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7th-Jan-2017 03:21 pm(no subject)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, by Yiyun Li. Random House, 2017

Li is an award winning fiction writer, but this is her first non-fiction work. It’s a memoir, written over two years that saw Li hospitalized for suicide attempts. While it jumps around in time a lot, it’s still obviously been smoothed out a lot because things flow well.

The author writes about her childhood in China during a time when free thought was not encouraged, with a mother who had significant mental issues of her own as a narcissist. She speaks of her decision to change from being a scientist with an assured income and green card, to being a writer. She tells us some about her stay in a mental hospital and about her feelings that took her there. Mostly, she writes about reading and writing, and the books and authors that have been important to her.

It’s a sad tale, mostly. But it engaged me and the prose is so well done that it sucked me in for hours.
6th-Jan-2017 02:50 pm(no subject)
lights through the trees
The Girl in the Garden, by Melanie Wallace. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016

It’s the end of summer, and Mabel is about to shutter her guest cabins when a car drives up. Out come a teen aged girl with a tiny baby, and an angry, tired man who completely ignores them. Mabel rents them a cabin for a few days; she isn’t surprised when one day the man drives off and doesn’t come back. She allows the girl to stay on, then finds them a place to stay for the winter, in a cottage behind the house of a friend of hers, Iris. Iris wants no rent- in fact, she’ll give the girl money- she just wants a few chores done and she gets to spend a couple of hours a day with the baby.

Three years later, June and Luke are still living in the cottage. She’s made a couple of friends, and has created a life for herself, working for Iris as Iris gradually declines. She’s formed relationships with others in the small town. It’s a pretty decent life, if strictly circumscribed.

Then Iris’s daughter, Claire, returns. Not only has she been gone for years with no contact, but she moved out of the main house at 13 and lived in the cottage until she was 18 and could leave. During her teen years she was basically brought up by Duncan, a local lawyer, who signed her absence slips, took her to the doctor, and attended parent-teacher meetings- Iris was happy to turn over the raising of her child. She’s now a photojournalist- largely taught by Oldman, a photographer during WW 2- who has won awards and created a life that has nothing to do with the place she grew up in. Claire brings with her, as her driver, a badly battle scarred Viet Nam vet named Sam, a man who works at the soup kitchen that she also is associated with.

Everyone in this novel is mourning something; a spouse lost, a spouse better forgotten and the life they ruined, a childhood lost, their own looks lost. Everyone deals with loss differently, but they all have one thing in common: they have all withdrawn from the world to some degree. Who will be able to get over their loss and move on into life again?

I loved the writing; some reviewers have criticized the long sentences but I have no problem with them. I found it difficult to follow the dialog at times; the author doesn’t use quotation marks and frequently doesn’t identify who is speaking. But it’s not bad enough to be uncomfortable. I loved the descriptions of the area the story takes place in, and the mundane settings of everyday life. The narrative changes point of view with each chapter. It’s a rather lovely portrait of damaged people surviving as best they can, although some of the people seem almost too good to be true.
2nd-Jan-2017 03:25 pm(no subject)
lights through the trees
What Lies Beyond the Stars, by Michael Goorjian. Hay House, Inc. 2016

Adam Sheppard lives in the Bay Area and writes code for games. He works with his ‘friend’ Blake; their company has skyrocketed to the top, and has been acquired by the near mythical Rene Adiklein. They work near the top of the tallest building in San Francisco, which has a mysterious pyramid on top. But no one stays on the top for long if they don’t keep innovating; the pressure on Adam to fix bugs and create new things is tremendous. He lives in a gated community with a wife who runs his life and two step children who don’t give a shit about him. He is not engaged with a single part of his life. The only thing Adam does that really interests him is rereading a used book the homeless man who sits by the back entrance to Adam’s workplace sold him. He’s a genius, possibly autistic, and ever since he was 6 has been treated as mentally ill and heavily medicated.

