Tag Archive | contemporary literature

Book review: June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

JuneJune by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summer 2015: A persistent knock on the door and a ringing bell rouses 25-year-old Cassie Danvers from an alcohol-induced haze. Cassie, grieving a number of things — the end of her engagement, the demise of her photography career, and, most recently, the death of her beloved Grandmother June — stumbles to the dusty foyer and opens the door of the decaying family mansion to be greeted by handsome young Nick Emmons, who promptly informs her she is the sole heir and, allegedly, the granddaughter of Golden-Age Hollywood movie star Jack Montgomery, and would she mind giving a DNA sample to verify?

Summer 1955: Hollywood comes to St. Jude, Ohio, to shoot a movie. Lindie, age 14, is determined to get involved somehow; and she wants her best friend June to come along too. June is a few years older and already engaged, but Lindie disapproves of her fiancé — he’s too stodgy and undeserving of June’s beauty. June reluctantly agrees to visit the movie set, where she meets Jack Montgomery. And all manner of complications arise from there.

I’m a sucker for stories that take place in two separate time periods. I love seeing the connections, and how long-ago actions affect present-day circumstances. Add a dreaming house, visions of ghosts, back-stabbing intrigue, murder, and quiet heroism to the mix, and you’ve got a fabulous page-turner of a story that satisfies right up to the surprising conclusion.

Excellent story. This is Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s fourth novel. I’ll certainly be looking for the other three.

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Thank you to LibraryThing‘s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: The Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

The Fifth PetalThe Fifth Petal by Brunonia Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

25 years after she witnessed the murder of her mother and two other women, Callie Cahill returns to Salem to aid her Aunt Rose, who is suspected of being involved in the death of a teenager. Callie, raised in foster care after the events of that fateful night, had thought Rose dead, and rushed to her side the moment she saw a news report.

In the years between Callie’s childhood tragedy and her return, Rose Whelan, once a noted historian, suffered a mental breakdown and became homeless. Rose is well-known to the Salem townfolk; while most of them ignore her, a few look out for her, and a few see her as an easy target. The boy who died was one of the latter. The circumstances linking Rose to the boy’s death are damning, and her freedom is in jeopardy.

Callie tries mightily to help Aunt Rose recover her memory of the night of the boy’s death while she herself is slowly recovering her own memories of her childhood. And in the meantime, she finds herself falling for Paul Whiting, the son of one of the wealthiest families in town.

Behind all of this lurks the still-unsolved “Goddess Murders,” as they are known, for which Rose was also briefly a suspect. What part did Rose play? How does Rose’s obsession with the legend of a banshee connect? Where does Salem’s history of witch trials fit in? And why do links to those long-ago murders keep turning up in the current investigation?

Brunonia Barry’s third novel is better than her second, but still not as good as her first. I appreciated being back in Salem with some familiar characters, and meeting some new ones. And the story moves along well enough. Still, the final twist to the mystery was too abrupt and, to me, completely out of left field. (Look, I understand authors don’t want to telegraph who the “bad guy” is and lay red herrings in the reader’s path as diversions, but this reveal was totally unexpected. Did Barry write herself into a corner and only belatedly realize she had to come up with a villain? Don’t know.) Also, major quibbles with how Paul’s character turned out.

Look, it’s a good read. And if I hadn’t ever read The Lace Reader, I’d probably give it four stars. But I have, and I know Barry is capable of much better.

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Book review, sort of: Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

RIP 9 Peril the Second

Call this a testament to the reason I keep books I love and re-read them again and again.

1081372For R.I.P. XI, I intended to read, finally, The Dark Tower, the last volume of Stephen King’s epic Gunslinger* series.  I got 65 pages into it and realized I remembered next to nothing about its immediate predecessor, Song of Susannah.  Okay, let’s get that one down off the shelf.  41 pages into Susannah, I realized I remembered nothing about its predecessor, Wolves of the Calla.  I picked Wolves up, turned to the last few pages and recognized….nothing.

Oh bother.

