Saturday, October 25, 2014

Review: Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard

I am as enchanted as anyone by beautiful, lyrical writing. Being able to evoke a place or create a unique character or capture the fluid nuances of dialogue is incredibly important in the best writing. But sometimes in the quest for this transcendent writing, authors do too much, taking their language from the sublime to the overdone. And sometimes the search for the perfect word or descriptive phrase is too evident and forced in the writing to make for easy and seamless reading. This was the case for me with Melissa Pritchard's novel, Palmerino.

Sylvia Casey is a writer. Her previous books were not enough of a success for her publisher to stay with her if she doesn't produce a blockbuster of sorts this time around. As if struggling professionally isn't enough, her husband of many years has recently left her for a man. She's come to Palmerino, an enclave in Italy just outside Florence, to recover personally and professionally as she researches the life of Violet Paget, a Victorian novelist best known for her supernatural stories under the pen name of Vernon Lee. Paget was a polymath, feminist, and lesbian who fully inhabited the created persona of Vernon Lee and Sylvia Casey wants to write a fictional biography of the not very well known author, hence her retreat to Palmerino, where Paget/Lee lived out much of her life.

The story has a triple stranded narration, telling the story of Sylvia and Violet/Vernon as well as the ghost of Vernon, who slowly creeps into Sylvia's consciousness before possessing her incrementally, in an intentional echo of Vernon's own writing. When the narration focuses on Sylvia, it centers on her writing, the lush, atmospheric place that Palmerino is, and her discoveries about the little known writer on whom she is growing increasingly fixed. The portion centered on Violet/Vernon tells a fairly straightforward biography of the writer, using her own diaries, letters, and the impressions of those around her, painting her as impressively intelligent, socially abrasive, scared of intimacy, and needy. When the spirit of Vernon narrates the tale, there is a sense of gathering menace and a disturbingly self-congratulatory feel in the pleased accounting of what she can make Sylvia write and do.

The narration gives the sensation of having a dreamy veil over it. Everything, whether necessary, tangential, or completely immaterial to the plot, is described in detail, giving the whole of it a florid and meandering feel. The pacing is slow and made for a very soporific read for me. The ending is a bit strange and otherworldly, another echo of the real Vernon Lee's work, but inevitable for all that. While I found the story a struggle to read, there are many glowing tributes to the book and the writing. Certainly the question of inspiration, research, and authorship, loneliness and connection, and the close link between this world and the spirit world are all present in the text but ultimately they don't seem to drive anything or to be examined fully in the course of the novel. In the end, the biggest irony for me is that Sylvia's manuscript, called Palmerino, is deemed unreadable.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

First lines are important. They can be the reason someone buys a book, or puts it back on the shelf. Great first lines live on in our collective cultural consciousness. We all know "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." or "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" or "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." These all snag the reader into the text immediately and set their scenes beautifully. Celeste Ng's lovely and painful novel, Everything I Never Told You, has its own intriguing and horrifying first line: "Lydia is dead." And there's no way from that first moment that the reader can think of anything but finding out everything that leads up to that opening moment.

The Lee family lives in a small community in Ohio in the 1970s. Father James is a professor at the local college. He's Chinese-American and has always hoped that his children will fit into their community better than he ever did. Mother Marilyn is a blue-eyed blonde who met James when he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe. She dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to shelve her dreams when she got pregnant. They have three children. Nath, is a high school senior getting ready to go off to college; Lydia, at sixteen, is the family favorite; and Hannah, is a serious, quiet child they often forget they have. On the morning that the novel opens, the family doesn't yet know that Lydia's body will be pulled from the lake by their home in a few short days; they just know she's not at the breakfast table on time. Even after they know that the special blue-eyed child who was the light of her parents' lives has died, there is the question of how she could possibly have died. As each person in the family comes to terms with Lydia's death and with their own idea of how, the family cracks and then breaks.