Blake is both his care taker and his exploiter; Blake and Adam’s wife both treat him as property to be put into captivity and made to obey and provide for them financially. So when one day he leaves a note saying he can’t go on, withdraws as much cash as the ATMs will allow him, and disappears, they panic. As does the doctor who has been treating Adam since he was six. Adam doesn’t realize this; he’s gone back to the area he spent some time in before he was 6. He doesn’t really know why he has gone there, but a chance encounter with a woman in the dark convinces him he’s run into his childhood friend Beatrice. After a short blissful encounter, the police capture him and turn him back over to Blake, Jane, and the doctor, who once again over medicates him.

This Kafkaesque story is part novel and part philosophical treatise. Adam is trapped by his life of working and doing the family thing that he is ‘supposed’ to do. He is trapped more thoroughly than most of us- most of us don’t have someone making sure we take our meds- but we are pretty much all in that same trap. The question is, can Adam escape and join Beatrice and her group, who hope to save mankind before it’s too late? Can he find happiness and live fully, rather than as someone drugged into fitting in?

The basic theme of the book is of course how we are all being drugged by input- TV, video games, social networking- that keeps us from living fully and meaningfully. Adam finds that he must live in the moment, not in distractions. This message is nothing new; it’s fundamental to Buddhism. It is the first time I’ve found the message clothed in social networking, on line ads, and psych meds. Other than Adam, none of the characters is ‘real’ seeming; they are more symbol or archetype than they are people. I found that disappointing; making Jane and Blake flat caricatures seemed to fit the story but it seemed like Beatrice and her father should have been fleshed out. While I couldn’t put the book down while reading it, once I was done, I felt somewhat let down. I wanted to know more about Jane’s father, Adiklein, and Michael the homeless man. Will there be a sequel, or are they meant to be mere symbols like Jane and Blake? I wish I knew.
1st-Jan-2017 02:07 pm(no subject)
Victoria the Queen, by Julia Baird. Random House, 2016

To write this new biography of Queen Victoria, Baird got unprecedented access to Royal Archives. Victoria’s daughter, Beatrice, had been left with the job of expurgating Victoria’s journals and letters and she did quite a hatchet job on them, removing anything that might cause her mother to be seen in a less than perfect light. What she didn’t realize was that someone at the Archives took a photo of each page, preserving Victoria’s words. Baird was given access to this treasure trove. This allows us to see the dichotomy that Victoria lived with in more detail than in the past; women of her day were supposed to be meek and submissive, while she ruled the biggest empire England ever had. Wives were supposed to obey their husbands, but her husband was consort and prince only and not the king. Women were pretty much seen as being sexless, while Victoria had a strong libido and enjoyed having sex (the Victorian era’s extreme sexual modesty actually came from Prince Albert, not Victoria). Women were supposed to be natural mothers; she hated being pregnant and was ambivalent about children. She was the supreme ruler of the Empire, but didn’t believe women should be able to vote.

Most of the book is, of course, nothing new. Her reign has been well documented already. Baird’s writing style leaves something to be desired- she will be writing about one subject, then take off on a tangent like a dog going “Squirrel!”. Some things are out of chronological order, which is confusing. But I found the book mostly very interesting (I really had little interest in the details of her dealings with Parliament), despite already knowing a fair bit about Victoria. Don’t expect anything earthshaking, but rather a portrait of a complex woman about whom many myths have been woven.
20th-Dec-2016 03:09 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
The Orphan Mother, by Robert Hicks. Grand Central Publishing, 2016

Set in the summer of 1867, the story follows Mariah Reddick, freed slave and town midwife, in her quest to find out who killed her son Theopolis. Theopolis is a cobbler with dreams of entering the politics of Reconstruction era Franklin Tennessee. Killed at a political rally before he could even take the stage and speak, he is accused of having killed a white grocer. Needless to say, the government team sent to investigate is only interested in finding out who killed the white man. Helping her is George Tole, a freeborn black from New York, who is new to town and has a big secret to keep. Also on Mariah’s side is Carrie McGavock, her former owner and a historical figure. Mariah and Carrie are still negotiating a new relationship; Mariah was Carrie’s personal slave when they were children and went with Carrie when she married. They have always been close; as close as it can be when one person owns the other and holds the power of life and death over them.

The story is told from the points of view of Tole and Mariah as they look for answers. Tole’s quest is not the same as Mariah’s, though, as we learn near the end, although ultimately their aim is the same. These are complex characters; the whites around them may see them as just their occupation- the midwife, the cobbler- but they are far, far more than that. There is a lot going on beneath the surface most whites see. I should note that this is not a blacks vs. whites story; it’s just how it was in the South during Reconstruction. There is good and bad in all in this book.

