Thursday, October 17, 2019

Review: Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney

I am only ever in fashionable by accident. I quite appreciated the trend for grey hair recently and was tickled when some women (models? actresses? famous for some reason anyway) were photographed carrying books that the media dubbed the new fashion accessory. Both of these looks I can accomplish without the thought and effort that goes into actually being on trend. But if thought and effort is required, well, I can be found in pajamas or jeans and sweatshirts/t-shirts. I am nothing if not the epitome of unfashionable. So it is perhaps odd that I'd choose to read a biography of Coco Chanel. In fairness, it was a book club choice but in a perfect world, I would also like to be able to pull off that certain panache that style imparts. Lisa Chaney's biography, Coco Chanel, certainly discusses Chanel's impact on and belief about the guiding tenets of fashion but it is less about her public success and her designs and more about the little bit of her private life that can be uncovered and verified.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was famous for obscuring the truth about her life, contradicting things she'd already claimed, and leaving little written documentation of her life for biographers to work with. Chaney had access to newly discovered documents so she had more than usual to go on but her factual information was still quite limited and she fleshed out her biography with conjecture and speculation. Because of the dearth of actual documented information on Chanel, there's a lot of detail about the historical times and the people around Chanel, about whom more is known. These extensive details become long diversions from the topic and life of our ostensible subject. Often there are long lists of the names of potentially prominent people who are not generally remembered by history and never appear again in the book. They might be named in order to show Chanel's influence and evolving depth of her inner circle but as they are unknowns, they add nothing to the book. And certainly Chanel knew, befriended, dressed, otherwise worked with, or had an affair with so many very famous people that the other names were just tedious to read. Many of the chapters were quite repetitious both in descriptions of certain people (physically and in terms of personality) and in ideas.

When focusing on Chanel herself, as the reader expects in a biography, Chaney appears to be writing something of a hagiography. In writing of anything remotely negative, she then justifies Chanel's choices in some way. And she is almost entirely uncritical about the most controversial bits of Chanel's life, ignoring or making only glancing mentions of things like her drug addiction and her early abortion. As for Chanel's well known affair with a Nazi officer during (and after!!) WWII and possible collaboration, Chaney only skims the surface, suggesting that Chanel didn't know the depths of his position despite all the obvious evidence pointing to his importance. Either Chanel was an incredibly smart and savvy woman, as presented prior to this instance, or she is the most naive and, frankly, unobservant woman ever. Impossibly, Chaney chooses both to make Chanel look as good as possible in all cases, including this affair.

There are odd authorial intrusions into the text to tell the reader that she (Chaney) was the first to see and use certain sources like recently discovered diaries and letters. Even with these new sources, Chanel's secrets don't seem to have been uncovered and I'm not entirely certain they would really be all that interesting if they were uncovered given the portrait we're presented with here. I enjoy history and learning how actual individual people either fit into their times or challenged and pushed them but this biography did not end up succeeding in this for me. It was long and unfocused so it turned out to be a rather dull read unfortunately.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

It seems pretty obvious to say that your family shapes you, that your experiences make you who you turn out to be. As obvious as it sounds, it is true. But people react to their same circumstances, their same raising, the same major events in their lives in very different ways because there are also things that are hard wired into us, that are coded on our genes, that have nothing to do with nurture and everything to do with nature. Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane is the story of two families, and more specifically, two children of these families, and how their lives and who they become depends so greatly on a shared tragedy.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are rookie NYC cops and partners for a brief time. Each is young and starting out in similar circumstances so it's not entirely surprising when they each move to the suburbs and end up as next door neighbors. Lena Gleeson tries to befriend Anne Stanhope but Anne keeps her at arms length, even after the Gleeson's third daughter, Kate, and the Stanhope's son, Peter, are born within six months of each other. The two families could not be more different and Anne is unhappy about Peter's growing friendship with Kate but the two have a bond that cannot be broken by something as weak as parental disapproval.  Lena worries about their friendship as well, but for entirely different reasons than Anne does.  And eventually their friendship starts to morph into a tentative something more until one night something happens that shatters both families.

Spanning four decades, this is a novel about life trajectories and intersections, mental illness, alcoholism, desertion, and forgiveness. The beginning of the story gives some insight into the Gleeson and Stanhope families but the narrative only focuses on the inside of the Gleeson family, leaving Peter to share (or hide) the incomplete inner workings of his own family with Kate.  The change in character focus illuminates Francis, Lena, Kate, and Peter, but leaves Brian and Anne mostly as shadowy ciphers.  The bulk of the story follows Peter and Kate in the years after they were neighbors and the impact their youthful relationship and their shared tragedy had in shaping them and their futures. There was a lot going on in the novel and quite a few issues touched on within these two families, but chief among them was forgiveness and its price. The book was a slow read and unhappiness leached out of many of the characters giving it a depressed tone most of the way through although there was ultimately some redemption, some sense of overcoming and acceptance. Keane handles the tension of the novel well, keeping it rising, even after the event that drives the latter two thirds of the book.  There is a measure of predictability here but the characters are more the focus than the plot, except in the one catastrophic instance.  Fans of character driven, family dysfunction novels will find much to satisfy them here.

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

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.

The Other Windsor Girl by Georgie Blalock.

The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on November 5, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: Diana, Catherine, Meghan…glamorous Princess Margaret outdid them all. Springing into post-World War II society, and quite naughty and haughty, she lived in a whirlwind of fame and notoriety. Georgie Blalock captures the fascinating, fast-living princess and her “set” as seen through the eyes of one of her ladies-in-waiting.

In dreary, post-war Britain, Princess Margaret captivates everyone with her cutting edge fashion sense and biting quips. The royal socialite, cigarette holder in one hand, cocktail in the other, sparkles in the company of her glittering entourage of wealthy young aristocrats known as the Margaret Set, but her outrageous lifestyle conflicts with her place as Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister. Can she be a dutiful princess while still dazzling the world on her own terms?

