Monday, January 15, 2018

Birdcage Walk

Title:  Birdcage Walk
Author:  Helen Dunmore
Publication Information:  Atlantic Monthly Press. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0802127142 / 978-0802127143

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

Opening Sentence:  "If my friends hadn't decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard."

Favorite Quote:  "I saw clearly now that it was  not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives."

British history found itself in tumultuous times in the 1790s. The economy, particularly the building industry was booming. Builders overextended themselves, hoping for big profits from the sale of luxury homes in Bristol. The coming of war and the political divisions that led to that caused the booming industry to collapse and left many a builder in ruins.

This is the historical setting of Birdcage Walk. The main characters portray a piece of this historical puzzle. Lizzie Fawkes is a married woman who struggles against the confines of that marriage. Her parents, particularly her mother, are supporters of the French revolution and considered radicals. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is an up and coming builder who has invested everything he is into a luxury housing project. The revolution and war threaten everything he seeks to achieve.  Lizzie finds herself between the two viewpoints and two loyalties.

In addition to the historical perspective, the book has an even darker, more personal side. John Diner Tredevant wants control, over his business, his home, and particularly his wife. He sees it as her duty to obey. This control gradually takes on a darker and darker tone, isolating Lizzie. In that respect, this story could be set anywhere and in virtually any context.

The title Birdcage Walk refers to both the historical and personal aspects of this story.  Figuratively, the title conjures up images of Lizzie Fawkes caught in a controlling, abusive marriage; she is indeed a bird in a cage. Literally, Birdcage Walk is a graveyard of the St Andrews church in Clifton village in Bristol, England. The graveyard features ornate tombstones and a shaded tree-tunnel. To this day, it is listed as a tourist attraction to be visited in Clifton.

The historical background in this case provides some of the motivation for John Tredevant's actions. Otherwise, this is very much the story of a marriage. The events of the Revolution are removed from their impact on Lizzie. She is torn between the opposing views of her mother and her husband. Her mother's idealism and her husband's business mindedness represent a reaction to the history; Lizzie's actions are more a reaction to her personal situation than the history. Thus, the book does focus more on the domestic and marital concerns that Lizzie navigates on a day to day basis. The book description envisions "an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror." The details are not quite that memorable or that dramatic.

The book begins with a the discovery of a grave and a curiosity as to its history. The book never does wind its way back to the discoverer, but no matter. In the afterword, the author explains that the book is in part about that which we leave behind. "I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history." This message takes on an added significance because this book is now her last published work. Ms. Dunmore sadly passed away in June, 2017, at the age of sixty four. The legacy of her work lives on.


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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Revolution of Marina M

Title:  The Revolution of Marina M
Author:  Janet Finch
Publication Information:  Little Brown and Company. 2017. 816 pages.
ISBN:  0316022063 / 978-0316022064

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

Opening Sentence:  "Rocking on the razor-musseled bay, lulled by the sleepy toll of buoy bells, the music of riggings, the eloquent stanzas of waves, I wait for news form the sea."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes just living is heroism."

As you might suspect from the title, this book is about the young woman Marina in the context of an actual revolution - the Russian Revolution. The background setup of the main character and the historical framework is my reason for choosing the book. Marina is the daughter of a well-to-do Russian family. Her father is involved with the powers who rule, and Marina gets involved with the ideology of the revolution. She is also a teenager, sixteen, on the cusp of defining her own ideas independently from those of her family. This framework sets up an interesting perspective on the history.

Sadly, that is not the story I read. For me, Marina ends up neither a likable nor a sympathetic character. Her father describes her as follows, "For someone who claims to be so sensitive to the plight of the common man, you're embarrassingly self-involved." A friend describes her actions as, "bourgeois baby wants to play the proletarian." Both are said in anger, but unfortunately both capture the image of Marina that comes through.

To make matters worse, big parts of the book center on Marina's sex life with multiple partners - consensual and forced. Mind you, she is portrayed as sixteen years old at the beginning of the book. In her own words, "I certainly liked being handled by men. Sex, the life of the senses, it was very strong in my nature." The descriptions are unfortunately also at times graphic and at times violent. This does make the book dark and disturbing in a way that has nothing to do with the history it is setting out to bring to life. This aspect of the book is to me completely unexpected. Perhaps the "revolution" in the title is meant to a sexual one not just a literal one. I think not. Regardless, this type of reading is not for me, especially not when it features a sixteen year old.

The theme of Marina's relationship with her father recurs throughout the book. Sadly, he and most of the other characters in the are presented only from Marina's point of view and captured in the wide sea of events and characters the book attempts to capture. None of them become real. Consequently, Marina's feelings (anger? hate? disappointment? sadness?) towards him or any of the other characters don't feel genuine.