This is not an easy book to read; there is a lot of human ugliness laid bare. But it was a can’t-put-it-down book for me. Very moving and tense.
18th-Dec-2016 04:10 pm(no subject)
The Mercy of the Tide, by Keith Rosson. Meerkat Press, 2017

Dave Dobbs, Nick Hayslip, Sam Finster, and Trina Finster live in the tiny ocean-side Oregon town of Riptide in 1983. The four of them are connected by recent deaths in a two car collision; in that collision, June, who was Dobb’s wife of decades, and Melissa, mother of Sam and Trina and also the adulterous girlfriend of Hayslip, were killed. Each chapter tells the evolving story- and the past- from a different characters point of view. Sam is a senior in high school; his little sister Trina is 9 years old, deaf, and dealing with the death of her mother by concentrating on the news of worsening relations between Russia and the USA and worrying about nuclear annihilation. Dobbs is the head of the police department; Hayslip is one of his officers. Dobbs is dealing with his loss in a pretty normal way; Hayslip is losing it rapidly- in part because no one knew about his relationship with Melissa and he doesn’t want it getting out. Meanwhile, birds are being found torn apart, and Trina has found a human skeleton in the park.

The book is billed as horror, but it’s also an alternate history thriller. You’re given a few clues about the difference in the timeline fairly early on, but you don’t get to find out how different it is until the end. The horror, it seems (and there is a little bit of supernatural horror), is only a lead up to the thriller part. Mainly it’s a story about how different people deal with loss- no two people deal with loss in the same way- and it’s done very well.

Despite the horror element, this book is character driven. The main players are well drawn and deep. I loved young Sam, who paired regular teen punk rocker angst with taking a lot of responsibility on after his mother’s death. I felt so sorry for Sam and Trina’s father, trying to keep the family from falling apart after his wife’s death. While all the characters are flawed, they are all good people, just trying to get through life, even when (especially when) life throws some really weird shit at them. It’s sort of Stephen King meets Ray Bradbury.

The ending was… odd. I’m not sure if this is the start of a series or if that was, indeed, the rather abrupt end. It’s dramatic and stunning, either way.
12th-Dec-2016 04:38 pm(no subject)
The Masked City, by Genevieve Cogman. ROC, 2016

In the second outing of Librarian Irene and her friends in an alternate Victorian London, her apprentice, Kai, (who is a dragon -in human form most of the time), gets kidnapped by a member of the Fae. Irene takes it upon herself to rescue him alone, leaving behind her allies. This involves a visit to Kai’s uncle, a very strong dragon who radiates power so strongly Irene can barely stand up in his presence; a train that is a sentient being who has been enslaved; a Venice that is always in Carnival; and racing against a strict time limit- the Fae who has captured Kai intends to auction him off at midnight. The world is so deep in the chaos realms that dragons, beings of order, cannot function there.

There is nonstop action, many disguises, lots of running, and constant danger. It is a can’t-put-it-down book. I love Irene; she’s smart and talented but not a Mary Sue at all. She needs help sometimes, and is lucky to have some equally smart allies. She uses the Language a lot in this story, which makes me worry a bit. The Language seems to be such a powerful tool that I swear it should make her able to do pretty much anything, which would make it hard to believe that she could be really damaged. I think of it as Superman syndrome – as a little kid I had trouble getting involved in those comics because I knew not much could hurt him, so he was in no real peril. I’m glad there are some limits on the use of the Language, to maintain the tension!

I can’t wait for the next installment in this series!
11th-Dec-2016 03:43 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
The Typewriter’s Tale, by Michiel Heyns. St. Martin’s Press, 2005

The typewriter of the title is not the machine, but rather the woman who uses it. Set in 1907, typists were referred to by that name, merged as they were in the minds of those who employed them, seen by many as mindless adjuncts to the heavy typewriters of the day. Our protagonist is one such typist, Frieda Wroth, who has had the good fortune to be selected by famed novelist Henry James to take dictation on the machine. She types out his thoughts as he wrestles with language, creating fiction out of thin air. Her days have a boring sameness, until one day a stranger (to Frieda) upends the routine. Morton Fullerton, handsome and charming, bustles in, and makes Frieda’s life much more interesting. While her day to day life appears to remain unchanged, she is now a spy receiving telepathic communication from Fullerton in France. Despite her ability to do this, she remains amazingly unaware of what is going on around her –especially in regard to Edith Wharton, who visits frequently -and how Fullerton is treating her.