Each character in the novel narrates his or her own sections, allowing the reader to understand each character's feelings toward Lydia and the way that she impacted each of their lives. Although they are a family, in many ways they are related individuals more than any kind of unit. Each of them stands alone within the family structure, seeing things from their own perspective only. And each of them reacts to their grief differently. Lydia's death highlights all of this but it is not the genesis for it. The family has been non-communicative for a long time, allowing the pressure of expectations, the local racism, and the high cost of personal dreams imposed on someone else to cloak the unqualified love and support that a family should provide.

The novel is not really a mystery, although there is the question of just how Lydia died and what might be being hidden about the night she disappeared. Instead it is a psychological domestic drama with the pain of the present woven skillfully with the history of the family from its very beginnings. The writing is smooth and understated and the pacing is slow but never ponderous. There is a long, slow build to the truth of Lydia's death. In the end, I wanted to cry for Lydia and, in fact, for each member of her family for the pressures and the expectations and the failures they each faced both before and after her death, as spouses, as parents, as siblings. And if the novel is disturbingly sad in tone over all, there is a haunting and perfect beauty to the end.

A quiet novel, this is an amazingly fast read because you cannot fail to want to keep turning pages and find out what happened to Lydia. Ng does a lovely job rendering the suspicious racism of the time and the way in which grief destroys people individually. She manages to make the reader feel sorry for parents who were so obliviously self-absorbed with their own problems that they could only live vicariously through their daughter and who are gutted by the truth of her loss, which is no small task and her depiction of Nath and Hannah as surviving siblings is heartbreaking.  This is a novel you will think about, with characters you will pity, long after you close the cover.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: Flirting With French by William Alexander

It's been twenty-five years since I last took a French class. I freely admit I have retained little of the vocabulary and even less of the grammar from my seven years of learning. If I tried to speak French now, it would be a garbled and hideous thing, I know. I cannot read the French novels (no translation needed once upon a time, thank you very much) that grace my bookshelves. I cannot even read the long term paper I wrote for my AP French class so long ago. Given that it was a ten page paper on the meaning of life based on the existential writers we'd read that year, I'm not certain I'd be able to read or understand it if it was in English, but that's neither here nor there. The amazing fact here is not that I once wrote something like that (although, yes, it is pretty amazing), it is that I once wrote it in an entirely different language, despite all the errors highlighted in red pen. And even though it has been many years since I was even remotely competent (note I am not saying fluent) in French, I do find myself wishing I was once again. There's no reason for me to re-learn French. It's just something I think would be cool. So it's not a huge surprise that I was immediately drawn to William Alexander's experiential narrative non-fiction book, Flirting with French, about his own desire and attempt to (re)learn French as an adult.

Alexander is fifty-eight years old and a dedicated Francophile when he decides that he is going to take the next twelve months and become fluent in French, even if it kills him (and it tried to). He took French briefly and without much enthusiasm when he was much younger but he is ready to really devote himself to learning the language. He attends a conference about language acquisition and although the science of it is against him reaching the level of fluency he desires, he is not deterred at all. He proceeds to try all sorts of ways to learn French, interactive computer programs, Rosetta Stone, French language Meet-ups, corresponding with French speakers via email, even two weeks of serious French immersion classes in France. And in the midst of his quest to beat the odds and learn the language, he is faced with serious and recurring heart issues as well.

As he attempts to re-learn, retain, and learn afresh, Alexander also addresses the mechanics of language learning as an adult and the belief that language learning in children is fluid but not in adults, the governmentally sanctioned Academie Francais and its quest to preserve the purity of the French language, the history of the language itself, his attempts to think as a Frenchman and his attempts at French culture (like his day long croissant making--delicious but ridiculously time-consuming). He discusses the vast difference between French and English, the gender of words and the lack of rationale behind said gender assignments, the nerve wracking question of whether you "tutoyer" someone (use the familiar "you" as opposed to the formal "you"), and the incomprehensibility of conversational French as versus formal French.

The book is a nice combination of factual information about the French language and language acquisition and personal anecdotes on Alexander's part about his not altogether successful struggles to learn French. The tone of the book is self-deprecating and mostly light-hearted (although some of the medical crises are not as light). Alexander is funny and both he and his quest come off as tres charmante. The end result of Alexander's year to learn French might surprise some readers, or it might not, but it is a a fitting ending for sure. I still think it would be fun to try and pick up the language again myself but I somehow suspect that if I followed that interest, it would, as Alexander suggests with his subtitle, charm me, seduce me, and nearly break my heart too.