The perspective on the historical setting is clouded by these characteristics being ascribed to Marina. The book clearly shows that research was done into the Russian revolution. However, then it appears that it was attempted to fit every aspect into Marina's story. Families split apart, students, protests, military, war, smuggling, violence, scientists, communal living, spiritual leaders. The list goes on and on. At over eight hundred pages, a lot is encompassed into this story. In this case, more is definitely not better. After a while, it becomes some historical tidbit superimposed onto the characters in the book and into Marina's sex life. Once again, not for me.

After making it through all that, the book has an abrupt end with no real closure. Come to find out, this book is not only long but also not complete. A sequel is planned. Unfortunately, this is not a story I care to continue.


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Friday, January 5, 2018

The End We Start From

Title:  The End We Start From
Author:  Megan Hunter
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 170 pages.
ISBN:  0802126898 / 978-0802126894

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

Opening Sentence:  "I am hours from giving birth, from the even I thought would never happen to me, and R has gone up a mountain."

Favorite Quote:  "There are so many different kinds of quiet, and only one word for them."

The "end" with which this book begins is an undefined cataclysmic, apocalyptic flood in and around London. It destroys in its path and forces people to become refugees from their homes. People flee, both to escape and to seek shelter and safety. Unfortunately, neither are easily found. People die; families are separated; life as people know it is left behind.

The "start" of this book is the birth of a child. Even in the face of death, destruction, and loss, a mother delights in her child and would do all she can to protect the child. A child's innocence sees and feels that love, despite the dire circumstances the family finds itself in.

The focus of the story is clearly on the "start". This is a book about motherhood and about the physical and emotional aspects of of the mother-child relationship. It is about the wonders and the fears of motherhood. The fear of bringing an infant in such a hostile environment. The physical toll of mothering. The amazing creature that a baby is. The joy at every milestone.

The apocalyptic flood, its causes, or its eventual resolution are not developed within the book. Is the flood literal? Is it an isolated natural disaster? Is it a thought to the changes of global warming? Is the disaster a metaphorical nod to the man-made humanitarian and refugee crises around the world currently? The questions are never answered. As a reader, I want answers, but, at the same time, the questions leave it up to me the reader. What do I bring to the book, and how do I choose to interpret it?

This "open to interpretation" approach is also magnified by the fact that the characters are given no names and no real physical descriptions. They are referenced by initials. The narrator is the mother. The baby is Z. The father is R. People they meet along the way include O and C. Again, as a reader, I want characterization and names. The use of initials is at times a grating note in the book especially since names come up often in the first-person narrative style of writing. It also prevents a more personal connection for me because a name goes a long way towards that connection. However, again, it leaves the images up to the reader. Who do you see in the characters?

At under 200 pages, this book is brief, very brief. The short, choppy writing style serves to enhance that feeling. At time, this book feels more like poetry than prose.

The writing style, the initials, and the lack of exposition means that this book takes work to follow and interpret. At times, it's too much, and the book feels like it's trying too hard to be original and philosophical. At times, it works. I am left somewhere in between. I will remember it, but as a book that I am unsure about. As it is a debut novel, I will look for more of Megan Hunter's work to see what direction she pursues next.


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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

After the Fire

Title:  After the Fire
Author:  Henning Mankell (author). Marlaine Delray (translator)
Publication Information:  Vintage. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0525435085 / 978-0525435082

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

Opening Sentence:  "My house burned down on an autumn night almost a year ago."

Favorite Quote:  "The most important memories are preserved in my mind. I can't weep over the fact that everything is gone. I have to decide what to do. I have no intention of allowing the fire to steal my life."

This is the first of the Henning Mankell's works that I have read. He is perhaps best known for his Kurt Wallander msytery series. Sadly, this book is also the last work he published before his death. The afterword of this book is dated March 2015. He died in October 2015.

After the Fire is the second book by Henning Mankell centered around the character of Fredrik Welin. As the beginning of this book states, it is "a freestanding continuation of Italian Shoes, which was first published in 2006. This narrative takes place eight years later." The freestanding part works on the surface for this book can stand alone. The theme of shoes - Wellingtons, in this case - does run through the book, and, I understand, the characters from the first book carry forward into this one as well. So, below the surface, perhaps much remains undiscovered not having read the first book.

Regardless, this book lends itself to looking at its pieces. First, the main character. Fredrik Welin is a seventy-year physician, although he has long since given up surgery. He is no longer an actively practicing physician at all; the back story is that a dire mistake and injury to a patient led him to quit his profession. Now, he lives on an island in the Stockholm archipelago; he lives alone. His only regular interaction is with Jansson, the mailman, handyman, and closest thing to a friend that Fredrik has. Fredrik's character and his meditations on his life are in essence the theme of the book.