So I went all the way back to Wizard and Glass, looked at its last few pages, shook my head in dismay and started at the beginning.  After re-reading the first section, the nightmare trip with Blaine the Mono, and reading enough of the middle section, the flashback to Roland’s teenage travels, to sufficiently reacquaint myself with the high and low points, I then skipped ahead to join up with the ka-tet once more, where they sit by the side of I-70 outside Topeka, after the end of Roland’s tale of young love, loss, and exile.  A quick trip to Oz later (read it: you’ll see what I mean), and now we’re back on the Path of the Beam.

I love Wizard and Glass.  I love it.  And I love it for all the reasons other readers of this series hate it:  that novel-length interlude where Roland tells the story of his trip West to the Barony of Mejis when he was 14 years old, where he fell in love for the first time, and how that love led to unexpected consequences and set his foot on the path that will lead inexorably to the Dark Tower.  I don’t want to say much more about it because of spoilers, but here’s the truth:  Roland is who he is because of that fateful journey and the story of the Tower couldn’t be told without it.

RIP 11This non-review was written for the R.I.P. XI Reading Challenge.  Click that badge to learn more about it.  You’ve got a few more days to join in, if you haven’t joined us already.

2016SFFChallengeAnd it’s also part of the Award-Winning SF/Fantasy Challenge.  Click that other badge to find out about that challenge.  You have until the end of 2016 to join in.

*Yes, I know, it’s really “The Dark Tower” series, but I’ve always called it the “Gunslinger” series after the title of the first volume and the mythic characters King brought to life.

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Book review: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we first meet Holly Sykes, it’s the mid-80s and she is a sullen teenager who discovered her boyfriend, with whom she had planned to live after running away from home, cheated on her with her “best mate”. When we last meet her, it’s the 2040s, and she’s trying to figure out a way to save her granddaughter from a living hell. In between is a ramble through the world of late 20th, early 21st Century, peopled with narcissistic, entitled English schoolmates and other people of consequence, some of whom manage to grow up and become decent people, but most of whom don’t. And lurking behind the scenes, manipulating people and events, are creatures with special abilities who snatch people with special abilities out of the world and use them for…nourishment? Entertainment? All of the above. It sounds like a mess, but it’s glorious and frightening and altogether wonderful.

The Bone Clocks is my second David Mitchell novel. Cloud Atlas was the first. Often when I read a second novel by a new-to-me author, I’m disappointed because it doesn’t match up to the excellence of the first novel I read. Not so in this case. The Bone Clocks is every bit as magical as Cloud Atlas. I’ll definitely be getting more David Mitchell from the library.

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Book review: Saturday by Ian McEwan

SaturdaySaturday by Ian McEwan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ulysses for those who can’t be bothered to struggle with Joycean prose.

My goodness, how this novel dragged through the minutiae of Dr. Perowne’s Saturday: from his contemplation of a plane crash in the pre-dawn sky through his preparations to leave for a squash game to a fender-bender on a crowded street to his day at the hospital to the evening events stemming from a chance encounter earlier that day and, finally, to contemplating the pre-dawn sky once again. Full circle. Full stop.

It’s exhausting. Beautifully written, but must be read with a certain determination of purpose and gritting of teeth.

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Book review: After Alice by Gregory Maguire

After AliceAfter Alice by Gregory Maguire
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Normally, I’m enthusiastic and giddy over Gregory Maguire’s take on familiar stories. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West just knocked me out. So I especially looked forward to reading Maguire’s version of one of my favorites, “Alice In Wonderland”.

Note the three lonely stars above. So, this one? Not so much.

The title is clever. Ada, whose purpose in life seems to be to run after her neighbor and friend, Alice, somehow manages to fall into Wonderland after Alice tumbled through. Everywhere Ada goes, Alice has already been. It’s as if Alice drained all the color and wonder from Wonderland by her mere presence; and Ada sees only the minutest bit of the whimsy and magic. A tragedy for Ada, if she only knew. And a tragedy for the reader, as well. The Cheshire Cat is merely an annoyance rather than a menace; the Caterpillar is stoned out of his mind; and the Tea Party is breaking up by the time Ada arrives.

Perhaps Maguire was making some metaphorical point. If so, I missed it. His writing is a treat, as always, but this story was a slog.

I think I’ll go read the original again, to clear my palate.

