Tag Archive | family dynamics

Book review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not your usual love story. Not your usual happy ending.

Cora, recently widowed — and frankly, quite pleased to be free of her marriage — decamps to the Essex countryside with her companion Martha and her son Frances for a change of scenery after her abusive husband is laid to rest. There she meets Will Ransome, the local vicar, and his angelic wife, Stella. Cora and Will immediately take to each other in an intellectual sense, debating matters of biology, naturalism, and faith with vigor and passion; Stella looks on in bemusement and a secret delight that Will has met someone his intellectual equal. Stella is ill, although she hasn’t told anyone; as the novel wears on, one suspects she doesn’t object to Will’s friendship with Cora because she expects Will to turn to Cora after Stella passes on.

In the meantime, Aldwinter (the village) is roiled by the rumor that the Essex Serpent of the title has resurfaced after an absence of some 200 years. Cora is thrilled at the story and believes the Serpent may be a prehistoric creature. Will believes the story is stuff and nonsense but is pleased church attendance is up. Still, he is unsettled by the reason: many in town believe the End Times may be at hand, or at the very least, God is unhappy with the town and is punishing them with this beast. The townsfolk are skittish and superstitious; they keep their children in and their livestock tied, and hold vigil at the edge of the river, watching for any sign of the creature so Aldwinter can be warned and ready.

As the year rolls by, passions rise and fall; quarrels come and go; people leave and return; letters are written and exchanged; the Serpent lurks; death stalks; love awaits; and peace, while elusive, is eventually found.

Lovely writing, lovely story.

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Book review: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

Sleeping BeautiesSleeping Beauties by Stephen King

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The sleeping women became enshrouded in cocoons and, without them, men tore the world apart.

This novel hinges on the premise that, without women’s civilizing influence, the human male is a brute savage, bent on destruction and domination. And while that might be true to a certain degree and for certain men, I simply can’t believe men in general would lose all sense of decorum and restraint within a three-day absence of their mothers, wives, and daughters, even given they don’t know if said absence is temporary.

I mean, give it at least a week, right? Maybe even two.

Two stars and “It was ok” is all the praise you’re getting from me, King père et fils. It was readable, at least.

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Book review: A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge)A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This third installment of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series covers the Elizabethan era of England’s history, with its attendant political intrigues, religious persecutions, and assassination plots. While our chief protagonist, Ned Willard, and his family are fictional, famous historical personages inhabit the plot: William Cecil; Mary, Queen of Scots; Francis Walsingham; Francis Drake; and of course Elizabeth Tudor.

Ned Willard goes to court as a young man, after having been disappointed in love, and is promptly taken under the wing of William Cecil, Elizabeth Tudor’s chief advisor. Together they oversee a network of informants and spies, rooting out planned rebellions and foiling attempts on the Queen’s life. The majority of the political story concerns the tension between staunch Catholics and Protestants, each believing they follow the One True Faith; and the accompanying efforts to sway England, France, and Spain toward one religious tradition or the other.

I liked this book. It’s well-written and steeped in historical detail. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first of the line (The Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century), or even the second (World Without End, set in the 14th century). That may be because I am utterly fascinated by the Middle Ages — far more than with any other period in history — and thus novels set in other historical eras don’t engage me as much. Still, Elizabethan England is a dramatic setting, and the dramatic plotline delivers one punch of excitement after another.

Given that the three books in this series each take place approximately 200 years apart, I venture to guess that the next installment, should there be one, will cover the American Revolution, and will take place in both England and the New World. We’ll see.

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Book review: The Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

The BeguiledThe Beguiled by Thomas Cullinan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I first started this book, I really enjoyed it — the alternating viewpoints, the sly digs each young woman got in at her fellow students while proclaiming her own virtues, the different backgrounds of the girls. But somewhere around the 50% mark, the same things I enjoyed at the beginning started to annoy me. When I began to want to reach into the story and slap certain characters upside the head for their sheer pettiness and lack of sense, it was time to set the story down. I didn’t really care what happened to the girls, or their schoolmistresses, or the young man. I figure it was not a happy ending for him, because up to the point I laid the story down for good, he never got his own chapter to speak his piece. I may still watch the movie. This one might be the exception — where the movie is better than the book.

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Book review: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

The LaurasThe Lauras by Sara Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the middle of a spring night, 13-year-old Alex’s mother hustles both of them into the car, puts Alex in the back seat with a blanket, and drives away from their home and Alex’s father, with no explanation. All Alex knew was Ma and Dad had been fighting, again, and this time must have been the worst, or Ma would never have left.

The pair spends the next few years on the road, traveling from place to place, small town to small town, more or less in hiding, while Alex’s mother works odd jobs to support them. Now and then Ma talks about her past; now and then they visit places and people Ma had known as she was growing up in foster care. Ma has loose ends to tie up.

Alex has loose ends, too. Mainly, Alex hasn’t decided whether to present as male or female, and so alternates depending on mood and available clothing. While this usually doesn’t cause trouble, Alex occasionally runs into people who don’t understand and want to classify and categorize by gender. Ma is fiercely protective of Alex’s genderqueer identity and won’t stand for any nonsense from jackasses.

