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Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Sat Jan 18, 2014 4:05 pm

OK, I'm off to a good start (I'm not going to number them because I'll never keep track):

Shoal of Time by JM Redmann. Eighth (I think) Micky Knight book. I have to say this was a confusing shocker. I did not care for the direction she took Micky and her now vanished band of friends. It's like she fell back to pre-book 1--a wreck. Not that Micky couldn't be forced to face something awful. I just thought it was badly done. And the mystery was ridiculous. I could see Redmann wanted Micky off her game, but this was beyond that. She was just plain stupid.

Defending Jacob by William Landay. B asked for this for Christmas, but once she read it, she wanted me to read it so she could talk about it. Fourteen-year-old Jacob is accused of murdering a classmate. His father will do anything to get him off. His father also happens to be the assistant district attorney assigned to the case. That only lasts until the boy is charged. Very creative and surprising. You don't know what's coming or whom to believe. The side-plot is the disintegration of the family and the ending, while foreshadowed, is shocking. Oh, added benefit is it takes place in the Boston area. So lots of familiar settings. B even knew the park and school mentioned.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Another present for B that I had to read. An interesting tale of belonging. Dr. Marina Singh is half Indian, half Minnesotan (meaning, essentially, half Scandinavian). Where does she fit in? She works as a drug company researcher, but had studied medicine until a mean mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, made her lose faith in herself. Now her colleague, Anders Eckman, has disappeared in the Amazon jungle of Brazil while trying to find out why Swenson is taking so long to develop a drug. Swenson is one of the best-written characters to come along in some time (I pictured Meryl Streep playing her in the movie). Basically, Singh goes to the jungle to find Anders, but really finds herself. Much hijinks ensues. Hard to categorize, but the writing is beautiful.

Broken Harbor by Tana French. The fourth in her Murder Squad series. This one follows Mike "Scorcher" Kennedy as he investigates a gruesome crime in a place that played a big part in his childhood (as do all the books, it seems). French is as good a writer as ever, but the books follow a predictable formula: above-mentioned history for the lead investigator, something goes terribly wrong with the case, said investigator is never the same. The coincidences are becoming too much: all of Ireland and the crime has to happen just in the spot this detective has a history. People are always tapping a pen against their teeth, something I've tried and can't see doing. French is an amazing writer and her books are addictive--you'll be late for work and sleepy. I don't know how she does it, but she creates characters who are so real and get so embedded in your psyche that you start to lose it along with them. Not all that comforting!

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by Deej on Sun Jan 19, 2014 10:44 pm

Defending Jacob sounds very interesting. We're off to a good srart.

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by Athena on Tue Jan 28, 2014 5:08 pm

Wow, you are a fast reader, Elaine.  OK 
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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Sun Feb 02, 2014 9:24 am

I Still Dream About You by Fannie Flagg. I won't be dreaming about this one. Totally forgettable. Full of tropes. Beth gave it to me for Christmas, based on Fannie Flagg's reputation (Fried Green Tomatoes anyone?). She read it first, and while I heard her chuckling, that, I learned, does not mean something is well written and funny. Just a few funny lines here and there.

Day of the Dead by Andi Marquette. I think I've outgrown Andi. Sadly. I really like her New Mexico series and all the characters, but at the same time, I'm tired of them. I liked the topic of the mystery: focusing on illegal immigrants. I liked that there's no neat bow at the end tying it all together. I got annoyed almost immediately because the first three chapters all take place on a Sunday, yet she speculates about a child being in school and notices no mail delivery. Unless things are really different in New Mexico, these are not things you wonder about on a Sunday. And I got to the point where if Harper rolled to the balls of his feet and said, "Yo" once more, I was going to reach through the pages and give him a fatal paper cut. Yes, it's good to give characters their own gestures and quirks, but don't overdo it. And Chris must be a giant because she was always looking down on people or they were looking up at her and she was always noticing how short everyone was. Then there's detail that's important to the story and there's detail for the sake of detail. I wish I had marked it, but there was one passage I read to Beth that drove me crazy. OK, it doesn't take long to find another example:

"She locked her car and walked through the wooden gate set into the six-foot faux-adobe wall that fronted the condo. She closed the gate behind her and moved into the interior courtyard and up the step to the front door, which echoed the gate in style. Chris used the house key Dayna had given her to unlock it and she stepped into the tiled foyer and shut and locked the door behind her."

