Archive for category Book reviews

A book round-up

Life in Motion

Anyone who knows me has to be aware that I read voraciously. My partner sometimes calls me ‘Wormie,’ since I’m such a bookworm. So, while it is always my intention to review the books I read, sometimes I’m plowing through them so rapidly that I just can’t take the time. I thought, instead of lengthy reviews, that I’d list some of the books I’ve read in the past few months, with a few comments about each of them, and why I picked them up.

I was wandering around our local Barnes and Noble and found myself drawn to the three for the price of two table. Well, okay, I’m always drawn to that table, but I don’t usually buy anything because I can never find three I want to read. But this time, I did. I’m already through the two memoirs:

I picked up Life in Motion: an unlikely Ballerina, by Misty Copeland, largely because my niece, Audrey Rachelle Stanley, started out in ballet. Audrey danced for two years with the Nashville Ballet’s second company, before switching to Contemporary Dance. She now lives in New York City, and dances with Teresa Fellion, among others. I was curious about the ballet world, and about the way a black woman has made it in what I know to be an extremely competitive and demanding profession. This inspiring book is partly about that, and partly about Ms. Copeland’s crazy childhood, and the wonderful people who inspired and helped her along the way. I could hardly put it down. Certainly, the chapters where she talks about dancing on injuries because she was afraid she’d lose her position confirmed my suspicions about the ballet world, but much of the book says that if we have enough passion, and we work hard enough (and maybe have that extra something special?), we can achieve greatness.

I also picked up What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Way Dogs Perceive the World, by Cat Warren. I enjoyed this book, even though it wasn’t quite what I expected: I thought there’d be a lot more science about how dogs and humans smells things, but it’s more about the training of dogs to become cadaver dogs, and testing of other species for that purpose. There’s enough of her personal story with her dog Solo to keep the story moving, and I learned some things about the use of dog-generated evidence, but my main take-away was that I shouldn’t feel bad that my two corgis don’t listen to my commands when they feel that they know better than I do.

I also picked up Freud’s Mistress, by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman, off the sale table while I was at B&N. This book is based upon what is known about Minna Bernays, the sister of Freud’s wife, and Freud’s relationship. I imagine that this book would be very  interesting, since Freud himself has been so influential, and I have enjoyed novels about Hemingway’s wife and Frank Lloyd Wright’s mistress. Also, Freud’s Mistress has received a fair amount of press. I’m sure that the authors did their research well, as they include many details about life in that time. For my taste, they are too caught up in the details, and the guilt that Minna feels, and the prose is stiff. Freud comes across as a horrible man, and I wonder why Minna would find him attractive. Perhaps he was awful, but it seems over-done. I plan to finish the book, but I keep picking up others instead. I think a lot more could have been done with this material to bring it to life.

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Molding a short story – an example

With a sigh, Josephine dropped her head on the chest, hoping to catch a little of the jasmine scent Grandmother Rose used to wear, and feel again her grandmother’s kindness and love. She imagined burying herself in the old woman’s arms. If she could only bring her back to life, she would stop being so lonely and upset. But that, of course, was impossible.

The lid lifted easily, its leather hinges still intact. Velvet skirts covered in beads and mirrors filled the top tray. Again, she was a child. Her mother walked in the front door at Grandmother Rose’s in one of these outfits, her arms loaded with presents. Josephine ran to her, and she swung her around and around. Then Josephine ripped the paper off one of the presents to reveal a baby doll in a pink dress with a matching hair bow, exactly liked she’d wanted. She squealed and hugged her mother.

Her mother hadn’t stayed long, maybe a few days. After her mother left, Grandmother Rose held her while she cried herself to sleep. How many times had that happened before she’d learned not to get excited when her mother visited? The last time, the day of Rose’s funeral, she’d seen her mother park in front of the house, and she’d gone into her room and closed the door.

 

That’s an excerpt from my short story, Heritage. The full story can be read by downloading Mosaic, a Compilation of Creative Writing, by the Cartel Collaborative. The book is free, and you can get it on Amazon by clicking the link below. Or go here to find other formats.

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If you’re curious about the story behind the story, here’s a little bit about how I wrote Heritage.

This story was born out of a writing prompt in my local writing group. I no longer remember what the prompt was, but I remember what I free-wrote in our twenty minutes; Josephine took a necklace she’d found in her mother’s home to her aunt. I opened with Josephine driving up to her aunt’s home in a downpour.

