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6th-Feb-2016 03:39 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Platinum Doll: A Novel about Jean Harlow, by Anne Girard. Mira, 2016

Harlean Carpenter-Jean Harlow’s real name- was the first blond bombshell of Hollywood. She arrived there 1928, seventeen years old, and newlywed. Despite having a mother who tried a few years earlier to break into film, Harlean had no intention of working- her young husband was a trust fund baby and could support them in style. But a friend was trying to break into movies, and needed a ride to a casting call. An agent saw Harlean waiting in her car and the rest was history.

This is the story of how Harlean became a glittering Hollywood star, but even more than that it is the story of her marriage to Chuck McGrew. Orphaned early, he grew up rich and came into even more when he turned 21. He loved Harlean to distraction, drank too much, and was jealous of anyone who took too much of Harlean’s attention or time. He didn’t care for her budding acting career and imagined affairs with men she worked with. His biggest problem, though, was with Harlean’s mother, Jean Bello. Jean Bello saw Harlean as an extension of herself, treated Harlean like she was six years old (she called Harlean “the Baby” right up until her death at age 26), managed everything about her, spent Harlean’s money, and added greatly to the stress that broke up Harlean’s marriage to McGrew. Indeed, Jean Bello is almost a caricature of a stage mother, but the story is supported by facts.

Harlean comes across as a smart, vulnerable and charming young woman who is happy in her marriage and their fairy tale life in Los Angeles. With the money to buy what she wanted and entertain endlessly, McGrew couldn’t understand why she wasn’t content. Harlean was bored with shopping trips and drunken parties; she read incessantly and knew there was more to life than just existing. I really liked the character that the author built out of historical sources. She was neither silly starlet nor vamp, and really struggled to balance husband, mother, and career.

Not only is the story of Harlean and Chuck gripping, but I loved the details about old Hollywood. Girard brought the houses, parties, and studios to life. I loved this book.
6th-Feb-2016 02:26 pm(no subject)
Halfway Down the Stairs, by Gary A. Braunbeck. JournalStone, 2015

Gary Braunbeck has been writing since the late ‘90s, but somehow I’d never discovered him. I’m glad that I have now.

I have to admit that some of the stories were not to my taste. He mainly writes horror but the type is all over the map. Some of the stories in the collection were what I refer to as ‘human horror’- the terrible things that people do to one another, rather than supernatural terrors. Child abuse and sexual abuse feature in a couple of stories and I found them very difficult to read. I thought about putting the book aside, but I persisted and I’m happy I did. Not all the stories are about human brutality-although the ones that are, are amazingly, stomach turningly so. Some are like fairy tales. One, ‘Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway’, is a life-after-death story that is achingly beautiful. A tale of Charles Fort and Bram Stoker is darkly amusing. It’s all very dark; things and people rot and decay. It’s as much noir as horror. “We Now Pause for Station Identification” is a zombie apocalypse told in a unique manner. Some are horror overlaid on the human condition- love, sex, working one’s life away. It’s a pretty great collection, but you do have to have a strong stomach.
3rd-Feb-2016 03:20 pm(no subject)
The Forgotten Seamstress, by Liz Trenow. Sourcebooks, 2014

In 2008, Caroline is clearing out her mother’s attic when she finds a quilt, which her grandmother left to her. It’s an unusual piece of needlework; the seaming and embroidery are extraordinary, and some of the fabrics are very striking silks. So striking that when Caroline shows it to a friend who is a textile expert, she recognizes them as tiny pieces of fabrics known as the May Silks, specially woven for the wedding of Princess May (Mary) of Teck. How they ended up in a patchwork, and in Caroline’s grandmother’s possession, is unknown, but Caroline intends to find out.

Another story goes along as Caroline searches for who made the quilt. In 1970, a graduate student in psychology is interviewing an inmate of a mental hospital. The patient, Maria, tells the story of being an orphan who is taught to sew and is selected to work in palace for the royal family. She talks of the Crown Prince, of a baby that was taken away from her, and her belief that she is in the mental ward to keep her from telling the world of the Prince’s baby. All fantasy, of course, the hallucinations of a schizophrenic. There is no way a lower class girl attracted the attention of the Prince! But how are these two woman connected?

I enjoyed the puzzle of figuring out the origins of the quilt, the descriptions of life in the palace, and especially the descriptions of the fabrics and clothing. I was less impressed by the characters, however. Caroline and Maria are both people to whom things happen, but who rarely initiate action of any kind. In Maria’s case, a lot of that is out of her control, but her passivity with the Prince is kind of annoying. But she was a teenager in love, and so that’s a pretty common attitude. Caroline, however, is kind of annoying- she is older, supposedly independent, educated, and in control of her own fate, but she seems to float along. While I liked the two women, it was a lukewarm sort of liking. The other characters didn’t have much depth. It’s an enjoyable book but not a stunning one.
24th-Jan-2016 04:21 pm(no subject)
fancy dress
The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee. Houghton Mifflin, 2016

The narrator of this novel cannot get a break. Born on the American frontier, she is hopeless at the tasks normally assigned to girls. Her singing voice is sublime, though- and her mother won’t let her use it, saying she has the sin of pride, even going to far as to tie her mouth shut. When her whole family dies of fever, the issue is moot; she leaves for the coast to find a way to get to Lucerne, where her mother’s people are. To get there, she joins a circus, doing trick riding, shooting, and singing. On the way she steals a name from a gravestone, Lilliet Berne. Her adventures include being a maid to the Empress, an unknowing spy, a courtesan, and an opera singer. She changes identities with ease. But every time she thinks she’s got things under her control, the floor gets pulled out from under her. In her life, she only loves one man… and can never seem to get free to spend her life with him.