Told in the first person from Alex’s perspective, this wandering road trip of self-discovery — for both Alex and Ma — is mesmerizing, beautiful, tender, gruff, and heart-wrenching. Life on the run isn’t easy, but our stalwart nomads make the best of their circumstances, and eventually find themselves a satisfactory state of being.

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

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Book review: The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (Flavia de Luce #9)The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Six months after the death of their father, Flavia de Luce and her sisters, Daphne and Ophelia, are on a summer boating holiday with family retainer Dogger, in a desperate attempt to jolt themselves out of their gloom and come together as a family once again. As luck would have it, and as one has come to expect when 12-year-old Flavia is involved, a body turns up — in this particular instance, it’s snagged by Flavia herself as she trails her hand in the river while they are punting along.

The boating party pulls ashore and Dogger goes off to fetch the local constabulary. While Daffy and Feely stand watch on either side of the soggy corpse, a delighted Flavia begins her investigation. And thus we’re off on another romp through our intrepid sleuth’s thinking process as she sifts clues and calculates advantages and outcomes.

Lots of lovely secondary characters here: I was nearly as enamored with Hob, the undertaker’s son, as Flavia was. He seems to be cut from the same jib as our young heroine: determined, spunky, and with a little larceny in his soul.

Yes, with each book, Flavia becomes a little more devious, I think, in the sense that she recognizes there are certain things the adults mustn’t know or they won’t let her continue with her favorite hobby. She generally wracks herself with brief moments of guilt over these little deceptions, but the ends always seem to justify the means. She’s more than a little frightening, actually. But she’s also starting to grow up here: she’s seeing her sisters in a more forgiving light, which is a good thing since they’re orphaned and have only each other now (leaving aside Aunt Felicity, of course).

Oh, almost forgot. Of course Flavia solves the mystery. Because she wouldn’t be Flavia otherwise.

I look forward to the next installment.

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Book review: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

The Gap of TimeThe Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never having read A Winter’s Tale, the Shakespeare play on which this novel is based, I waded into The Gap of Time with no preconceived notions. The lack of familiarity wasn’t a hindrance, however; Jeanette Winterson thoughtfully provides a synopsis of the play before the novel begins; even that synopsis is unnecessary unless one is looking for the similarities and parallels. I wasn’t, and so I enjoyed the novel for its own sake.

Briefly, Leo Kaiser suspects his pregnant wife MiMi is cheating on him with his best friend Xeno, and believes that the child she carries is not his own. He mistreats her so badly that she leaves him, but not until he steals her newborn daughter. A series of miscommunications result in the infant being abandoned in a “Baby Hatch” and subsequently adopted and lost to her birth family. Some seventeen years later, circumstances bring unknowing child and unwitting parent together.

I loved young Perdita and Zel; Perdita’s adoptive father Shep is warm and gruff and sweet; Xeno and MiMi are beautiful and tragic…the only character for whom I couldn’t find any redemption was Leo, who is unremittingly awful to the point of caricature throughout the entire novel.

Leo aside, there is some gorgeous writing in this novel. I really should have marked the passages I found particularly lovely. Nicely done, Ms. Winterson.

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

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Double book review: In Memoriam; The Borrower

In MemoriamIn Memoriam by Nathan Burgoine

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s nearly impossible to review this novella without spoilers, so let me just say this: James Daniels found a unique way to deal with the memory loss that accompanies his brain cancer, and said method is lovely and satisfying and heartwarming and sweet.

A beautiful piece of writing.

The BorrowerThe Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lucy Hull has a favorite library patron, young Ian Drake. Unfortunately, Ian’s mother doesn’t approve of Ian’s reading tastes, nor of Ian himself, apparently. Early one morning, Lucy opens the library to find Ian camped out in the stacks, having run away from home. He convinces Lucy to take him somewhere else, and she obliges.

What follows is a haphazard road trip from somewhere in Missouri to Chicago and Pittsburgh and points northeastward, all directed more or less by the boy in the passenger seat, with Lucy’s passive acquiescence masking her inner turmoil at being led around by the nose by a 10-year-old. But this journey isn’t about Ian, really; it’s about Lucy coming to terms with her passive acquiescence of everything except her family legacy; and how family shapes who we are whether we like it or not; and how blood will out, regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. The short chapters written in the style of various children’s books were amusing and poignant and sharply aimed.

Highly recommended.

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Book review: The Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry

The Map of True PlacesThe Map of True Places by Brunonia Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After the suicide of a client, Zee Finch leaves her fiancé and her Boston psychology practice to care for her ailing father in their Salem family home. Very little drama ensues. Really.

Honestly, I didn’t see any point in this novel. I didn’t particularly like Zee (although I loved the fact that her given name was Hepzibah) or her eventual love interest, Hawk; the emphasis on navigating by the stars was weird and contrived; in fact, the whole of the story felt contrived and weird and and incoherent, like a series of set pieces linked together only because they involved the same characters. Zee traveled some small distance as a character, but in the end I felt she was little different from the wishy-washy human being that began the story.

Sophomore novels are often a let down after brilliant debuts. The Lace Reader was brilliant. This? Not so much.

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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.