With this, I had two themes: cleaning out the home of a mother from whom she had been estranged; and a beautiful old necklace found there, which belonged to her aunt.

The rewriting started immediately. At first, I attempted a very short story, which I took to my writing group. They found it too complex for something that short. It must be a novel, they urged. I went home and tried expanding it, adding a father, two brothers, and a host of relatives. It grew into a childhood of gypsy wanderings, with all kinds of complexities, but I couldn’t make it work. I researched old necklaces, trying to build a story around the one Josephine finds. Eventually, I abandoned the enterprise, but my subconscious kept the ideas alive, and the files stayed on my computer.

Along came James Lee Schmidt, with his suggestion to compile a book of stories. With a short deadline, I scanned back through my computer and found my abandoned novella. Why not pare it back to its origins? Goodbye brothers. Goodbye wandering childhood, and so many other unnecessary bits and pieces. Josephine, though, needed expansion. She was a cardboard character in my original story; she had to come to life. With more years of writing experience since the initial version, I knew this was key. Who was she – not just what she looked like, and what she did for a living, but what was her character like? What made her that way? I don’t want to give too much away, but I made her a high school physics/math teacher. To match that, she’s introverted, a bit intimidating, a bitter loner who takes refuge in numbers, yet she’s sweet underneath the hard crust.

This may sound like an awful lot of modification, but I think of a story as a wad of wet clay. So long as you keep it wet, you can create a bunny rabbit, wad it back into an amorphous form, make a horse, add a saddle, then change it into a donkey. Until it’s dried, it can become anything, and that’s half the fun.

Once I liked my story, I sent it my co-authors for critiquing. There were a few comments which were along the lines of “what are you talking about?” If a reader says that, I know something needs fixing, even if it isn’t the spot they marked, so I made a few more significant modifications — adding cousins, for one—and sent it back to them. There were far fewer instances of “huh?” this time. After that, it went to a professional editor. By now, I was pretty tired of this wad of clay, and it was getting dry, at least in my mind. Mirel Abeles, my wonderful editor, suggested brown eyes, longer ears, and a larger saddle. I saw the wisdom of most of her words, so I dug in hard one last time. Finally, came the day when she gave me a thumbs up and it seemed I had a nice tale, free of extraneous commas and other bloopers.

Now comes the hard part, at least for me, which is asking for your feedback. Please read it and leave a review on your favorite retailer (or all of them). Reviews are the only way we, as independent authors, get found. Thank you so much!

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Book Review: Beyond the Cascade by A. H. Jessup

My synopsis:

Suzannah cannot stop thinking about the African mountains called the Experience Cascades, ever since she read about them in an old Victorian book. It isn’t just the intriguing hints of a language different from all others that sparks her interest as a linguist although she doesn’t realize that at first. It’s a sense that there’s something deeper, something she longs to find. She’s drifted deep into depression, her stellar research career and her loving friends not enough to provide what she seems to need. Determined to follow her intuition, she heads off into the unknown with a mysterious medicine man, Doc, and his protégé, Muhaybee, to find the waterfall mentioned in the old book.411jdgBsI-L

Beyond The Cascade reminded me a great deal of The Alchemist in the way it takes the central character from one mindset to another, more spiritual one, through a series of difficult experiences. It also reminded me of a movie I saw years ago, in which the characters go in search of Shangri-la by climbing ever higher in some exotic part of the world (I don’t recall the name of the movie, which was very trite in comparison with Beyond the Cascade). Suzannah’s quest is portrayed as something only an unusually strong person would undertake, and she turns out to be just determined and strong enough, with enough willingness or desperation to shed her old beliefs and pass the tests laid out in front of her, to succeed.

With the physical difficulties inherent in climbing remote mountains, battling foes, constant inter- and intra- personal battles, philosophizing, and spirituality, this novel is full of tension and drama. It blends it all into a nearly seamless whole. The prose is beautiful, full of lush descriptions and amusing repartee between Suzannah and Muhaybee, a man who tries to bridge the modern world with the ancient customs of the people of the Cascades.