Post-war Britain isn’t glamorous for The Honorable Vera Strathmore. While writing scandalous novels, she dreams of living and working in New York, and regaining the happiness she enjoyed before her fiancĂ© was killed in the war. A chance meeting with the Princess changes her life forever. Vera amuses the princess, and what—or who—Margaret wants, Margaret gets. Soon, Vera gains Margaret’s confidence and the privileged position of second lady-in-waiting to the Princess. Thrust into the center of Margaret’s social and royal life, Vera watches the princess’s love affair with dashing Captain Peter Townsend unfurl.

But while Margaret, as a member of the Royal Family, is not free to act on her desires, Vera soon wants the freedom to pursue her own dreams. As time and Princess Margaret’s scandalous behavior progress, both women will be forced to choose between status, duty, and love…

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Review: Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust by Hedi Fried

The generation who lived through the atrocities of WWII is aging and dwindling. Their stories are too important to disappear with them because they remind us of the evil man is capable of, the horrific tragedy of genocide, and ultimately of the resilience and hope of the human spirit. They give us first person insights that personalize the abstract, making the truth immediate. It is impossible to look away in the face of such stories. Hedi Fried has spent years teaching young people about the Holocaust and her experiences in Auschwitz and other labor camps. In Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust, she has gathered common questions and her answers to them together in one place, addressing the inhumanity of what was done to millions of people, the motivations behind this evil, and how she lives her life now with such horror in her past.

Fried has previously written an autobiography so this memoir is very different, both in form and in function. This is meant as a teaching tool, an aide to ensure that something like the Holocaust can never happen again to anyone anywhere. It is set up in a question and answer format. The questions are pretty basic and the short answers are interesting and informative. Sometimes there isn't an answer, per se, but only speculation and guesswork, especially for the more philosophical questions. Questions range from "Were you always hungry?" to "Did you dream at night?" to "How could an entire people get behind Hitler?" and "Do you hate the Germans?" The answers are easily understood and processed by younger readers. They are honest and unflinching and they boil down Fried's experiences to their very essence without needing to describe every detail to get the point across.

The questions and answers range across Fried's entire life, drawing a picture of her family's existence before the war to contrast with what they endured during the war. She shares her purpose in life now, finding her voice as a way to reconcile surviving when so many others didn't. While it is not the last question in the book, one that really resonates is "Are you able to forgive?" combined with its answer, "This is a question I've thought about often, until I realised that you do not have to think in those terms. What has been done may not be undone, time cannot be turned back, those who are gone will never come again. Today we have to look to the future. What we can do today is work to make sure that it never happens again." Words we would all do to remember forever. This is not a traditionally written memoir and it is clearly geared towards younger readers.  The format makes it easy to dip and out of but also easy to set aside for a while.  It is simply written and described and there's no linear narrative but as one woman's first person experiences and feelings, it is invaluable.

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

Monday, October 14, 2019

Review: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Imagine a United States much like ours. Now make abortion illegal. Endow embryos with legal rights and personhood according to a Constitutional Amendment. Outlaw in-vitro fertilization because said embryos can't give consent to be transferred from lab to uterus. Set this alternate American story on the eve of the implementation of a law that states that only married couples can adopt because "Every Child Needs Two." This is the world that Leni Zumas has created in her novel, Red Clocks, a world quietly at war against women.

Four women in a small Oregon town, a history teacher (called The Biographer), an herbalist who lives alone in the woods (called The Mender), a pregnant teenager (called The Daughter), and a discontented stay at home mother (called The Wife) are all straining against society's definition of them.  In the erasure of their identities, they are simply the embodiment of their roles rather than individual women who have hopes and dreams and complicated feelings. Naming them according to their roles strips them of their personhood much as the ever tightening laws about women do. But Zumas isn't consistent with their anonymity, allowing other characters to call the women by their names, which confuses matters. Ro, the history teacher, is single, in her forties, and cannot seem to conceive a biological child through IUI. Time is running out for her to adopt as the law restricting adoptions to married couples only is mere weeks away from becoming reality. As she struggles with the unfairness of her situation, especially in contrast to Susan (The Wife) who appears to have it all and pregnant teenager Mattie (The Daughter), she is also writing a biography of a little known, female Faroese polar explorer named Eivor Minervudottir who faced her own immense struggles against the ideas of men and their ideas of women's place in the world. Susan, the wife, has two children she loves but her marriage is unhappy and she feels and rejects the pressure to be the perfect wife, entirely eschewing cleaning and cooking a certain way and demanding some time to herself to escape her children and their constant needs. She keeps hoping that her husband will be the one to end their marriage because she dreads being seen to be the one who ruined everything. Mattie, the daughter, who is Ro's student and Susan's occasional babysitter, is fifteen and pregnant. She knows what happens to girls who seek abortions and are discovered but she doesn't care. She just doesn't want to be pregnant and she'll go to extreme lengths to find a way to terminate despite the fact that her own parents would never approve. Gin, the mender, is looked at askance in town, living as she does, out in the woods, supplying women with herbal healing concoctions. It is to Gin that Mattie first goes in her quest for an abortion. And it is Gin who is the thin skein of connection between the other three women.  How this unkempt, witchy woman is connected to each of them gets revealed slowly throughout the novel as she herself comes under unwanted scrutiny and is placed at risk.