It goes on to describe the room. Now, unless she is later going to scale that wall, or there is going to be some intruder who managed to get past her locking, absolutely none of this was needed. There could have been so much more tension built between Chris, Dayna, and Chris's ex who shows up. But these gals are all so highly evolved that nothing untoward happens or is even perceived as happening. If Andi had cut all the flotsam, she would have had plenty of room for some more interesting subplots. The one about anti-immigrant bloggers is interesting but goes nowhere. The biggest action is Chris juggling phones. She's got a desk phone, personal cell, and work cell, all of which get a lot of use between calls and texts. The cell-phone age has destroyed good old gumshoe detective work.

Andi credits her editor with quick editing. That might be the problem. You can have quick editing and you can have good editing. But you cannot have both. The opening chapters of a book are the most important. To have sloppy editing right off the bat, set me in a bad mood for the rest. I became very unforgiving.

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by Deej on Sun Feb 02, 2014 11:20 pm

Wow. Did not expect that. 《sigh》

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Sun Apr 06, 2014 11:23 am

Urban Bestiary by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. This was wonderful! She lives in Seattle, so chose critters common throughout the U.S. and gives a chapter to each (or to a group).  It’s not just nature writing, all the poetic and sciency and preachy. It’s a very personal story, with many anecdotes from her own backyard (the peeing made me laugh out loud). It made me wish we had moles! And I learned how to spell bestiary.

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Mon Apr 21, 2014 9:04 am

Giraffe People by Jill Malone
Blurb:
Between God and the army, fifteen-year-old Cole Peters has more than enough to rebel against. But this Chaplain’s daughter isn’t resorting to drugs or craziness. Truth to tell, she’s content with her soccer team and her band and her white bread boyfriend. And then, of course, there’s Meghan. Meghan is eighteen years old and preparing for entry into West Point. For this she has sponsors: Cole’s parents. They’re delighted their daughter is finally looking up to someone. Someone who can tutor her and be a friend. But one night that relationship changes and Cole’s world flips.

This started out with great promise. It’s very well written. Nicole (Cole) is a narrator who’s easy to like and you slide into the story smoothly. But after a while, I began to get restless. While the writing remained very good, the story seemed to be going nowhere. It’s really just a bunch of scenes with no strong arc. Nothing really big or really bad or really threatening happens. But, you say, it’s got lesbians, a military base, a chaplain father. There has to be a huge emotional explosion, right? Nope. There’s more boy-girl sex than girl-girl sex, and even the boy-girl sex is so vague, and her emotions so unmentioned, that I wasn’t even sure how far things were going until the puddle of blood on the floor very late in the book. And while the girl-girl relationship should be huge and fraught, and in a way it is because Cole gets all mad, and Meghan gets all mad, but you never really get into Cole’s thoughts about what it means. Plus, she’s 15 going on 16, so this is really a YA novel, but because it’s set in 1990-91, it probably is meant to appeal to adults who were 15 back then. But the references are all pretty timeless. If you love punk rock (I struggle with writing about music, though she might have done a really good job with it), basketball, and soccer, you might get more out of it than I did. Cole never fails at anything. And that’s a problem. For a character set up to lose everything (she’s an Army brat), her life remains shockingly stable. There are very good details, nice descriptions, the characters are all nicely drawn, but I kept bracing for the, OK, here it comes. And it never did. Only the very end—I mean the last three paragraphs—almost redeemed it for me. I felt a bit better about it then.