The story actually begins when Lilliet, now an acclaimed opera star, receives a novel, which clearly tells the story of her life, exposing all her secrets. There are only three people in the world who know this story, and she must discover which one of them it is. It shouldn’t be hard; one is dead, one loves her, and one wants to own her. But finding who it is leads to a still greater web of secrets. She may end up dead or enslaved again.

Lilliet is the narrator of her story; she speaks clearly and does not spare herself. She describes things vividly, whether it’s about things royal and beautiful or poor and dreadful; how things look, feel, sound, smell. The prose is lush, and envelopes the reader in the story.

I loved this book. I did not want to put it down, and did not want it to end. Lilliet is an ingenious survivor, a strong woman who does what it takes to make a decent life for herself, even when she seems totally trapped.
23rd-Jan-2016 03:53 pm(no subject)
Wind/Pinball, by Haruki Murakami. Borzoi, 2015

“Hear the Wind Sing” is the first thing Murakami wrote, back in 1979. He just got the idea he should write a novel, then sat down and did it. The book is short and fairly undeveloped; hardly a novel at all. I’m really surprised it got published. He wrote “Pinball, 1973” directly after “Wind”, and the difference is amazing. That the author learned so much about writing so quickly is almost unbelievable. The characters in “Pinball” (some of whom are the same as in “Wind”; it’s a sort of sequel) are developed and have depth. It’s like “Hear the Wind Sing” was just an outline, whereas he actually got around to writing “Pinball”. The really odd part about these stories? Murakami himself doesn’t like them and really didn’t want them published in English.

Both stories revolve around an unnamed young man and his friend, the Rat. Both are narrated by the nameless man in the first person, but the sections about the Rat are written in third person- the two are never even in the same scene in “Pinball”. There is little plot in either tale; they are simple strings of events. In “Wind”, the narrator is home from college for the summer and hanging out with the Rat in a bar run by J; in “Pinball” the narrator has graduated and set up a translating business with a partner. He is living with a pair of mysterious twin women who just sort of show up one day, and searching for a pinball machine he played obsessively in college. “Pinball” has that touch of surrealism that Murakami does so well. The characters are drifting through life, unattached to family, mostly content to let life happen to them- even if they are unhappy with it. I don’t think these stories would be good introductions to Murakami’s work, but for a fan, they are important to read.
23rd-Jan-2016 02:16 pm(no subject)
black cat
Moth Flight’s Vision, by Erin Hunter. Harper, 2015

Moth Flight is young, a kitten on the verge of cat-hood. She seems unable to do anything properly and this is a source of great aggravation to her mother, the leader of the Wind Clan. She is sent to hunt, and instead finds herself distracted by interesting plants and wondering what uses they might have. She goes off on what turns out to be a vision quest, and is spoken to by the spirits of cats passed on already: she, and a cat in each of the other Clans, is to learn to use herbs and heal and become Medicine Cats. She returns to tell this tale, and it’s greeted with a fair bit of antagonism- peace between the Clans has been sorely won, the clans don’t mix or visit, and most are not willing to test that peace. Most, that is, except for the young cats chosen to learn healing- they all have a natural bent for it. The project of all of the ‘interns’ going from Clan to Clan to learn all they can from each other takes off, despite border skirmishes. But not all the cats want peace, and some have grudges that could cause real trouble. The feral cats have all the traits of real cats, and also the ability to reason and communicate like humans (who they avoid- to call someone a ‘kittypet’ is a big insult!).

I didn’t realize when I picked this book up that it was part of a series- it seems to be part of a ‘prequel’ series for the Warrior Clans. I’m not sure how many are in the series, but it’s a LOT. I enjoyed the book; the cats have personalities that are fairly well drawn. It is a children’s series, but there is some violence, death, and the book is very sad in places. Not that I feel those things have to be removed from books for children; just a warning. Not sure if I’ll pick up any more books from the series or not- I suspect that if I see one at the library, I’ll bring it home, but I probably won’t hunt for them. In other words, good, but not fantastic to an adult. I would have loved it as a kid.
10th-Jan-2016 05:19 pm(no subject)
baby dragon
The Science of the Magical, from the Holy Grail to Love Potions to Super Powers, by Matt Kaplan. Scribner, 2015

“The Science of the Magical” is exactly what the title sounds like: explanations for things people have called ‘magic’, both in the past and present. The book ranges widely; he covers transforming into animals, healing pools, oracles, animals with uncanny behaviors, berserker warriors, near death experiences, Captain America, things from ancient history to modern days.