This could be a frightening view of our political future but it was actually more about society's defining of women's roles than it was about the laws that curtail their freedoms (although it is about some of that too), laws that aren't so far off in the imagination now. The four women, and Eivor the explorer too, must conform or be punished, must suffer quietly or be outcast, or be considered unnatural. The chapters alternated between each of the women and either a small fragment of Eivor's diary or Ro's biography of her (it's unclear which it is), showing how each woman chafed at her situation. The characters each showed a different face of what society expects of women but in doing so they became fairly stereotypical. If intentionally drawn to show they acquiesced to what was expected of them, Zumas has succeeded but this also meant they lacked the engaging emotional depth of more complex characters, which made the reader less interested in their stories. Their stories, individually or collectively, didn't feel as if they were the most important things here though anyway. Unfortunately the message of the novel took precedence over the plot. For as interesting as the premise was, once the reader got used to the staccato prose style and choppy narrative, this ended up being fairly pedestrian. Maybe that makes it all the scarier as a near future dystopia. That certainly seems to be true for many other readers; it just wasn't for me.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past few weeks are:

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhannon
Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor
The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo

Reviews posted this week:

Southernmost by Silas House
The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler
When Death Takes Something From You, Take It Back: Carl's Story by Naja Marie Aidt
Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai
The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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

Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf
At Briarwood School for Girls by Michael Knight
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens
Like This Afternoon Forever by Jaime Manrique
Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Dear Baba by Maryam Rafiee
Saint Everywhere by Mary Lea Carroll
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
CinderGirl by Christina Meredith
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
The Question Authority by Rachel Cline
The Plaza by Julie Satow
The Lonely Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Haben by Haben Girma
The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester
Educated by Tara Westover
State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Turbulence by David Szalay
What a Body Remembers by Karen Stefano
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by the New York Public Library
The Honey Bus by Meredith May
The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Church of the Graveyard Saints by C. Joseph Greaves
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Advanced Physical Chemistry by Susannah Nix
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Lowenstein
No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel
Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich
The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail
A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford
Crazy Cupid Love by Amanda Heger
A Moveable Feast edited by Don George
Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giuliani
Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew
Love You Hard by Abby Maslin
Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr
The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
Nothing to Report by Carola Oman
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George
The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrivals:

Spam Tomorrow by Verily Anderson came from me for myself.

With this title, can you resist? This memoir of a young married woman during WWII looks both funny and poignant.

Somewhere in England by Carola Oman came from me for myself.

The sequel to the delightful Nothing to Report, I couldn't resist this one and I'm looking forward to getting back to the quirky characters and the small English village as WWII comes to England.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

If you've ever loved a dog, you know the worry you feel as they get older and something out of the ordinary happens. Maybe they stop eating their food all in one go or they need to go outside much more frequently or they miss the bed when they try to jump up on it or they grow an unfamiliar lump. There might be easy and fixable reasons for these changes. They might just be a normal part of aging for your dog. Or they can be something more sinister, something that threatens this furry piece of your heart, this animal you love and who loves you back unconditionally. Losing them is not an option and so you bargain, you fight, you plead for your four-legged friend. Steven Rowley's Lily and the Octopus is this story, the story of one man and his aging dachshund, and the life and love they have shared for many years.

Ted is a middle-aged, gay man whose best friend is his dog Lily. He hasn't been altogether lucky in his quest for love and relationship with people but he loves Lily deeply and fiercely. He talks to her and she talks back to him. When he finds a lump on the side of Lily's head, he nicknames it the Octopus for the eight arms he feels in it. This aggressive thing becomes his adversary, another character that he talks to, that talks back to him. As the story moves forward, Ted tells of his life with Lily starting from the time she was just a tiny puppy, detailing his deep love for her, his often neurotic attachment, the ways in which she has impacted his life, and how she has been with him through so much of the good and bad in their twelve years together.

For most of the novel, this is a straightforward story but at a point about three quarters in, there is a dream sequence or magical realism piece that veers toward Ahab hunting the whale as Ted pursues the octopus. It is an odd intrusion into an otherwise simple story. Yes, Lily speaks to Ted throughout but that could simply be his anthropomorphizing her in his head as many dog owners do (maybe not quite to this extent). And the malevolent octopus argues with Ted, refusing to leave Ted and Lily in peace, but even that feels roughly believable until the long ocean chase. Ted and Lily's relationship is sweet but the way that her responses to him are handled in the text, in all caps, italics, and with each word followed by exclamation points quickly went from quirky to intrusive. The octopus's conversations with Ted are not rendered this way, making the reader wonder why they are handled so normally when Lily's are not. I really wanted to love this novel but I walked away from it thinking it was a strange thing. I too have learned lessons from the dogs of my life and I certainly didn't leave this book without tears in my eyes but the symbolism and stylistic choices just overwhelmed the story line in the end for me. Since I am in the minority in my opinion of this one, other dog lovers will probably enjoy it far more than I did though.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Would you want to know the date of your death? Would knowing it make you want to change anything about the way you live? Would your answer change if the date was soon? If it was far off in the future? Perhaps an even bigger question is whether you'd believe the date was set in stone or if it could be changed by your actions, circumstances, or choices. Do you try to cheat it? Do you embrace it? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?  Can you escape it? Chloe Benjamin's novel, The Immortalists, takes this premise and weaves an intriguing story around four siblings facing the knowledge of their final days and how they choose to live in the interim.

In 1969, the Gold siblings range from 13 to 7 years old and they cannot resist when they hear that there's a rishika, a fortune teller, in their neighborhood and that she can tell you when you'll die.  Borrowing courage from each other they set out to visit ehr together but each goes in alone to hear the date of their death. They are unsettled and uncertain how to take what they've been told but for the most part, their lives continue onward, affected more by the death of their close-lipped father than by the knowledge they've been given. Simon, the youngest, has always been the one to whom the family tailoring business is supposed to fall but he feels stifled by this expectation, choosing instead to flee to San Francisco with his older sister, immersing himself in the life he could never have embraced in New York. He becomes a dancer, the grand passion of his life, and learns to love himself as he is. Sister Klara, who escaped from home with Simon yearns to become a magician, flitting all over while learning illusion and showmanship. She marries, has a baby she adores, and even finally finds success professionally but she's still not happy and her death date hangs always over her head. Oldest brother Daniel has always wanted to be a doctor, joining the army after medical school. Unwilling to pass unfit recruits through their medical exams despite orders from a superior to do just that, Daniel's job is hanging by a thread, his connection with his family has long been distant, and he finds himself enmeshed in an FBI investigation into the fortune teller from so many years before. Varya, the oldest Gold child, is a longevity scientist who works with monkeys. Her favorite is Frida, who is not just a research subject but a sort of surrogate child. When a journalist named Luke arrives to profile the center where Varya works, she is forced to confront the past, hers and her siblings', and how that has made her the person she is now.