Early on, Suzannah finds out that she’s won a prestigious award in linguistics and we are shown how deep her depression has become. She couldn’t care less about the award, or her student’s thesis topic. Her life has lost meaning. She can no longer relate to her closest friend. Counseling and drugs don’t help, until she is told to learn something new and begins her quest. Much of this beginning section hit home for me. Her situation reminded me of what I felt about academics and my own depression. Jessup pegged this disillusionment, and the fact that no drugs can solve the underlying issue.

At times I felt so carried away by this novel that I could hardly put it down. There was something deeply satisfying about this quest and the way Suzannah would not give up until she reached her goal. I became very engaged, rooting for her to solve each problem and allow herself to absorb it.

Only a few things marred this novel for me. First, the linguistic and scientific mumbo jumbo is overdone. It get too technical for a general interest novel. The physics sections didn’t even make sense. I would get annoyed and start to put the novel down, but then the jargon would end and the story become entrancing. Second, I got really tired of Doc saying that a woman shouldn’t be able to enter the Cascade, especially a white woman, and Suzannah “proving him wrong.” Maybe this author was trying to be authentic, or something, but it seemed to me that it would have been more authentic to say that someone from a modern culture could not understand this ancient world. Finally, the ultimate lessons for Suzannah were too predictable. Still, since the whole story was so much fun, I give it 4 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it for fans of The Alchemist.

I was given a free copy of this novel from StoryCartel.com in exchange for my honest review.

 

 

 

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Book Review: In The Time of Butterflies

This novel by Julia Alvarez was a National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection. From the book blurb:

It is November 25, 1960, and three beautiful sisters have been found near their wrecked Jeep at the bottom of a 150-foot cliff on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. The official state newspaper reports their death as accidental. It does not mention that a fourth sister lives. Nor does it explain that the sisters were among the leading opponents of Gen. Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s dictatorship. It doesn’t have to. Everybody knows of Las Mariposas—the Butterflies.

This novel is based upon a real incident which happened four months after Alvarez’s family escaped to New York. The Mirabel sisters, known as Las Mariposas, were members of the underground resistance, along with Alvarez’s father. In her notes at the back of the novel, Alvarez says: “When as a young girl I heard about the “accident, I could not get the Mirabels out of my mind. On my frequent trips back to the Dominican Republic, I sought out whatever information I could about these brave sisters who had done what few men and only a handful of women—had been Julia-Alvarezwilling to do.” She took what she found and began to invent the characters which fill these pages.

Alvarez tells the story from the point of view of each of the four sisters, devoting alternating chapters to each. We start in 1994, with the surviving sister, Dedé, meeting a journalist who wishes to interview her about her sisters. Then we drop into the past. Dedé is a little girl living on a farm with her family. We meet the fierce middle sister, Minerva, who wants to be a lawyer, the religious oldest sister, Patria, and the shy youngest, María Teresa. Their lives seem peaceful, their father becoming prosperous. Like many girls, Minerva and Patria are sent to Catholic boarding school, where Minerva pushes the boundaries along with her girlfriends and Patria becomes ever more religious. Dedé stays home to help her papa with his store.

However, the brutal Trujillo’s dictatorship soon changes everything. Minerva and her friends, chosen to perform a skit for Trujillo, change it to make a political statement in front of him. Trujillo, known for taking pretty teenagers as mistresses, sets his sights on the beautiful Minerva. Inviting her family to a ball, he tries to claim her, but she manages to escape. From then on, the intrigue builds, yet in between the political, the sisters grow up, falling in love, having their children, and interacting with their aging parents. Their marriages have their very real ups and down.

I loved this novel. The language is rich, the descriptions beautiful, and the four sisters’ voices come across clear and distinct. I felt as if I was right there. I loved the way Alvarez combined the intimate with the political, reminding us that all warriors have parents, many have spouses and children, and every choice they make has to be weighed against the risk to those they love. I give it five stars out of five.

Note: A Wikipedia page about the Mirabel sisters states that the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women is November 25 in honor of the three brave sisters who were assassinated Nov 25, 1960.

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Book review: Life After Life

life after lifeKate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life has received much praise. It sits near the top of several lists of the best books of the year (#6 in Goodreads). The basic idea is this:

Ursula Todd is born over and over again, in England, on a snowy night in 1910. She then dies over and over again, each time in a different manner. She gradually grows more and more aware of her previous lifetimes. In her first few repetitions, she merely feels fear when the event which caused her death is imminent and manages to avoid it, but eventually she begins to have actual memories of her lifetimes and learn more consciously from them. This causes her life to take a different path, and a different death to overtake her. With each life, Atkinson fills in some of the details of Ursula’s family and the world she inhabits. Thus Ursula gets the ultimate do-over, until she creates an opportunity to kill Hitler, which is actually where the novel opens.

