a lack of understanding. Why not dream bigger? Why choose this path? Why not college? Why not? The realization hits hard that this is the reality that Jesmyn Ward's books portray. The resources and the potential so many of us take for granted in the United States still are not open and available to all of the nation's citizens. Once again, Jesmyn Ward's writing communicates a powerful message.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Everything Here is Beautiful

Title:  Everything Here is Beautiful
Author:  Mira T. Lee
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0735221960 / 978-0735221963

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley and the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "A summer day in New Jersey."

Favorite Quote:  "How trite, but true:  things change. Some all at once, some over a lifetime."

Everything Here is Beautiful a story of the bond between sisters; Miranda and Lucia are sisters who suffer many losses in their young lives. The book is also is the story of immigrants as the main characters are Chinese-Americans and other relationships in the book lead to other immigrant stories. Ultimately, though, this book is a story of mental illness and its far reaching effects on the individuals and those who love them. In that, this book is a heartbreaking story. Lucia lives with her illness and its ramifications, and the people who love her want to help and try to help but are often left watching helplessly.

Miranda and Lucia lose their mother at a young age. Miranda is the older one; Lucia is the unpredictable and impulsive one. Miranda feels responsible for her younger sister, but at times, is forced to walk away to preserve her own life. Love for her sister keeps drawing her back, trying to help.

Lucia's relationships lead to many who love her and want to care for her. One leads her to Manny, a young Latino man. He cares for Lucia and their baby daughter. Miranda and Lucia's Chinese heritage and Lucia's relationship with Manny bring the conversation surrounding immigration - both legal and illegal - into this book. The supporting characters carry this story line further.

Lucia's story is the story of mental illness. Her character and behavior changes diametrically due to her illness and due to her choices about medication. She manages loving relationships and pushes those same people away. She achieves some stability and then destroys it with actions driven by her illness. This is the heartbreak both for her and for those who love her. So, why then, does the book not resonate more emotionally with me? Several reasons.

The narration of the book moves between time periods and narrators, making the story at times difficult to follow and the emotional thread even harder to hold on to. I suppose the intent is to capture the impact of mental illness from different perspectives and to document the emotional toll on the caregivers. Unfortunately, the number of jumps in time and perspective seem just too many.

The bond between sisters is a key element of this book; yet, for most of the book, a great distance exists between the sisters. The book follows Lucia with Miranda appearing at the need arises. Perhaps, that is indicative of the relationship due to Lucia's illness. However, as a reader, the strong bond needs to be fully visible and established for the resulting distance to have impact.

The story of immigration becomes a focal point in the book, distracting from and competing with the depiction of Lucia's story. The book introduces the struggles of Miranda and Lucia's mother as a single parent and a new immigrant. With Manny and his friends, the book goes into the fears of those without legal immigrant status to the point of incidents with law enforcement and the resulting consequences. While these are important issues, they are not really part of the story of Lucia's illness.

For these reasons, a potentially powerful book about mental illness and its impacts conveys the idea but not its full emotional impact.


Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.