The Last Nude by Ellis Avery
Blurb:
Paris, 1927. One day in July, a young American named Rafaela Fano gets into the car of a coolly dazzling stranger, the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka. Struggling to support herself, Rafaela agrees to model for the artist, a dispossessed Saint Petersburg aristocrat with a murky past. The two become lovers, and Rafaela inspires Tamara’s most iconic Jazz Age images, among them her most accomplished—and coveted—works of art. A season as the painter’s muse teaches Rafaela some hard lessons: Tamara is a cocktail of raw hunger and glittering artifice. And all the while, their romantic idyll is threatened by history’s darkening tide. A tour de force of historical imagination, The Last Nude is about genius and craft, love and desire, regret and, most of all, hope that can transcend time and circumstance.

I’ll never look at a painting of a person, especially a nude, in the same way again—or rather, I’ll look at a painting more fully. Who is that model? If she was the wife or lover of the painter, was she happy? Was she forced into that position? Both physically and metaphorically.

We think of the models as providing mere content for the painting. Look at how the fabric folds, or how the shadows play across the nude form. It’s not a form, it’s a human being, with a life and aspirations and heartache all her own. If her gaze is averted, why? Was she told to, or could she not bear to gaze upon the person examining her so closely, staring at her for hours, with what intention?

I profess to not liking fictional books about real people, but this is the second one I’ve read and it’s a story that will stay with me a long time. I’ll try not to take it literally, since almost nothing is known about the real Rafaela. It’s a “what if” story. It could have happened this way, but maybe not. So accept it as fiction but enjoy the truths within.

The writing is beautiful, the Paris of the 1920s, between wars, parallels the lives of these two women, each caught between her own wars—Rafaela between life as a prostitute and a life being loved. Tamara is a wildly successful painter yet living on the edge without a patron. Even if they could live as a couple, and many women did in Paris at the time, Rafaela cannot make Tamara a baroness.

The paintings are central to the story, so Google them as you read. The one on the cover is important, but it’s not the key painting. I find it hard to read words about a visual art (or music for that matter), and because this reads much like an autobiography, it helps to see what they are talking about, who Tamara is painting.

I didn’t understand everything that was said, the fine nuances of their conversations, many with French words sprinkled in that were not clear from the context. There are several real people in the cast, but one character seems to be Hemingway—he tells the tale of his wife losing his stories on a train—but clearly is not. I’m not sure if Avery did this with other characters, or why with this one. I wouldn’t even know that but for having read The Paris Wife, another novel about real people. Funny to read two stories of fictionalized real people involving the same fictionalized real people.

Rafaela tells her story 16 years after meeting Tamara. Why then? We don’t really learn (or if it’s there, I missed it). The end of the book switches POV, which made for an interesting flip—much of what has happened now has a different interpretation. Absolutely heartbreaking and beautifully written.

Rafaela was only 17 when she met Tamara. They were together a short time. Would Tamara have had such a profound impact on her, over the course of a long life? Possibly? Since we don’t know Rafaela’s real story, any motivations or consequences are speculation. But that she seemed to remain in Tamara thoughts many years later is telling. If even that is true. That’s the problem with novels about real people. I always fear I’ll believe something is true and make an ass of myself at a cocktail party.

There are many layers to this story. There’s the very personal story of these two women—how much is real, what really happened? Then there’s the overarching story of an artist and her muse and what is that relationship, exactly?

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by Deej on Thu Apr 24, 2014 2:22 pm

Nice reviews, Elaine. Thank you.

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Mon May 26, 2014 9:15 am

So, what have I been up to?

Eyes on the Stars by Lynn Ames. Did not finish. There was a glaring error at the beginning that derailed me. Overall, it just didn't work for me. I wrote Lynn about the error and she was graciously mortified.

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
I find some of the best fiction writing these days is for young adults. Kids even (think The One and Only Ivan). I can’t think of another novel that has moved me this deeply since perhaps Ivan. It left me feeling rearranged, which is what I hope for in a book. I also can’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t make Hazel and Augustus roll their eyes. No platitudes, no “encouragements.”