This novel reminded me a lot of the movie Groundhog Day. Like that movie, it attempts to satisfy the ultimate fantasy, the idea that we could have an opportunity to go back and redo our lives, armed with what we now know. If only, we think to ourselves, I hadn’t said that, hurt that person’s feelings, or taken that walk, then my life would be wonderful. If only I’d never met so and so. If only I’d finished that college degree. Well, you get the picture.

Since this novel takes place in England and, in at least some of her lives, Ursula moves to London, where she spends World War II, we are treated to a slowly filled-in portrait of both the English countryside and then London itself as the Germans bomb it to pieces. We learn about the awful older brother, the wonderful sister and younger brother, and the eccentric Aunt. At the same time, we explore philosophical questions, such as: are we all repeating our lives over and over (apparently yes, since it isn’t only Ursula who does things differently each time around, although the others seem unaware that they are repeating). It also looks a little at women’s role in the workplace and home in upper class England at the time.

Each life begins with Ursula’s birth on a snowy day, and each time something a little different either occurs or gets explored, to keep the event interesting and provide the perspectives of the mother, doctor, housekeeper, etc. Luckily for the reader, that’s about the only thing which repeats (unlike in Groundhog Day), because Atkinson assumes we can recall the events she leaves out. It would be tedious otherwise. The fun comes in reading about the device which allows Ursula to avoid the death event of her previous life.

This is a wonderful concept. It’s clever, and the number of different ways Ursula dies is great (none of the deaths are made to seem particularly gruesome or painful). I found myself reading onward just to find out how she would die next. I liked it enough to give it three and a half stars, but I really wondered why it’s gotten as much praise as it has. It often drags. Ursula is not a particularly interesting person, nor does she come across as very engaged in her life. Atkinson’s prose floats about the drama, reading like a ledger of actions, dispassionate for the most part. Turning to a random page, I read:

The office was a tedious, rather irritable place these days – fatigue, probably, due to the cold and the lack of good, nourishing food. And the work was tedious, an endless compilation and permutation of statistics to file away in the archives somewhere—or to be pored over by the historians of the future, she supposed. They were still “clearing up and putting their house in order,” as Maurice would have it, as if the casualties of war were clutter to be put away and forgotten.

There’s more, but I got bored just typing this. It isn’t all this dull, of course. My real problem with the novel is the way the very first scene with Hitler comes about. In most of the novel, Ursula goes through similar lives each time, tweaking events to arrive at different ends. However, she has only three lives in which she goes to Europe, and only one in which meeting Hitler is described (a life in which she doesn’t kill him). Since she recalls each of her lives only a little, how did she recall enough of that one to know how to get close enough to kill him? Why doesn’t she live that life over and over again, not quite succeeding until the final one? That would seem more consistent with the whole re-lived life concept as carried out in the rest of the book. Of course, Hitler gets do-overs too, so she would have to kill him over and over again, in life after life, I suppose, though we are spared this detail.

Someone should do a sequel, portraying what happened in Europe after Hitler’s murder. With no Hitler, would there be no World War II, no concentration camps, and no nuclear weapons? Or would it all have occurred anyway? Anyone up to the task?

related posts:

NYTimes: Subject to Revision

Goodreads reviews

Not the Booker prize 2013: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (oh, and read the comments, which pretty well agree with me)

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Book Review: As the Heart Bones Break, by Audrey Chin

Heart BonesAudrey Chin rocks in her newest novel, As The Heart Bones Break.*     She beautifully spins the drama of one man’s life, from his childhood in Vietnam during the war to late middle-age as a world-traveled business and family man, into a fascinating tale of personal growth, intrigue, love, and loss, while at the same time weaving bits of history, the conflict between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Americans, the difference between traditional Vietnamese beliefs and those of children born in the United States, karma, love, what it means to be part of a family, and many other themes effortlessly into the tale.

