Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was 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. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Mum and Dad by Joanna Trollope.

The book is being released by Mantle on May 1, 2021.

The book's jacket copy says: Their parents made a choice years ago. Now they're counting on the children to step in. After so much time, can old wounds heal? Mum & Dad by the Sunday Times bestseller Joanna Trollope is a wise, brilliantly drawn examination of a modern family dilemma.

"What a mess, she thought now . . . what a bloody, unholy mess the whole family has got itself into."

It’s been 25 years since Gus and Monica left England to start a new life in Spain, building a vineyard and wine business from the ground up. However, when Gus suffers a stroke and their idyllic Mediterranean life is thrown into upheaval, it’s left to their three grown-up children in London to step in . . . Sebastian is busy running his company with his wife, Anna, who’s never quite seen eye-to-eye with her mother-in-law. Katie, a successful solicitor in the City, is distracted by the problems with her long-term partner, Nic, and the secretive lives of their three daughters. And Jake, ever the easy-going optimist, is determined to convince his new wife, Bella, that moving to Spain with their 18-month-old would be a good idea. As the children descend on the vineyard, it becomes clear that each has their own idea of how best to handle their mum and dad, as well as the family business. But as long-simmering resentments rise to the surface and tensions reach breaking point, can the family ties prove strong enough to keep them together?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Review: Wild Women by Autumn Stephens

If you say "Victorian women," I can probably guess exactly what you mean. We have a stereotype of Victorian women as proper, prudish women who take care of their husbands and children, whose focus is only on the home and the so-called womanly sphere. But this pop culture portrayal certainly doesn't include all women. In fact, the women of the era whom we have most likely heard of, with the possible exception of Queen Victoria herself (although even she apparently wasn't nearly as stiff and unhumorous as the popular picture would imply), are all women who most assuredly did not follow the strictures of the age. Autumn Stephens's Wild Women offers brief biographies of some of the women who fought against this straight-laced and rather uninteresting expectation and lived life on their own terms.

This collection of very short biographical blurbs is organized by the transgressions the women committed against the expectations of their sex. With cheesy alliterative chapters like Dreaded Desperados and Gutsy Gamblers, Holy Terrors and Pope Perturbers, Flamboyant Flirts and Lascivious Libertines, and so forth, the 150 biographies focus on the scandalous aspect of each women that best fits the chapter category. This makes many of the women within each chapter start to sound the same. In fact, even across the chapters the brevity of the biographies make the women sound similar. There are only so many ways to rebel against the "Angel in the House" trope but the sameness is highlighted by featuring so many women in so short a space. Stephens' tone is quite glib as she describes these women and it is difficult to figure out how the author determined which women to include as not all of them are nearly as notable as the others. Some of the women are very well known while others are quite unknown. The women profiled here are primarily American women of European descent and one blurb about a woman who contested her father's will for fifty years, only winning the case six years after her own demise is repeated twice within the pages. Given the nature of the book and the lack of in depth information (both intentional), this is really more a book to dip into and out of rather than to sit and read in one go. It was a decent enough diversion but no more than that.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Review: The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Nope. Nope. Nope. Someone please remind me that I am a huge coward and no matter how entertaining a book might look, if anyone out there has described it as horror, I should walk right on past. And if I argue with you, remind me of The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires because I read it and then had the worst night of sleep I've had in a long time, cycling through nightmare to waking fears and back to nightmare. And yes, I recognize I'm a wimp but I have a hard enough time living in my own scaredy-cat head so I should definitely avoid Grady Hendrix's creepy head space in the future.

New to the Old Village part of Charleston in the 1990s, Patricia Campbell is floundering, so overwhelmed with life that she hasn't even managed to read the book club book she's supposed to lead the discussion for. She wouldn't last long in this book club but she doesn't have to as a splinter "not-a-book-club" group breaks off, choosing to read true crime rather than classics, and composed of several women who become friends, quietly stepping up for each other when required. Several years into the not-a-book-club, Patricia is brutally attacked by an elderly neighbor in a terrifically gory scene but her Southern training is so deeply engrained that she still takes a casserole over to the woman's great-nephew to express her condolences at the woman's death and welcomes him into the neighborhood and the not-a-book-club when he decides to stay.

Shortly after handsome great-nephew James Harris' arrival in town, poor, black children start to go missing or die in unlikely ways but the police seem to care not at all, nor do the denizens of the white part of town even hear about the deaths and disappearances. Patricia tries to rally the other mothers in the not-a-book-club with the knowledge of what she accidentally knows, hears, and sees but they only back her until their appallingly chauvinistic husbands step in to set the poor overwrought, little ladies straight. They like James Harris, they like his money, and they like the life he encourages them to lead, not least of which is the pursuit of money to the exclusion of truth. And so they, and their compliant wives gaslight Patricia. Only Mrs. Greene, the African-American woman who cared for Patricia's mother-in-law, believes Patricia and calls out the privilege and racism that allows Old Village to ignore the fear and evil that stalks her community. Despite the relatively little page time, she, more than main character Patricia, is the moral center of the strangely uneven novel.