Is it even possible to talk about cancer without cliché? And has Green only added to the list of clichés? It’s about cancer, so of course it’s devastating. If I’d known that beforehand (it was loaned to me), I might have refused. I don’t know how realistic this experience of cancer is (the author advises against trying to figure that out—and yet it is dedicated to a very clear model for Hazel), but it sure felt real. This is what it’s like, this side effect of dying.

I lost my best friend to cancer, not as a teenager, but so much of Fault digs deep to my core. My friend was a grenade, like Hazel describes, flinging shrapnel far and wide. She has remained frozen in time, never to grow old. No kids, no hot flashes. She’ll never have the lasting fame of Hazel (or her model), but for a few of us, her impact will last as long as we do (not forever, as Hazel would point out).

If it weren’t for the humor, gallows humor you might say, this would be too sad and tragic to get through. Hazel and Augustus and Isaac are precisely the kinds of people we should be remembering. There are so many layers to this story, it’s impossible to analyze them all. I’ll just take away gratitude for Hazel’s wise words.

I saw the movie trailer but won't be seeing it. First, I don't need more crying, and second, because Hazel looks nothing like I imagined her. They've made her a basically beautiful young woman and added oxygen tubing. Totally misses the point. Oh, Hollywood.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (a woman)
Another kids book, this time about a boy with a horrible facial deformity and how he struggles in middle school. Beth reads it to her fourth graders. It was great. Not as tragic as Fault, but the ages of the readers are probably why. He could have had a much harder time, but it all works out in the end. A nice book.

Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw
When I finished Carry the One, I was curious about Anshaw. I looked up this book, figuring I might read it some day. Well, the plus side of clearing out the basement for Beth's pending retirement and need for boxes and space for her teaching stuff is that I found a box full of lesfic I thought I'd given away, including this! I don't remember buying it, so maybe it's Beth's. The narrator tells three possible versions of her life after competing in the Mexico City Olympics as a swimmer. There, she has an encounter with a gorgeous swimmer from Australia. I don't quite see how these three scenarios directly relate to that moment. In the first, she marries a man, in the second, she's with a woman (the best, naturally), and in the third, she's basically a single mom, though the father has a role. It was OK. Nicely written. It has a litmag feel to it that I think works better for short stories than novels. The narrative felt distanced; not sure how to explain. Maybe it’s because there isn’t much action or dialogue. A lot of background and scene setting. I liked the last part where she takes on the other swimmer, but the last couple of lines left me wondering. What just happened? What does it mean? I’m not sure and I’m not sure I liked that. The main character’s kind of a sad sack, lumbering through life, like many of us are. Her success as a swimmer seems out of character for the family she grew up in, but it was the 1960s and not the uber trained, genetically freaky athlete it takes to succeed today.

Under the Witness Tree by Marianne K. Martin
Great story: woman inherits house with secrets and history. Likeable characters, both main and secondary. Lovely setting—the tree itself. But at 210 pages, it just isn’t long enough to delve deeply into the various story lines: Dhari’s mother, Erin’s adoption, Addy’s secrets. The writing is generally good, but there were a smattering of annoying typos: Erik/Eric, stationary instead of stationery, ‘em instead of ’em, even an I‘ve. Nothing egregious, but this is Bywater. They don’t get better in lesfic.

I’ll probably read the prequel to come about Nessie Tinker. Though, really, I’d like Addy and Billy’s story. I interpreted the diary differently—did not come to the conclusion Erin did. I do hope, however, that she steers clear of the heavy dialect she used for Nessie in this book. It was hard to read and wouldn't have lost much by some clearer spelling. I got the point of her background without every dis and dem.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Short stories with a nature theme. Some good humor here. The author is married to a veterinarian, so there's lots of that. She also had a kid before writing these, so motherhood is a recurring theme. It's nice to see the natural world have a place in stories about young women. They are not all about the mall and makeup.

Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman
Yes, there was a book before the show. I didn't think I'd ever get to see it so thought I'd read it, expecting it would be better anyway. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm looking forward to seeing the show (now on DVD) because it gives the women backgrounds. For those who haven't heard, it's a true story about Piper's year in a women's prison for running drug money ten years earlier when she was a recent Smith grad who didn't yet know what to do with her life and fell for a charismatic lesbian. Who knew all this drug intrigue was going on in little Northampton, Mass.? The book is not beautifully written. I had to remind myself that this is memoir, not journalism. This is no Nickel and Dimed. She wasn't a writer by trade. She was a kid. Yet it's a fascinating story. She has a lot of empathy for her fellow inmates (maybe too much) and comes to accept the consequence of her action. While she had known at the time that it was wrong, it was only in meeting women who struggled with drug addiction that she came to accept her role in their plight. That was meaningful. She has a lot to say about the prison system and shows a lot of its weaknesses. This is not about prison sex or abuse of prisoners. This is about the day-to-day life in a minimum security prison and the insanity of our tax dollars being wasted. She does not delve deeply into the inmates' backstories, because she never learns them. You don't ask personal questions in prison. Too bad. She repeats a lot and some sections seem out of order, like presenting prison cheesecake and in the next chapter telling us how she came to prowess at it--though once you see the recipe, it's not something you'd try on "the out." There's a bit of fun in that she was in prison at the time Martha Stewart was being sentenced. I wish, wish, wish, she'd followed up with what happened to Pop. They were supposed to go to the same halfway house, but Piper got derailed. I hope Pop made it!

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Tue Jul 01, 2014 7:57 am

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
OMG, this is amazing. It takes place in Chechnya over the course of a week, but slides around key years embracing the two wars with Russia. A Chechen man saves a young girl, his neighbor, and takes her to a hospital for safety. The only doctor is an ethnic Russian woman who returned to Chechnya after the first war and stayed to find her missing sister. There is a lot of dark, horrible things going on, but there are also moments of levity.

For writer geeks, there is a sentence on page 138 that is longer than a page and 18 sentences on page 180 all complete the thought, “When had you last lived a day with…” It’s hard to read, because for me, and most Americans, our sentences would read, “When had you last lived a day without…” If there is hell, it will contain a special ring for first-world people like me who never suffered, who lived in a prosperity wrung partially from the suffering of others.

The Best Defense by Carsen Taite
Bleh. The usual suspects: poorly done multiple POV, lack of legitimate tension, and endless repeating of their thoughts about each other.

Letters Never Sent by Sandra Moran
Surprisingly disappointing. Not badly written, but implodes by the end. Like a throwback to the horrible 1950s pulp novels where the lesbians must suffer and be horrible people. Not enough balance between the 1930s story line and the 1990s story line. Then the surprise twist at the end is simply unbelievable.

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Re: Elaine's list

Post by ElaineB on Sun Jul 06, 2014 12:47 pm

Hoosier Daddy by Ann McMan and Salem West.
This was OK. Well written, good characters, interesting plot, though I got tired of the slapstick--it got so you just knew every scene was going to end with Friday and El in an embarrassing position or with gunk all over them. And so many scenes were just people sitting around talking. Good characters, but not a lot of action. And not enough sex, if you can believe that. Too fade to black. I don’t need full details, but I’d like to know how she feels about it in the moment, not the next day, or not at all.

And just to prove I'm not completely turned against lesfic...
Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forest.
Wow. There’s a reason this has become a classic. It is excellent, with some of the best love scenes ever. If they’ve since become cliché, it’s only because of the poor imitations that followed. It has a Desert of the Heart vibe, maybe from the Nevada casino setting, just different time, different season, but the common thread of finding first true love. Sigh. I bought this sometime after its seventh printing in July 1991. By then, I was out to myself and had already had my heart broken. What I thought of it then, I don’t remember. I found it packed away in the basement and thought rereading it would be a quaint throwback to my misspent youth. And a challenge. Were the Naiads as bad as I remember? Far from it. The book holds its own through time. Snarky women who haven’t changed much through the decades, rotten men, and what it’s like to connect through love—the joy and terror. Sweet.

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