Obviously this is a book about life and death but it is also a book about family and truly living. It acknowledges that words and stories are important, both those we tell others and those we tell ourselves. Once the fateful dates have been spoken, they cannot be undone and can only grow and take on meaning. The deaths, and there are deaths, are different and mostly fitting for the characters. Some are more believable and poignant than others for sure and the book is stronger in the beginning than in the end when Benjamin tells the reader the conclusions they should have come to about life and the importance of living it to the fullest. The narrative itself is split into a prologue and then four sections, each centered on one of the siblings while the others fade into the background, and finally ending in 2010 with old memories intertwining effortlessly, appropriately enough, with a tentative look to an unspoken and unfated future. The idea of the story is intriguing for sure and if the book is a little uneven in execution, it will still give readers much to consider and discuss.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Review: The Flicker of Old Dreams by Susan Henderson

Sometimes a book comes along that is just beautiful and moving and special. Susan Henderson's novel The Flicker of Old Dreams is one such novel. Set in the small, economically depressed western town of Petroleum, Montana, this is the story of a woman who has never fit in but has lived there all her life and a man who has returned to the town that drove him away years ago in order to be there for his dying mother. It is not a love story; it is a self-acceptance story. And it is heartbreaking and gorgeously rendered.

Mary is the embalmer in her father's funeral home. Her profession marks her out as strange in this rural farming community but she's been considered odd since her lonely, motherless childhood. Her painfully introverted, socially awkward personality hasn't made it any easier for her to fight against her outcast persona, at best ignored and at worst mocked. She's stayed in Petroleum helping her father but that was never her dream. Her dream, once upon a time, was to go to art school and become an artist. Now her only art is in preparing the people who come through the funeral home. The dead accept her ministrations, allowing her to feel an accepted part of things in ways that she hasn't since she was small. When she was a child, there was a terrible, tragic grain elevator accident at work where a boy on the verge of adulthood, a boy who was a star athlete, a boy who embodied everything that the town wanted to celebrate, died horribly. His younger brother Robert was with him at the time and town lore has it that it is he who caused the accident, or at least deserved the blame. Although still a teenager himself, Robert left town after his brother's death. In the aftermath of the accident, the other children allowed Mary, as the daughter of the undertaker, to reenact the tragedy with them, giving her a brief taste of acceptance that soon faded away. It is only when Robert reappears in town to spend his mother's last days with her and facing the scorn and anger of the unforgiving and downtrodden who blame him for the accident and the subsequent closure of the granary, that Mary realizes the cruelty and insularity of a town sitting in judgement, a town that has been only marginally kinder to her through the years.

Both Mary and Robert have been rejected by the people of the town so it is not perhaps unlikely that they should find each other, tapping a place in each other's soul that no one else in Petroleum has ever bothered to touch. Mary narrates the novel, infusing her narration with all the loneliness in her. Her life echoes with sadness and exclusion and Robert brings a measure of understanding with him when he returns home. When Mary must go against her father's long-settled plans, plans that don't take into consideration Robert or his mother's needs and wants but instead the town's wants, she finds a measure of courage and self and rightness that she has never tried to use before.

Henderson doesn't tie things up neatly. Mary fails Robert and herself multiple times even as she knows she's failing. She is drawn as knowing her flaws, her inability to communicate, her outsider status, but is unable to change, and definitely not as quickly as she might have wanted. She is a thoughtful narrator and the quiet resurrection of her dreams comes only haltingly. In Petroleum and in Mary, Henderson evokes a town hopeless with defeat and a main character who might just find her way out and away from the desperate rigidity and angry lashing out that this hopelessness has created. The writing is gorgeous and almost elegiac feeling even while it acknowledges the wrongs the town has done to Mary and to Robert and the quiet desperation that pervades many of its inhabitants' lives. This is very much a story of relationship and its lack, of the sins of the past carried forward in perpetuity, and the slow breaking away from forever acquiescing to what others think and want. It is a beautiful but realistic obituary for a place fading away, slowly and painfully, and the people who are forever marked by that place and its history but who finally need a life lived in wider opportunity, in greater acceptance, and in understanding.

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

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Review: Oh, Tama! by Mieko Kanai

It is always interesting to see what sorts of books capture the imagination of people in other countries. Best sellers and prize winners aren't always translated into English so those of us who do not read in another language don't have access to them or the insights they might give about the culture out of which they sprang. So it's always cause for curiosity when something relatively celebrated is finally translated. Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama! is one such book. Written in 1986-7 as short pieces for magazines and then published as a complete novel, this is the second of the Mejiro novels (named for the neighborhood in which the books are set) and it won the Women's Literature Award in 1998. There is something ineffably foreign about it, a tone or construction, or focus, it is unmistakably Japanese.