Second, the plot. Fredrik's house burns down, taking with it most of what he owns. The police are in the picture because after all, a fire just doesn't start. The fire also forces Fredrik out of his isolation and into contact with the police, a journalist, and his recently discovered, adult daughter. Fredrik's emerging out of isolation and the investigation into the cause of the fire become the plot of the book.

Third, the setting. Fredrik's island is in the Stockholm architecture. His house was the main structure on the island; now the burned shell remains. The nearest town, if it can be called that, is small. The writing conjures up a picture of damp, cold, and isolation. Yet, at the same time, I want to visit and see this place for myself. It draws you in.

The picture the author manages to draw of the setting is the most memorable part of the book. The introspective main character does not grab me as much as I thought it would. Maybe, something is lacking not having the background of the first book. Maybe, Fredrik's musings get intermingled with the more prosaic investigation into the fire. Maybe, the movement through the present and his memories of the past leaves me as a reader a little scattered. Maybe, the very human, very criminal solution to the mystery of the fire impedes the philosophical bent of the trip through memories. Maybe, the pull away from the main setting of Fredrik's island breaks the spell of the story. Maybe for all these reasons, the setting and Fredrik's search for his Wellingtons are what I take away from this book.


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Monday, December 18, 2017

The Rules of Magic

Title:  The Rules of Magic
Author:  Alice Hoffman
Publication Information:  Simon & Schuster. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  1501137476 / 978-1501137471

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

Opening Sentence:  "Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society."

Favorite Quote:  "... magic was not so very far from science. Both endeavors searched for meaning where there was non, light in the darkness, answers to questions too difficult for mortals to comprehend."

A disclaimer to start with. I have not read Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I pick this book based on the other books I have read by the author. Each of them has been completely different, and each has been a delightful read in its own way. Now, having read this one, I think I need to add Practical Magic to my never ending "to read" list. This book stands completely on its own. So, I don't need to read Practical Magic, but I feel engaged enough with the characters to want to know where their lives lead.

The Rules of Magic is a story of witches and wizards and a world that both needs them and fears and persecutes them. The magic portrayed in the book is of the most benign sort, focused on love and healing as opposed sorcery seeking to do harm.

More than the witchcraft, the book is the story of the Owens family - siblings Franny, Jet, and Vincent. Their parents - in particular, their mother Susanna - tries to have them lead a life far away from witchcraft and the rest of the Owens family. The three siblings, however, know that they are "different" and begin to explore who they are and the history from which they come.

As you might suspect in a book about witches and wizards, a curse is at the heart of this story. It is this curse from which Susanna wants to save her children. As you might suspect, it is not possible to outrun or escape who you are. You must face it, and you must own it. That is the lesson of this book.

In this way, this story is a coming-of-age story about the three Owens siblings. Franny, Jet, and Vincent do a lot of growing up in this book. All three face their gifts and this curse in their own unique way. Sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. They learn about themselves, about each other, and about their family history. What carries throughout is their family bond and their love for each other.

Within this family story, the stories of the three siblings also develop independently and dintinctly.  You see each as an individual and as part of the cohesive trio. Franny takes on a parental role, and her story becomes one of denying her own emotions because it is the "right" thing to do. Jet's story is one of grief, of carrying on beyond tragedy, and of understanding. Vincent's story is one of growing up and choosing your own path. Alice Hoffman, as the storyteller, weaves her magic creating characters I care about and want to know more about collectively and individually.

That gift of storytelling, to me, is resposible for the success of this book. The element of witchcraft provides the background in which these characters and these relationships come to life and become real. Though set in a world of wizardry, the struggles and emotions of the three siblings are ones shared by mere mortals - love, sacrifice, guilt, insecurity, and courage. That is what draws me into this book and keeps me engaged throughout.


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Friday, December 15, 2017

The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs

Title:  The Exact Nature of Our Wrongs
Author:  Janet Peery
Publication Information:  St. Martin's Press. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  1250125081 / 978-1250125088

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

Opening Sentence:  "Even a hundred years past the town's founding a visitor to Amicus might guess it had been laid out by rival drunks."

Favorite Quote:  "For most of her life she had yielded to the will of others, she had done what others wanted, but now it was her turn to be obstinate and she resolved to enjoy it."


Abel, Hattie, Doro, Jesse, ClairBell, Gideon, and Billy are the Campbell family now. There was also Nick, but sadly he died in his twenties of a heart condition. Abel - the ailing father, the retired judge - continues to judge and control his children. Hattie - seemingly meek next to her husband's control - enables her children's behaviors.