Thanks to the publisher and LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg

In the 1920s, Singapore was under British colonial rule and was surprisingly cosmopolitan. It experienced a financial boom between the two world wars, just as the Western world did. It had vibrant communities made up of various different nationalities: Indians, Straits Chinese, and British.  Some of the unrest in neighboring China found its way into the equatorial island country. It is at this time and in this period of relative calm that Liz Rosenberg's short novel, The Moonlight Palace, is set.

Agnes Hussein is 17. She is one of the last descendants of the last sultan of Singapore and she lives with her elderly extended family in the crumbling Kampong Glam Palace. Her parents and older brother died in the flu epidemic many years ago and she is left with her grandmother, Nei-Nei Down; British Grandfather; her Uncle Chachi, who is actually her great uncle and the heir to the palace; an aged servant; and a trio of odd young male boarders. It is only the rent that these students pay combined with British Grandfather's pension from the army that keeps the Hussein family in the slowly disintegrating palace at all. As the youngest, most able-bodied member of the family, Aggie feels as if she must take on responsibility for the old people, coming up with the idea of a retail job to help keep them afloat. Even as Aggie is trying to find a way to help bring in some money to patch the palace, one of the boarders is concocting his own dangerous plot that will change the lives of all the residents of Kampong Glam Palace but especially of the naïve and sweet Aggie who will experience love and betrayal for the first time as a result.

The Singapore setting is well done and carefully drawn. The time of the book is less well depicted with little devoted to ensuring that the reader always feels immersed in the 1920s instead of the present. The history of the time was so rich, especially in Asia, and yet the novel really just offers a glancing nod towards the way in which the world around them was changing and the growing tensions in the British held colony. The characters themselves are generally appealing and entertaining but a little thin and the pacing is slow without much narrative tension. Some of this lack of tension is because the story is told from Aggie's point of view and her understanding of her family's tenuous position is not only incomplete but it is almost non-existent. She knows that their financial straits mirror the ruin of the palace but has no concept of what that really means for the future, leaving her open and susceptible to outside forces. The ending of the novel introduces a new character entirely and then wraps up abruptly after a cursory couple of pages. A quick read, this coming of age novel is not quite as fully rounded as might be hoped but it is, despite that, a nice and easy read.

For more information about the book, take a look at the book's page on GoodReads. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme is hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on.

Christmas at Tiffany's by Karen Swan. The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on October 28, 2014.

Amazon says this about the book: In the wake of a heartbreaking betrayal, a young woman leaves the Scottish countryside to find her destiny in three of the most exciting cities in the world—New York, Paris, and London—in this funny and triumphant tale of fulfillment, friendship, and love.

Ten years ago, a young and naïve Cassie married her first serious boyfriend, believing he would be with her forever. Now, her marriage is in tatters and Cassie has no career or home of her own. Though she feels betrayed and confused, Cassie isn’t giving up. She’s going to take control of her life. But first she has to find out where she belongs . . . and who she wants to be.

Over the course of one year, Cassie leaves her sheltered life in rural Scotland to stay with her best friends living in the most glamorous cities in the world: New York, Paris, and London. Exchanging comfort food and mousy hair for a low-carb diet and a gorgeous new look, Cassie tries each city on for size as she searches for the life she’s meant to have . . . and the man she’s meant to love.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Review: Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky

All of us have many teachers over our lifetime. Some of them teach us in school, some coach us in sports, and some just teach us about life. Among those many teachers are those couple who leave a lasting impression, who push us to be better than we ever imagined we could be. We all have at least that one teacher in our lives. The lucky among us have several. For me, over the years, I can point to a couple of swim coaches, a geometry teacher, and a Russian teacher who all took the time to not only teach me about what their field was but to develop me as a person and to teach me about what I could and should expect from myself. Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky have written a tribute to the teacher, and in Melanie's case, father, who had that same sort of dramatic impact on their lives in their non-fiction book, Strings Attached.