Tama the cat is pregnant and her owner, Tsuneko, is also pregnant. As Tsuneko has intentionally disappeared, someone must care for Tama as she waits for her kittens. Alexandre, Tsuneko's mixed race half-brother, a model and sometime porn star, takes the cat to his friend Natsuyuki's home with the intention of leaving her there with the currently unemployed freelance photographer. Complicating matters is the fact that Natsuyuki could potentially be the father of Tsuneko's unborn child. But he's not the only one. In fact, his long-lost older brother, Fuyuhiko, who he only meets as a result of the situation, could also be the baby's father. Sounds complicated and bananas, right? The mystery of where Tsuneko, who has asked the potential father candidates for money, has disappeared to is not even really at issue here in this essentially plotless novel. The bulk of the story is taken up by Natsuyuki's dysfunctional friends and brother moving in and out of his house while Tama observes their philosophical discussions and bewildering behaviour.

The novel has, perhaps, far more of a Japanese sensibility than I understand from my own cultural vantage point. And without the cultural frame of reference that its original audience had, I entirely missed the allusions and parodies. The characters are quirky but aimless and I felt swamped by the slow moving, meandering story. I completely missed the humor that is supposed to be abundant here and am not sure if it is dependent on knowledge of the area in Tokyo where Natsuyuki lives or on an understanding of their generation within Japan or something else entirely. Even situations that are important and life-altering, like the revelation of Fuyuhiko as Natsuyuki's brother, are relayed with flat affect and treated as fairly unremarkable. Even Natsuyuki's mother dismisses the discovery of her oldest son by her youngest as unimportant. Baffling for sure. This has the feel of a stage play with its constant comings and goings and swirling conversations over art and literature, photography and film, fashion and cats. Those who have a deeper appreciation for Japanese literature than I do will likely enjoy reading this brief, almost absurdist novel more than I did.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Review: When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back: Carl's Book by Naja Marie Aidt

Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare. When you have a baby, you do everything in your power to keep them happy and healthy, never imagining that you'll outlive them, this beautiful gift the world bestowed on you and you on it. And yet parents face the devastation of losing children everyday, whether through disease or accident or some other tragedy, and their entire existence is changed by their horrible loss. When Naja Marie Aidt lost her 25 year old son Carl, she wrote this slim book to keep him alive, to mourn his death, and to process his unthinkable absence.

This memoir is a primal scream and a whispered sob. It is choppy and fragmented and broken, just as Aidt is by her loss. Interlayering quotes from others who have written about the death of a child, poetry, a repeated refrain, one that slowly builds in each repetition, about the night that they got the devastating call, and classical Greek and Roman writings on loss, this is a heartbreaking and moving account of the gaping hole that Carl's death left in Aidt's life. A lament in poetic snippets, this is not elegiac or depressing but a truthful and loving examination of the insurmountable fact of death by a mother adrift and longing. It is unconventionally written, a little chaotic, and non-linear and won't be for everyone but it holds emotion and truth, pain and understanding, absence and life in its pages.

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

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.

Red Oblivion by Leslie Shimotakahara.

The book is being released by Dundurn on October 15, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: Family secrets surface when two sisters travel to Hong Kong to care for their ill father.

When Jill Lau receives an early morning phone call that her elderly father has fallen gravely ill, she and her sister, Celeste, catch the first flight from Toronto to Hong Kong. The man they find languishing in the hospital is a barely recognizable shadow of his old, indomitable self.

According to his housekeeper, a couple of mysterious photographs arrived anonymously in the mail in the days before his collapse. These pictures are only the first link in a chain of events that begin to reveal the truth about their father's past and how he managed to escape from Guangzhou, China, during the Cultural Revolution to make a new life for himself in Hong Kong. Someone from the old days has returned to haunt him -- exposing the terrible things he did to survive and flee one of the most violent periods of Chinese history, reinvent himself, and make the family fortune. Can Jill piece together the story of her family's past without sacrificing her father's love and reputation?

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Review: The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler

When we look at the things that duped people long ago, we are generally pretty amazed that they could be so easily deceived, assuming, of course, that we would never be so gullible. And yet we probably believe any number of things that people in the future will look at and scoff over the way we today look at the mesmerism, spiritualism, and other forms of such obvious chicanery from the nineteenth century. Who will our charlatans turn out to be and what will they tell us about ourselves? Until we know that, we can examine those from the past who still have a hold on our imaginations, even if we no longer believe their sometimes earnest, sometimes intentionally duplicitous assertions. Jessica Handler's novel, The Magnetic Girl, takes one such figure, Lulu Hurst, The Georgia Wonder, and brings her to electrifying life.

Early on convinced that she can control people (and animals) and their actions using just her mind, Lulu Hurst is well primed for what comes next in her life. After lightning strikes the poor Georgia farm where she lives with her parents and her younger disabled brother Leo, she becomes convinced that she can channel electricity through her body in addition to reading people's minds. This belief, coupled with the contents of an unusual book on mesmerism that she finds on her father's bookshelf, pushes Lulu to hone her gifts so that she may one day heal her brother and atone for an accident she believes be the root of his problems. Meanwhile, her father decides to capitalize on her naive, hope-filled belief, teaching and guiding her in her feats of amazing strength, arranging for her to perform locally before taking her magnetic act on the road, captivating audiences throughout the South and up and down the East Coast, always pushing for bigger venues, more publicity, and harder, expanded "tests" of her powers.

The novel is mostly told in first person by Lulu herself with some alternating chapters in third person focusing on her father starting twenty years prior, building the man who would direct and control his daughter's performances. When the book opens, Lulu is naive and hopeful. As she continues, she not only grows into her own power, but she sees and pushes back at the growing exploitation. Her chapters are introspective and thoughtful whereas her father's are much more calculating. Lulu follows her father's lead until she finds her own voice, her own strength, and her own desires. Handler has done a fantastic job evoking the US of post Civil War, an America wanting to believe, needing to contact their so many young men dead before their time, wanting to be amazed by electricity, needing to see the unexplainable and call them miracles.  There is a dreamy, detached feel to the narrative and the novel is definitely more character driven than reliant on plot happenings.  It is well written, but slow paced and populated with odd characters so it may not be for everyone but those who are fascinated by our human ability to humbug and be humbugged will certainly enjoy watching Lulu perform on the page for them.