The portrayal of all of the characters, with the possible exception of the monster, seem just a bit off. The women are spineless until the very end, caricatures of 50s housewives rather than 90s housewives. The men are disgustingly paternalistic to such a degree that they come off as thoroughly despicable people. All of the marriages are horrid and the character's lives are about an inch deep and completely stereotypical. In fact, Hendrix doesn't seem to like his characters much, especially the female characters, mocking them and offering up their uneventful, bored housewife lives as if they were of little to no value. And this attitude is reflected by his one note good ole boy male characters. In the beginning, despite the over the top gory scenes and one truly terrifying scene of an intruder trying to get into the house (this is the one that features in my nightmares, so thanks for that), there is some humor but this quickly peters out as the book moves into the second half. The narrative tension ratchets up until the rug is pulled out from under the reader and the novel settles down into mediocre dullness for a long stretch followed by a whirlwind, highly graphic ending. There are so many issues touched on in the plot, suicide, racism, sexism, classism, alcoholism, spousal abuse, infidelity, elder caretaking, rape, etc. that few of them receive their due. And while a novel with a book club (or not-a-book-club) at its core is quite likely to be about the sisterhood of women, this doesn't quite get there. Nor does it quite succeed as a paean to mother's love for their children either. Yes, this is a satire and therefore over the top, but the overwrought dialogue, the one-dimensional characters, and the unevenness of the plotting and tension miss the mark. Then again, it did successfully give me nightmares so there's something that transcends these flaws too. Mine is a very unpopular opinion as so many others have loved this so if you like horror or aren't nearly as cowardly as I am, I suggest you make up your own mind on this one.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Wild Women by Autumn Stephens
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Minus Me by Mameve Medwed

Reviews posted this week:

Anonyponymous by John Bemelmans Marciano
Dirty Jewess by Sylvia Fishbaum
The Secret by Julie Garwood
Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

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

Cherries in Winter by Suzan Colon
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Wild Women by Autumn Stephens
The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Review: Her Last Flight by Beatriz Williams

In our world now, with contrails crisscrossing the sky and flights departing constantly for near and far, it can be hard to remember the danger and novelty and glamor of early flight, the way that pilots like Lindbergh and Earhart were bigger than movie stars. They were impossibly brave and reckless and completely fascinating people, daredevils, these pioneers of aviation. Beatriz Williams takes readers back to this time, when pilots kept trying to fly farther, faster, or longer than they had before, topping each others' and their own feats as splashed across newspaper headlines around the world in her novel Her Last Flight.

In 1947, Janey Everett, a photojournalist is writing a book about the famous pilot Sam Mallory, missing in the Spanish Civil War. Opening with her quiet discovery of the wreckage of his plane in the Spanish desert and a chance line in his journal found in the plane, Janey is off to find the one person who can tell her the truth of what happened in that wreck, a person also long missing. Irene Lindquist and her husband Olle run an island hopping airline in Hawa'ii. Janey suspects that this Irene is Irene Foster, once Sam Mallory's student and flying partner and a famous aviatrix in her own right but Mrs. Lindquist is taciturn and evasive and a lot less than welcoming, even initially denying this identity. Janey continues to dig though and the women come to a sort of tentative truce as Irene slowly tells her own incredible story and how it weaves into Sam Mallory's.

Told in chapters alternating between the 1947 present and the book that Janey is writing, this is that rare novel where both threads of the narrative are gripping. The tension between Janey and Irene is palpable and the reader wonders what all is being held back by these two fiercely private women while the chapters out of Janey's book in progress work toward uncovering the mystery of Sam's fate that Janey is so determined to bring to light. This is a story of complicated relationships, of fame, loss, and love. Both Janey and Irene are strong women who have succeeded in men's occupations. Each guards herself carefully, allowing very few people to see behind their protective exteriors. The secondary characters are well drawn and engaging, rounding out the lives of these women, illustrating parts of our main characters that the reader would not otherwise see. The novel is smooth and while filled with drama, it is not a showy kind of drama, more a quiet, personal cost sort. There are, of course, echoes of Earhart's life and final flight but Irene (and Sam) are entirely Williams' own and the story is well conceived. Readers fascinated by the human beings behind early aviation will delight in this well researched and well written novel.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me this book for review.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Review: The Secret by Julie Garwood

I do like historical romances set in Scotland. There's something so swoony about a man in a kilt, right? And the Scottish Highlands, with its fierce warriors and deep distrust (to soft pedal it a bit) of the English is enticing too. So Julie Garwood's 13th century set historical romance, The Secret, about an English woman and a Scots laird hits the kilted, intimidating and tender hero and sassy, kind and caring heroine spot for me.