The author writes in a delightfully Jamesian way, with convoluted sentences decorated with adjectives and adverbs and long words, and assumes the reader will recognize this. He also assumes that the reader is familiar with James life; Fullerton was a real person and it helps to know his previous relationship with James to understand the importance of the chore he gives to Frieda. The pace is slow-glacially so at times- and there were times when I wished *something* would happen, and I remembered why I haven’t read all that much of James. The book is pretty much the perfect length; Frieda has her awakening and the ends are tied up without the book going on so long that the style drives the modern reader, used to less florid prose, antsy with impatience. If you like Henry James’s prose, read this book. If not, don’t.
4th-Dec-2016 02:00 pm(no subject)
The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry. William Morrow, 2006

Our main narrator, Towner Whitney- real name Sophya- starts the book by telling us she’s a liar and to never trust her word. After a self-imposed exile, she has returned to Salem from the west coast because her aunt Eva is missing. She is just barely recovering from a hysterectomy, and not up to doing much. She doesn’t get much rest, though, as events go south rapidly. Eva turns up dead, the “Calvinists”- followers of Towner’s horrible father Calvin Boynton, who oppose the witches who have proliferated in Salem- are getting out of control, a teenaged girl who was involved with Boynton has been beaten by the Calvinists and vanished, and Towner is starting to get involved with Rafferty, the police man who was investigating Eva’s disappearance.

A lot of the story is told via a journal/story Towner wrote while in a psychiatric institution after her twin sister’s suicide and in other flashbacks, as well as short spans from other POVs. Witchcraft is real, and the Whitney women have the ability to scry using the Ipswich lace which is made by the abused women of a safe house on an island- a historic craft revived by Towner’s mother. Towner can also read minds- mostly unwillingly.

This is a hard book to review without giving away too much. There is a big twist at the ending. There are clues scattered throughout the story, things that at times I thought were things that were wrong but escaped the final editing. The mystery isn’t really about Eva’s death or the pregnant teenager disappearing, it’s about Towner’s past. I enjoyed the story and couldn’t put it down, but found it hard to follow with all the jumps from past to present. Having an unreliable narrator doesn’t help. I had to reread parts, especially the ending, to try and figure it all out. You really have to remember what’s been said earlier in the story to try and keep up. I thought the twist at the ending- which many reviewers have called reminiscent of ‘Sixth Sense’- was rather brilliant.
30th-Nov-2016 01:37 pm(no subject)
tracks through time
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, by Kathleen Rooney. St. Martin’s Press, 2016

It’s New Year’s Eve of 1984, and 85 year old Lillian Boxfish is taking one of her long walks through New York City. She hit New York young; she wanted out from under the thumb of her family in D.C., and she wanted the exciting life of the big city. She soon was hired by Macy’s, writing distinctive ad copy, as well as publishing books of poems. She made quite a lot of money, despite not being paid nearly as much as the male ad writers.

As Lillian walks, the cityscape brings back memories of her long life. Here was the tiny apartment she and her best friend shared, where they partied constantly. Here’s the ladies only hotel she lived in while saving up for said apartment. Here’s Macy’s, where she worked up until she became pregnant and became persona non grata. Here’s the park, the Hudson, the restaurants. The hospital where she was taken when she had a breakdown.

The story is not just an autobiography of Lillian, but a paean to the city and its evolution. I came to love “listening” to Lillian tell her story, like sitting down to tea or cocktails with a really tough but nice woman, who spans the time from Prohibition and speakeasies to the 80s AIDS epidemic. Lillian is witty and arch, as if sitting at the Algonquin Round Table. The only thing I found odd was that everyone was so friendly and accommodating; after hearing for decades how rough and gruff New Yorkers are, it was odd to find even the muggers being nice.
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