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

Monday, October 7, 2019

Review: Southernmost by Silas House

When you hold a belief so close to the very core of who you are, when it helps define not only you but the community around you, it can be painful to question it, and even more so to change it. In Silas House's latest novel, Southernmost, revivalist minister Asher Sharp's questioning of a foundational piece of himself will finish off his marriage, put him at odds with his community, and drive him to an act of desperation.

After the Supreme Court legalizes same sex marriage, the Cumberland River in Tennessee floods, wreaking devastation and causing loss of life. Asher's congregation sees this as God's judgment for the decision so even after a newly arrived gay couple saves the life of a congregant and his daughter the congregation is unwilling to let go of their belief that homosexuality is wrong. Asher, however, has been having questions about the teachings of his faith for a while and this show of humanity pushes him even further. When he gives a sermon and tries to welcome the men into the community, the sermon goes viral and he is fired from his job. In the face of community-wide disapproval and pushed to desperation by the thought that his wife Lydia, soon to be his ex-wife, will keep their young son Justin from him at all costs, Asher kidnaps the nine-year old and flees to Key West with him, in hopes of finding his long estranged brother Luke, the brother he once disavowed because of Luke's homosexuality.

The novel is one of discovery, of a faith journey in direct opposition to what Asher had always been told was the word of the Lord, of an embracing of love in whatever form it takes,, of finding grace, heartwarming and thoughtful. Change comes to Asher slowly, and once on the road to Florida, this halting change is intermingled with his fears of being found. His perspective changes through the abused dog he and Justin adopt, through witnessing Justin's innocent and trusting faith, and through the unquestioning acceptance of the people surrounding them in Key West. He grapples with the wide gulf between what he has been taught and has taught others as a preacher himself and what he is coming to see is the right way to treat others. As he wrestles with his own spirituality and a personal belief in what is right and what is wrong, he also has to look at his own life, not just disavowing his brother so many years before, but the violence he has perpetrated on his mother-in-law, and the worry and terror his taking of their son must have inflicted on Lydia. The novel is very often an internal one as Asher goes through the scary process of confronting and possibly changing this very basic belief he's long carried. Allowing a faith to evolve is not smooth or easy and there are bumps along the way but they make the whole process and Asher as a character more believable. While most of the chapters are untitled, several scattered throughout the novel are titled "The Everything." These particular chapters encapsulate a lesson or lessons that Asher might already know but needs to be reminded of. They give him a glimpse into what is right and what is in his own heart. The pacing of the novel is slow and contemplative with it taking almost half of the story to even get to the journey to Florida but that measured pace keeps the focus on the internal journey Asher is taking. This is a touching and beautifully written novel that may not change minds but one that shows that when there's love there's always hope.

This novel is a Women's National Book Association Great Group Read for 2019.

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past few weeks are:

The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
Nothing to Report by Carola Oman
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney
The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas
The Bottom of the Sky by Rodrigo Fresan
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhannon
Breaking the Ocean by Annahid Dashtgard
Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor
The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell
A Stranger at My Table by Ivo de Figueiredo
Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

Reviews posted this week:

Lies in White Dresses by Sofia Grant
More to Life by ReShonda Tate Billingsley
The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager
The Red Address by by Sofia Lundberg
Oval by Elvia Wilk
Portugal by Cyril Pedrosa

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

Exposed by Jean-Philippe Blondel
Here I Am! by Pauline Holdstock
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
Miss Blaine's Prefect and the Golden Samovar by Olga Wojtas
Ways to Hide in Winter by Sarah St. Vincent
The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
Granny’s Got a Gun by Harper Lin
White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf
At Briarwood School for Girls by Michael Knight
The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel
All Ships Follow Me by Mieke Eerkens
Like This Afternoon Forever by Jaime Manrique
Gravity Well by Melanie Joosten
Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
Dear Baba by Maryam Rafiee
Saint Everywhere by Mary Lea Carroll
All Systems Red by Martha Wells
Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
In the Shadow of Wolves by Alvydas Slepikas
The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
CinderGirl by Christina Meredith
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis
Autopsy of a Boring Wife by Marie-Renee Lavoie
The Fragments by Toni Jordan
The Question Authority by Rachel Cline
The Plaza by Julie Satow
The Lonely Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari
Haben by Haben Girma
The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester
Educated by Tara Westover
State of the Union by Nick Hornby
Turbulence by David Szalay
What a Body Remembers by Karen Stefano
The Atlas of Reds and Blues by Devi S. Laskar
Questions I Am Asked About the Holocaust by Hedi Fried
Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain
Peculiar Questions and Practical Answers by the New York Public Library
The Honey Bus by Meredith May
The Liar in the Library by Simon Brett
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Church of the Graveyard Saints by C. Joseph Greaves
Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery by John Gregory Brown
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
Advanced Physical Chemistry by Susannah Nix
Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Lowenstein
No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel
Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich
The Abolitionist's Daughter by Diane C. McPhail
A London Country Diary by Tim Bradford
Crazy Cupid Love by Amanda Heger
A Moveable Feast edited by Don George
Tiny Hot Dogs by Mary Giuliani
Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew
Love You Hard by Abby Maslin
Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson
The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland
Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner
Hungry Monkey by Matthew Amster-Burton
Retablos by Octavio Solis
The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr
The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs
The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner
All the Wild Hungers by Karen Babine
Vacationland by Sarah Stonich
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
The Last Ocean by Nicci Gerrard
Something Like Breathing by Angela Readman
Nothing to Report by Carola Oman
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver
The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

Monday Mailbox

This past week's mailbox arrival:

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn came from Kensington Books and Galley Match.