Kaplan is a science writer, and as such has a lot of contacts in all areas of science, which helped a lot in his investigations. Some things are fairly easy; hot springs made people feel better simply by being warm in areas and times that were really hard to stay warm enough in. Hot water helps many cases of sore, aching joints. No real mystery there. Predicting the future by watching the movements of birds was a little harder, but he makes a good case for birds being able to sense which way the winds are prevailing. It turns out that shifting currents can mean a winter either colder or warmer than usual, depending on which way it’s moving, much as El Nino/La Nina means for us in the Pacific Northwest. The birds are just following the winds. The Oracle at Delphi has been pretty well explained before; the cave she did her prognosticating in had a crack in the floor that exhaled toxic fumes that caused oxygen starvation in the brain. Super soldiers close to existing, between amphetamines to keep soldiers awake and provide focus, steroids to enhance strength, and drugs that increase red blood cell count and thus the amount of oxygen present in the blood- shades of Lance Armstrong there!

The author writes in a clear, accessible style. He always stays respectful of the culture from which the magical belief comes from. He’s very witty as well as well educated. The book reads like what you’d get if Terry Pratchett actually wrote a science book (instead of teaming up with science writers)- especially in the footnotes. Fast and fun to read.
Amores Verdaderos

Stars: ***** 2/5

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The Woodlanders is a novel by Thomas Hardy and it was serialised from May 1886 to April 1887 in Macmillan’s Magazine and published in three volumes in 1887.  It is not well-known as are other of his books, but to the best of my knowledge it is regarded as one of Hardy’s major novels and, according to Wikipedia, it is considered Continue reading The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (review)

6th-Jan-2016 12:11 pm(no subject)
Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe, by Dawn Tripp. Random House, 2016

This novel tells O’Keeffe’s story from her own point of view, as an old woman looking back on her life, starting from the time she was 27 and had sent some charcoal abstracts to Alfred Stieglitz in New York to get his opinion. A correspondence sprang up between then, and one day, after learning Stieglitz had mounted a show of her work, she walked away from her job as a teacher in Texas, withdrew her bank account, and took the train to New York to see it. It turned out that the show had just been dismantled; the studio, 291, was closing because of the war. But the relationship that had already started on paper bloomed in person, with Stieglitz rehanging her paintings just for her to see. By the time Georgia left to return to Texas, they were passionate about each other, a passion that would remain throughout their lives with all its ups and downs.

A lot of the story is about Georgia’s love affair and marriage to Stieglitz; her work was shown and sold through him so he is inextricably bound to her professional life. Their marriage might have been passionate, but it was a troubled one. He wanted to support her work in every way (except by being someone she could trust, martially), but also seemed to fear her being on her own. They had a dependence on each other; she more dependent on him at the beginning; he more on her, later.

The writing is intense and rather amazing. Tripp wrote this after O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s correspondence was published, and she combed their letters thoroughly. In some spots, she has used their own words. The thing that impressed me the most was the author’s ability to describe painting; how it felt to put charcoal or brush to paper or canvas, how the colors sat against each other, how the creative urge felt. How it felt different to do the lush flowers, the desert landscapes, the abstracts. I really felt that I was inside O’Keeffe’s mind as she thought back on her life.
1st-Jan-2016 05:31 pm(no subject)
librarian ook
The Shepherd’s Crown, by Terry Pratchett. Harpers, 2015

“The Shepherd’s Crown” is the last book Terry Pratchett wrote. It’s also the last of the Tiffany Aching series, which are my favorites of the Discworld series. Following Tiffany as she grows and learns has been touching and humorous. In this book, she experiences a great loss, which leads to her having to make a big decision about her life. Pratchett’s version of being witch- to, as he says, do the good in front of you- sets well with my version of how life should be and what makes someone a good person. So I was delighted to discover that there was one more in the series that I thought had ended with the 4th installment.

The book is not up to Pratchett’s usual standards. It was, basically, unfinished when he died. He had an outline, and certain scenes had been written, but a lot of it is bones with no flesh. It lacks the life and fullness that his writing usually had. But… what is filled out I found marvelous. It’s about being strong, and doing for other people and letting them do for you, dealing with the inevitability of death, and learning to be your own person. It’s about sometimes having to go against one’s normal beliefs when you have to protect others. Some parts that were unfinished make for jolting reading; the story arc of the Queen of the Elves seemed forced, and it ended suddenly in a way that totally surprised me. I suspect that she would have been given more time to transform had the book been finished. Likewise, I think Geoffrey would have been given more to do, and something more done with You, Granny Weatherwax’s cat. But even though it has a lot of rough places, I can’t help but give the story five stars for effort, atmosphere, and moral.

Pratchett apparently knew this would be his last Discworld novel, and a large number of characters from that universe make appearances- some barely cameos- but all saying goodbye to a beloved character and also to the reader. It’s sad to say goodbye to Discworld, although it will live on a long time, I suspect, as new readers discover the world that rides on the tortoise.
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