Judith and Frances Catherine are just children when they meet at a summer festival in the borderlands of England and Scotland. They're too young to know they aren't supposed to like each other because Judith is English and Frances Catherine is Scottish so they became fast friends, meeting up at the festival annually. Frances Catherine's mother died just after childbirth and knowing that her friend was afraid of doing the same, Judith vowed to Frances Catherine that she would come to her and make sure that Frances Catherine lived through the experience herself. Now Frances Catherine, married to the younger brother of the Maitland laird, is pregnant and she wants her friend by her side as promised. Although he is not certain that bringing an English woman into their Highland clan's territory is the right thing to do, Laird Iain Maitland agrees to fetch his sister-in-law's friend, never dreaming that the Englishwoman and outsider will keep her word to sweet Frances Catherine and change his life, and the life of his clan for the better.

Judith is an honorable woman and she is determined to keep her word to her dear friend. Traveling to the Highlands also gets her closer to meeting the father about whom she has been told lies her entire life, a father who is a Scottish laird himself, Laird Maclean. The chemistry between Judith and Iain is good and their verbal sparring is entertaining. They are well matched equals. Although Iain can be high-handed and arrogant, he also admires Judith's strength and bravery and learns to listen to her when she sees ways to make the women of the clan happier. Judith is intelligent, diplomatic, and definitely before her time but her questions, suggestions, and changes to the lives around her are not so far out as to be completely unbelievable. Not much of Iain's past comes to light throughout the novel but Judith's own fractured and sometimes traumatic past, living half the year with her cruel mother and an alcoholic uncle and half the year with a kind aunt and uncle, tied as it is to the secret of the title, is laid out fully for the reader. The evolving relationship between Judith and Iain is wonderfully done and realistic. The end is resolved a little neatly and quickly but that's forgivable given the truly happily ever after which tidily sets up the next book in the series. Historical romance fans will definitely enjoy this.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Review: Dirty Jewess by Sylvia Fishbaum

We have seen many acts of anti-Semitism in the past few years and the incidence of such hate seems to be rising so it is curious to me that Fishbaum would title her memoir, Dirty Jewess, about growing up in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain the daughter of Holocaust survivors with such a slur, even if it reflects the hatefulness she encountered especially in her early life. In fact, my son was horrified to see the book (not having read the subtitle of course) on my stack of books. I assured him that it was not a hate-filled book but even having read it, I question the wisdom of the title.

Using the pseudonym Sophia, explaining in the author's note that she had intended to stay anonymous, Fishbaum writes of growing up in communist Czechoslovakia and the religious persecution her family faced, first in a small town as the only remaining Jews living there and then in a larger one where there was at least a small Jewish community to belong to. She writes of not understanding the importance of her religion and the ways in which it set her family apart even as she watched her parents refuse to allow her older sister to marry out of the faith but eventually comes to understand the religious legacy she carries. As she grew up, she knew that she didn't want to stay under communist rule and so she worked hard and saved against the day that she could escape, refusing to marry or even consider marriage as she was expected to do in order to be free to escape when the opportunity arose. And despite several setbacks, her determination ruled the day in the end and she ultimately made it to the US, where she met, fell in love, married, and had children.

Early in her memoir she mentions a man in the larger town her family lived in, Ludovit Feld, who the children all called Uncle Lajos. He was a little person, an artist, and an art teacher who had survived the Holocaust. Fishbaum speaks of taking art classes from him for a brief period and of his being one of the people who the evil Dr. Mengele experimented on in the concentration camps but her connection with him doesn't seem that deep until she reveals that she and her husband bought all of Feld's art work in the hopes that they will one day be exhibited in a museum and helped to see that a life-sized statue of the man was erected in his home town. Her story is very personal but she keeps an emotional distance from the reader by not showing the deep emotional attachment she surely has to many of the people in her life who helped shape her into the woman she is. This understated remove is not only there with Uncle Lajos but also with the Italian family with whom she lived for months before being granted asylum in the US. She mentions her American aunt and uncle very little beyond having lived with them in the first days of her life in Chicago. The superficial handling of Fishbaum's relationships with people so important in her life make this much less emotionally resonant than it should be. She says that she wrote this so that her children, family, and friends would know her story and if they already know pieces or the emotional importance of the others in her life, perhaps they didn't need a more full account but those of us who are strangers could have benefitted from more depth. It's an interesting story, one that we don't often see, but it feels sepia toned rather than full color.

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