A delightful sounding rom-com about the woman who hand letters wedding programs and weaves a secret word of warning into one which is caught by the groom after the marriage fails as she'd predicted, this one should be complete and total fun.

If you want to see the marvelous goodies in other people's mailboxes, make sure to visit Mailbox Monday and have fun seeing how we are all doing our part to keep the USPS and delivery services viable.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Sunday Salon: Does Your Book Club Need Help Choosing It's Next Read?

Do you belong to a book club? If you do, you're probably always looking for good books to read and discuss with them, right? I mean, there are books out there that are good fun to read but that you can't talk about beyond saying, "It was fun, right?" and "I liked it. Did you?" Now if your book club is really just an excuse to get together and drink wine and you only justify it by calling it a book club, maybe that's an okay thing for you. But if you go to book club because you like to read and want to talk about the books you've read with other people, these books aren't going to be the best option for you.

So how do you choose your next book? There are a lot of different ways to find recommendations. You can browse in your local independent bookstore and see what the booksellers recommend. You can go to your local big box store and look on the front tables. (Did you know those front table placements are, in many cases, paid for?) You can listen to the latest celebrity to start a book club. And less and less frequently, you can read the arts section of the newspaper or listen to your local NPR station. All of these are perfectly fine ways to choose a book. But what if you want to read something that's wonderful and perhaps a little out of the mainstream? What if you was different? But you still want a book that is well written, addresses timely issues, and keeps your group talking about it long after the first glass of wine is finished. If that's what you want, have I got a list for you! The Women's National Book Association puts out the Great Group Reads list for National Reading Group Month and it has something for everyone on it. It's fiction and memoir, small press and large. It's got own voices and issues we're all talking about right now. It's a great list, chosen by readers who know book clubs and know books (and I'm one of them). I think you'll be intrigued by the choices and I'd love to hear your thoughts on any you've read.

The Affairs of the Falcons by Melissa Rivero

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Death of a Rainmaker by Laurie Loewenstein

The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

Haben by Haben Girma

The Honey Bus by Meredith May

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner

Laurentian Divide by Sarah Stonich

The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland

Love You Hard by Abby Maslin

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

No Good Asking by Fran Kimmel

Retablos by Octavio Solis

Southernmost by Silas House

Tomorrow's Bread by Anna Jean Mayhew

Tonic and Balm by Stephanie Allen

The Tubman Command by Elizabeth Cobbs

Unfurled by Michelle Bailat-Jones

Review: Portugal by Cyril Pedrosa

My husband has long been a graphic novel fan. In fact, he's traded getting some individual comics issues for waiting for the graphic novel instead. Obviously he's programmed to read text and image at the same time without any trouble. I still struggle with this a lot, feeling like the pictures break up my reading, and not in a thoughtful, positive way. But this is clearly my issue, not a genre issue. And so I keep trying to find my way in to graphic novels that otherwise fit my interests, like Portugal, a slow, dreamy graphic novel by Cyril Pedrosa.

Simon Muchat is a comics illustrator but he's completely blocked artistically, teaching children's classes instead of drawing himself and unhappy with his previous work. He seems to be standing at a cross roads in his life, not certain which road he should choose. His girlfriend tries to prod him towards work but their relationship is as unrewarding as his drawing and eventually she leaves him. Finally Simon decides to visit Portugal for his cousin's wedding. He doesn't speak the language and he doesn't really know the story of his father's family but this trip will help him find his history and find himself in the process.

The story is one of subtle and slow transformation as Simon is inspired by the magical country and the welcoming people he encounters. The colors in the pictures are duller, more earthbound in the beginning before he leaves France. Once he is in Portugal, a golden light and warmth suffuses many of the panels. In the beginning there is more text, telling clearly of his discontent and frustration. As the story progresses, there is far less dialogue and exposition. The Portuguese is left untranslated, which allows the English speaking reader to experience the lack of understanding as language washes over them just as it does for Simon. The simple line drawings and the wash of watercolors adds to the dreamy feeling of the story. The tale itself is observational and contemplative, detailing many simple, everyday occurrences. It is a wandering story of a man looking for and finding quiet inspiration and his own lost creativity. It is a story of connection with history, with a personal past, and with family.  I struggled with it but I do think that has everything to do with me and little to do with the book itself.

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

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Review: Oval by Elvia Wilk

I don't read too many dystopian novels. The present day can be scary enough that I don't need to insert myself into someone else's fevered imagination of what the future gone terribly wrong might look like. I can appreciate dystopias as critiques of our current society, our obsessions, the goals we strive for, and the many, many ways we get it all wrong, heading to a place from which there is no return but it can be deeply horrifying to read them. Elvia Wilk's debut novel Oval doesn't, perhaps, rise to the level of horrifying, but it shows a sinister and unpleasant future with neoliberalism, corporations, and science run amok.

Anja is a scientist who has run simulations in her lab but has yet to run the actual physical experiment. She lives in Berlin with Louis, an American, who is an "artistic" for a non-profit and who is developing a new pill that will induce a chemically-induced, unbridled generosity in the people who take it. The two of them live in the corporately owned Berg, a sustainable, eco-living experimental housing site, a place that is meant to push to the extreme just what it means to live zero waste. Although this near future setting might be initially appealing, as Anja and Louis's story unfolds, it becomes more and more ominous. There is corporate oversight on nearly everything from the house they live in to the jobs they have.  Questioning the status quo is actively frowned upon.  Technology and engineering are tested without enough safeguards or understanding of the fallout, of which both Anja's unfulfilled experiment and the gradually malfunctioning Berg are emblematic. Unexamined motivations and outcomes abound. But as much as the novel shows these horrors, it is mainly focused on Anja and Louis' crumbling relationship. They become increasingly separate and alone as the entire infrastructure around them also slides into ruin.