The Campbell children all face their own problems, many of them revolving around addictive behaviors. Abel and Hattie in their decades of marriage have gotten used to the "scandals" surrounding their children, through marriages, divorces, addictions, and confrontations with the law.

The only acknowledged drug addict in the midst is Billy. He is ill and not expected to live long. He is also an addict, has been for a long while. This has led to brushes with the law and confrontations with his family. After one particular episode that begins at Abel's birthday dinner, the other Campbell siblings plan an intervention while continuing on their own addictive paths. So begins the plot of this book. However, this is not really a plot driven book. It is more about the characters, their individual struggles, and the relationships.

This book sets the stage to be the story of a dysfunctional family set in fictional small town of Amicus, Kansas. The book description states, "With knowing humor ... reveals a family at its best and worst, with old wounds and new, its fractures and feuds, and yet its unbreakable bonds." Unfortunately, the humor escapes me. This is not a happy or a humorous book. This is a serious, sad look at the damage addictive behaviors - physical and psychological - cause to the individual and those around them.

Stories of dysfunction and struggles against oneself have the potential to be powerful ones. Neither the character nor the topics have be likable to create a powerful message in a book. Unfortunately, this book has the unlikable characters, but the power of the message does not quite reach me.

Maybe, it's because all members of the family present these behaviors. Maybe, it's because the characters are all older in their forties and fifties, still controlled by their parents and still vying for parental approval and sounding like they are so much younger than their ages would suggest. Maybe, it's because those are the aspects of their characters developed. Maybe, it's because the individual struggles get overshadowed by the competition and jealousies among the siblings. Maybe, it's because, as a reader, I cannot find anything to relate to in these characters. I don't quite know. I can't quite determine the exact reason why the book does not engage me, but sadly it does not.

Eventually, the book becomes Hattie's story and her emergence in her own life. Unfortunately, this development and evolution comes too late in the book. The response to and the caring - or lack thereof - for these characters develops long before that point. Although the change in her is interesting, at that point, I am done with the book.


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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Love and Other Consolation Prizes

Title:  Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Author:  Jamie Ford
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  0804176752 / 978-0804176750

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

Opening Sentence:  "Ernest Young stodd outside the gates on opening day of the new world's fair, loitering in the shadow of the futre."

Favorite Quote:  "We all have things we don't talk about ... Even though, more often than not, those are the things that make us who we are."

Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a love set in the middle of the red light district of Seattle in the early 1900s amidst the glitz and fanfare of the Alaska Yukon Pacific (AYK) Exposition. It is a love story of teenagers forced by circumstance to grow up and live adult lives well before their age warranted. It is a love story that lasts over fifty years until the next Seattle World Fair. Exactly whose love story is the question that remains unanswered until close to the end of the book.

Ernest Young is born into poverty in China. His mother obtains him passage to the United States when he is twelve in the hopes of a better life for him. His journey leads him to an orphanage and a workhouse. It leads him to the be a prize raffled off at the World's Fair. Yes, a human boy becomes a raffle prize. This horrifying circumstance leads him to the brothels of Seattle and sets the course of his remaining life for as a houseboy in a brothel, he finds friendship and love. Fahn is young woman working as a housemaid in the brothel. Maisie is the Madam's daughter. The three are close in age and form a trio of friends.

Fast forward fifty years. Ernest is an old man living a quiet life. His two daughters are living their lives - one as a journalist and one as a dancer in Las Vegas. His wife suffers from dementia-like symptoms and has fading memories of her life with Ernest.

His daughter discovers the story of Ernest's childhood and the raffle and wants to investigate and learn more. This sets Ernest down memory lane. Through past and present, the story of Ernest, Maisie, and Fahn is revealed. Around it is built the colorful world of Seattle and the World's Fair.

As with Jamie Ford's other books (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost, this book pays homage to his ancestry and the Asian American experience. All three books begin in Seattle which is where Jamie Ford grew up. Songs of Willow Frost also begins with a young boy growing up in an orphanage. Perhaps enough time has passed between my reading the two books or perhaps the stories are different enough, despite the similarities, the books do not feel formulaic. It will be interesting to see if he keeps to the same locales and the same themes in his works moving forward.

The most horrifying piece of the history in this book is true. During the AYK, an infant (not a twelve year old) named Ernest was indeed the prize of a raffle. History says that a winning ticket was picked, but the "prize" was never claimed. What happened to the baby has never been resolved. There are no words to describe such an event; yet, it is a piece of history I would never have known but for the home it finds in this fiction.

Two things draw me to Jamie Ford's books; in this too, the three books are similar. The first is that the books envelop the reader in their world - the sights, the sounds, the smells. I feel as if I am there experiencing the history. The other is his ability to draw sympathetic characters and to elicit that emotion. That keeps me engaged in the story. For that, I look forward to the next book.


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