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Book review: The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

The Light of the FirefliesThe Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I characterized this novel as Room, sort of, but with an entire family unit. To paraphrase the Goodreads synopsis, an unnamed boy lives underground with his parents and sister. They are not allowed to go outside above ground. Ever. The boy is threatened with being attacked by “a monster” if he ever even expresses an interest in leaving.

As the novel progresses, the reader begins to understand the circumstances that led to this situation, and realizes that all is not as it appears; sympathies shift; perspectives change; and the ending, while not exactly unexpected, is more grim than necessary. Family loyalty is one thing. Living one’s own life is entirely another.

Neither poorly written nor poorly translated (as far as I can tell), but two stars because I hated the ending.

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Book review: The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

The ImperfectionistsThe Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The story of a newspaper, told alternately in flashback and in current happenings. Each present-day chapter focuses on an individual connected with the newspaper, in Rome, Paris, Cairo, all over Europe: as correspondent, editor, reader, publisher; and each flashback provides us with the chronology of the paper’s history. These are fascinatingly flawed people, each desperately trying to bring meaning to their life, to justify their existence, to get one more article published, to save the goddamn paper somehow. Because the internet threat looms and circulation is falling.

So how does an international English-language print newspaper stay afloat in the digital age? Perhaps not like this, but it’s an entertaining read regardless.

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Book review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rachel’s daily commute takes her past the neighborhood where she once lived, when she was married. The train frequently sits for several minutes at a railstop right behind the back yard of a young couple whom often Rachel spies sitting on their patio; she has built up an elaborate fantasy existence for these two, fueled by the unfulfilled wishes of her own failed marriage. One day Rachel sees the woman kissing someone other than her husband, shocking her out of her fantasy. Shortly after that, she hears that this woman has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Convinced the strange man being kissed has something to do with the disappearance, Rachel goes to the police, only to be dismissed because of her well-known drinking problem. Undeterred, Rachel continues to investigate the disappearance on her own, in the process raising the spectre of her dead marriage and the issues that led to its failure.

The story itself is well-written and, although I started to get an inkling of how things would shake out somewhere about 2/3 through the book, the final twist isn’t telegraphed and still managed to surprise me.

But none of these characters is likeable. Except one. Rachel, the ex-husband, the new wife, the husband of the missing woman, all of them were simply awful. The only person who seems to have any compassion and goodness of character is Rachel’s roommate, who is treated shabbily and still shows Rachel kindness. And while that may make these people more realistic and human, it also makes them difficult to side with: even Rachel, who is her own worst enemy and manages to sabotage herself at every turn. (Having struggled through and overcome a substance abuse problem myself, I am predisposed to empathy for her; even so, I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shout at her more than once. If nothing else, she made me realize how incredibly patient and loving my loved ones were with me when I was in the throes of addiction.)

So, to sum up, a good story, an engaging story, but one peopled by unlikeable characters being unkind to each other. Such is the drama of the London suburb.

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Book review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Fates and FuriesFates and Furies by Lauren Groff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mixed feelings about this one.

Lancelot, known to his intimates as Lotto, and Mathilde meet when they are in their early early 20s and baffle everyone who knows them — who knows Lotto in particular — by quickly marrying. The novel follows them throughout their married life, from dead broke college students to successful and well-to-do middle age and beyond, first from Lotto’s perspective (Fates), and then from Mathilde’s (Furies).

Good things:

  • The language is gorgeous.
  • After having been married for quite some time myself, I’d say this a reasonably well-drawn and not entirely implausible study of a particular marriage, although not mine.
  • I rather liked both Lotto and Mathilde for the majority of the story. The two of them reminded me in some ways of a married couple I know: a pair who met and married very young; who, to all appearances, are still passionately in love with each other after all these years; who wholeheartedly support each other in all their endeavors, business, artistic, and otherwise. (Special note just in case one or both of them might happen to read this book AND this review: By no means do I mean to imply that either keeps the kinds of secrets that make up the crux of this novel. In fact, I’d be shocked to the core to discover such a thing.)
  • I loved the chronological synopses of Lotto’s plays as a device to show the passage of time. And the synopses themselves made me wish these were actual stage productions I could see performed somewhere.

Quibbles (some spoilers ahead if you haven’t read this): Continue reading