There is a rising creepiness to the tone of the novel but it's hard to pinpoint why. Anja and Louis seem to be detached characters, with the reader staying fairly remote from them. The descriptions of the relentless social scene, the clubbing, and the constant drug use has the effect of a flashing strobe light on the reader's sensibility, leaving them disoriented. This effect may be intentional on Wilk's part; it certainly isn't pleasant for sure. The themes of the perils of unchecked gentrification, powerful corporations, and a fervent neoliberalism weave uncomfortably throughout the novel. The secondary characters here feel flat and even Louis isn't particularly well defined for the reader. The premise of the novel doesn't really come into focus until well into the story (unless you read the cover copy) and even then, it takes a while to be clear. The ending of the novel is as strange and unsettling as the rest of it and this reader didn't know what to make of it. There's a malevolent reclamation by nature but it's not really organic so what is reclaiming everything, accelerating the decay and ruin, isn't really clear. The world of Oval is one of dissolute human beings, secretive companies, and impending disaster. This is not a world I want to live in.

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

Friday, October 4, 2019

Review: The Red Address Book by Sofia Lundberg

To this day my family laughs about my paternal grandmother's address book. It was a baffling document for anyone but her. She didn't list people alphabetically by last name. Well, she did for some. She didn't alphabetize them by first name. Although, again, she did for some. She listed them under whatever letter of the alphabet made sense to her. So her brother was listed under B for brother.  Her sister was under S for sister.  My father was listed under R for Ronnie with all of our myriad of addresses crossed out and rewritten over the years. Her haphazard system, one that only she understood, made telling the important people in her life that she had passed away a big challenge. We were so busy marveling at the way she filed everything that we didn't stop to consider who the people we didn't recognize might be, and we especially didn't wonder at the crossed out people. Who they were and who they were to her would probably have been an interesting and different perspective on her life. Sofia Lundberg's novel, The Red Address Book, is a book based on that premise, that entries in an address book can tell the story of the owner's life.

Doris is 96 years old and living alone in Stockholm. Care workers come in to help her periodically but they treat her as if she has regressed to childhood and have no interest in who she was in the past. She tolerates the workers but she lives for her weekly calls with her American great-niece Jenny, with whom she has never shared her past either. Jenny's life is busy and she can't find the time to visit her Aunt Doris until Doris falls and ends up in the hospital, slowly sinking. As Jenny faces her great-aunt's mortality, she finds it important to ask Doris about her past, to find out as much as she can about her beloved relative before she's gone and also about the things from Jenny's own past that she has never understood or known. In this she is aided by the red address book with so many of its entries crossed out and marked "DEAD."

Woven through Doris' current day story and triggered by the entries in the beloved red address book her father gave her as a young girl is the story of her complicated past. From her early childhood and work as a maid to working as a model, from the disappeared love of her life to the tragedy of their family, from what the war took from her to what it eventually gave back, and the choice she made to return to Stockholm in her later life, the entries of the address book span it all. It is both the story of her life and the people in it as well as a visual representation of what it looks like to have lost so many important people as she comes to the end of her life. While the premise is wonderful and the story of Doris' past is interesting enough, it is a little too simplistic and the current day story has stilted dialogue and unrealistic, predictable outcomes. This should have been incredibly heartwarming but there was something about it that missed the mark, not evoking the emotions it clearly meant to. It is unclear whether this is a translation problem or if it's a story problem. In the end, I wanted to feel more, to connect more, to like this so much more than I did, after all, I already appreciate the personal value of an address book.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Review: The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Drager

We've all read fairy tales. In fact, there's an accepted, most common version of the fairy tales we know today, versions that are most likely aggregates of the various once oral versions. The Grimm brothers, in collecting the stories they did, determined how we know them (at least until Disney sanitized them) today. How did they choose which versions to tell? Were there variants they left out, ignored? Lindsey Drager, in her ambitious and unconventional novel The Archive of Alternate Endings, delves into the story of Hansel and Gretel, what the Grimms chose to include and exclude, and how this deceptively simple tale continues to inform stories throughout centuries, checking in every 75 years or so by riding the tail of Halley's Comet through time.

Braiding the narratives of different people from 1378 to 2365, Drager repeats the themes of homosexuality, siblings, love, and the power of story--who tells them and how their choices shape not just the stories but the ideas of the people who hear them. The narrative spans a thousand years from ancient times into the future and then loops back on itself. Like Hansel and Gretel in the woods, the reader follows a path into the story and just when they think they are lost, Drager leaves clues to lead them back to understanding. Images are repeated from century to century, telling to telling, linking the stories, spiraling out from the central tale of Hansel and Gretel and the variant the Grimms chose not to tell as much as the one they did. This is a quick read but not an easy one because the unconventional narrative feels unmoored and unconnected in the beginning, only coming into tight clarity as the story progresses. Those who are not wedded to a traditional novel and want to push their understanding of story will find much to work through here.

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

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

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.

If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman.

The book is being released by William Morrow on October 15, 2019.

The book's jacket copy says: A secret between two sisters.

A lifetime of lies unraveling.

Can one broken family find their way back to each other?

Audrey’s dream as a mother had been for her daughters, Jess and Lily, to be as close as only sisters can be. But now, as adults, they no longer speak to each other, and Audrey’s two teenage granddaughters have never met. Audrey just can’t help feeling like she’s been dealt more than her fair share as she’s watched her family come undone over the years, and she has no idea how to fix her family as she wonders if they will ever be whole again.

If only Audrey had known three decades ago that a secret could have the power to split her family in two, and yet, also keep them linked. And when hostilities threaten to spiral out of control, a devastating choice that was made so many years ago is about to be revealed, testing this family once and for all.

Once the truth is revealed, will it be enough to put her family back together again or break them apart forever?

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