With sentences like this:

Turning away from her friends, she flipped her long pony tail of ebony black hair over her shoulder and looked straight past Binh and at you, the large double-lidded eyes in her oval porcelain-pale face flashing with scorn.

she brings you into the scenes, breathing life into them, until you know Thong Tran’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences almost as well as he himself knows them.

Except for a chapter about his childhood, Chin begins the thread of Thong’s life when he’s already a young married man living in California, working as an engineer. But he is not finished with Vietnam or the past. His family and his career conspire to make him remember. Through his memories, we see how his youth in Vietnam shaped him, and how, only by sharing his secrets and exploring those of his family, can he grow into a person who can be loved and love in return even as tragedy envelopes him.

I adored this lovely, graceful novel about a man who survived an awful war that tore families and friendships asunder. If you enjoy learning about the human heart, and about other lands and cultures, you will love As the Heart Bones Break. Honestly, it’s so good that I’m expecting her to win awards for this work. It’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It gets five out of five stars, without any doubt.

*If you live in the United States, you can still order the book or read it on Kindle, even though she’s still looking for a US publisher. See Audrey’s comment for the links.

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Book Review: Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Russell Banks writes fluid prose about often mundane and uncomfortable topics. His characters inhabit the edges of society, and sometimes are a little scummy. His stories contain a hint of magical realism, yet never quite stray from the dirty realities of life. Lost  Memory of Skin is no exception. From the very beginning he says: we’re going somewhere you never thought you’d go, reader, and that’s right into the world of convicted sex offenders. And we’re going to make one of them seem, well, almost like you or at least someone you perhaps know, except for a few dumb mistakes. But we’re also going to let you know what could happen if you, yes you, continue on with your porn addiction and don’t get treated. You could end up like this young man, or worse.

Known to himself and pretty much everyone else as the Kid, the main character lives in Florida, under a causeway, by a bay, with other convicted sex offenders, all of whom are on parole and must wear a battery operated anklet so that their caseworker can track them. Banks chose to create a somewhat fictional area of Florida, closely based upon actual places in Florida. As registered sex offenders, they have to reside a certain distance away from anywhere children might gather, so the Causeway is one of the few places they can live. The Kid brought his pet Iguana to live there with him:

“Its name is Iggy which the Kid now thinks is sort of dumb but he was only ten when his mother presented him with the iguana and the singer Iggy Pop for some reason was the first thing that came into his head and eventually the iguana and itIguanas name became one the way he and his name Kid have become one and it was too late by then to change it.”

The iguana, and the way he cares for it, is the first indication that the Kid has a soft side. We also quickly learn that his mother did little to raise him, leaving him on his own way too much. Banks has us wondering what this lost soul did to earn himself a tent under the Causeway, especially since the Kid despises those who watch kiddie porn or, worse, have sex with children.

When the police raid the Causeway, breaking his friend’s leg, killing Iggy, and leaving the Kid wondering where to go, we are introduced to the second main character. This is when Banks makes it clear there’s an element of magical realism operating in this tale, because The Professor is fatter and smarter than any man could ever be. He’s a caricature, with his special refrigerator stocked just for him, his constant eating, and his enormous suits and overalls. He claims to be doing a research study on homeless sex offenders, and wants to interview the Kid.

The Kid is skeptical. He has learned that nothing is what it seems in this world. He trusts no one, not even himself, yet he has his own sense of what is right and wrong. If you can pay for food, you don’t raid the dumpster behind the grocery store. If you need to, you only take what you can use.

As the Professor and the Kid go on their separate journeys to themselves while the Professor gains the Kid’s partial trust, we do eventually learn what the Kid did to warrant jail time and ten years of parole. I won’t spoil that for you, just to say that, in the end, like most of Bank’s characters, we neither like nor dislike him, and we probably wouldn’t want to have lunch with him, but he becomes very real.

I do wish that Bank’s editor had made him take out his James Michener copycat section. The Kid dreams the history of the made-up swampland, with the geology, the animals, and the first human inhabitants, etc. It’s like bad deja vu, if you’ve ever read any of Michener’s books. Otherwise, I enjoyed this novel immensely, even as its subject matter sometimes bothered me.

If you love reading about the human condition, and don’t mind some unrealistic bits, you would enjoy this novel. Warning: This is not a book for those who can’t stand strong language. Nor is it a book for those who think sex-offenders should automatically be left on a desert island to starve to death.

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