Opening with Melanie dreaming of losing her sister and Joanne answering the phone to hear a voice she hadn't thought of in years, this is the story of Mr. Kupchysky, or Mr. K, the school orchestra director in East Brunswick, New Jersey, his life, the terrible sorrows and hardships he had to overcome, and the impact he had on countless children's lives. Told in alternating chapters by Joanne and Melanie, they each describe Mr. K and his methods as a music teacher. Melanie, being his daughter, saw the impact his hard life had on him, not only his escape from WWII Ukraine but his wife's debilitating illness, their tough marriage, and then the disappearance of their youngest daughter, Stephanie. As they describe Mr. K. though, each of them also tells of her own life and growth as a musician and as a person.

Each of them details the incredibly high standards to which Mr. K. held his musicians and the heights to which those expectations led them. Both Lipman and Kupchynsky excelled at their instruments, earning honors and accolades, learning invaluable lessons from their hard but proud taskmaster. Mr. K.'s methods as a teacher are not ones that are often seen or embraced, especially in today's educational environment. He did not praise where no praise was earned. He intimidated. He didn't couch his honesty in easy to swallow platitudes or soften the blow of his disappointment. He didn't subscribe to the school of only positive reinforcement. In fact, he was the sort of teacher who ruled through discipline and determined repetition. His lofty expectations for anyone lucky and talented enough to study under him shaped them all. And it clearly worked.

While this aspect of the story was mildly interesting for a reader with no musical knowledge and no interest in teaching, the story really drew me much more into it when Stephanie went missing and the focus was on the impact of her disappearance and the way that Mr. K.'s former students rallied around as he faced yet one more tragedy in a life rife with them. It is Stephanie's disappearance that is even the catalyst for Lipman's reconnection with the Kupchynskys and the driving force behind looking back at what defined and drove Mr. K., and what made him the inspiration for so many young musicians. I have to admit I didn't love this as much as I had hoped to, perhaps because the pacing of the narration in the 60s and 70s was much slower than that of the 90s, or perhaps because music and teaching are not particular interests of mine. But as a book, it did get me to reflect on the people who have been so very important, and not always adequately acknowledged as such, in my own life, a worthy outcome to reading it, I think.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

Monday, October 20, 2014

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I didn't get any closer to getting caught up on reviews this week either. As a matter of fact, per usual, I got further away from being caught up. ::sigh:: This meme is hosted by Sheila at Book Journey.

Books I completed this past week are:

Falling For Max by Shannon Stacey
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex, and Valerie Bowman
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond
The Way North edited by Ron Riekki
The Banks of Certain Rivers by Jon Harrison

Reviews posted this week:

Us by David Nicholls
The Innocent Sleep by Karen Perry

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky
Palmerino by Melissa Pritchard
If Not For This by Pete Fromm
The Lady From Tel Aviv by Raba'i al-Madhoun
Angels Make Their Hope Here by Breena Clarke
Ishmael's Oranges by Claire Hajaj
Neverhome by Laird Hunt
Burial Rights by Hannah Kent
Euphoria by Lily King
The Blessings by Elise Juska
The Traitor's Wife by Allison Pataki
Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks
All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Juliet's Nurse by Lois Leveen
We Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride
Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield
The Orphans of Race Point by Patry Francis
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Mr. Tall by Tony Earley
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Gemini by Carol Cassella
The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
A Farm Dies Once a Year by Arlo Crawford
A Fork in the Road edited by James Oseland
Marching to Zion by Mary Glickman
Flirting with French by William Alexander
Reluctantly Royal by Nichole Chase
The Geometry of Love by Jessica Levine
The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton
Highland Scandal by Julia London
Since You've Been Gone by Anouska Knight
Starting Over by Sue Moorcroft
Falling For Max by Shannon Stacey
The Moonlight Palace by Liz Rosenberg
Christmas Brides by Suzanne Enoch, Alexandra Hawkins, Elizabeth Essex, and Valerie Bowman
'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

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