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Book review: Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream

Three of five stars

Clementine Pritchard, in a fit of determination, has fired her shrink, fired her assistant, and flushed her meds down the toilet. After decades of suffering with bipolar disorder, she’s through. She’s given herself 30 days to wrap up her affairs and then she’s taking her own life. Neatly. Cleanly. No fuss, no muss. And definitely not like her mother, who murdered Clementine’s sister and then herself with a powerful shotgun blast one black day when Clementine was a girl.

Throughout the next 30 days, one chapter per day, we follow Clementine — a denizen and bright light of the L.A. art world and beyond — as she sets things in motion and begins distancing herself from her life: she buys a cemetery plot, makes a suicide plan, writes her notes, makes arrangements for the adoption of her cat. She even manages to finish a new painting or two to leave behind as a legacy. She’s very focused, and so incredibly sad. The sadness seeps through every word, every deed, every action Clementine takes. She’s good at masking it, maybe even from herself at times, but the black permeates her very soul, colors her every thought, informs every piece of art she’s ever made. It sits on her shoulder and whispers in her ear, insidious, lethal, and inescapable.

The more Clementine tries to disentangle herself from the people in her world, though, the more they refuse to be disentangled. We — and Clementine — come right down to the last few days, unsure if everything is completely set…

Ashley Ream has done a splendid job depicting the thought processes of someone with a serious mental illness. Clementine is by turns funny, outrageous, bitchy, sweet, and angry. She drinks too much and has a history of other forms of self medication. She hurts, oh how she hurts, and I hurt with her. She’s beautifully written, beautifully created, and utterly real.

Lovely work, Ms. Ream. I look forward to your next novel.

Many thanks to Goodreads’ First Reads program for the opportunity to read this book.

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Book review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Three of five stars

Some people are doomed from birth, it seems. Libby Day is one of those unfortunates. When she was seven, her family was murdered. Her teenaged brother was convicted of the crime based on Libby’s testimony. And twenty-five years later, she’s at the end of the money raised for her while she was that sweet-faced surviving tot, and earned from the book she published about the tragedy while she in her 20s. With no education, no job skills, and no family except an aunt who won’t return her phone calls, a brother serving a life sentence, and a deadbeat father — whereabouts mostly unknown — Libby faces the almost-certain probability of destitution and homelessness. Then a letter arrives in the mail, inviting her to appear at a convention of murder buffs and offering her $500 for the appearance.

As it turns out, these murder buffs think her brother Ben is innocent. And Libby sees an opportunity to milk her tragedy for profit yet again, by making these pathetic fools pay her for finding and interviewing all the remaining players and reporting back any information she discovers. Not that she expects to find anything, or even make much money, for that matter. But when $500 is the difference between having a roof over her head and living in her car, she’ll take what she can get.

The story structure alternates between Libby’s search in the present, and the events of that terrible day in January 1985 when her mother and sisters died. There isn’t a single likeable person in this entire cast of characters: Ben Day is surly and not very bright; Michelle Day, the oldest sister, is nosy and selfish; Patty Day, their mother, is weak-willed; Libby herself was whiny and clingy as a child, self-absorbed and larcenous as an adult. But they — especially Patty and Libby — struggle so hard, and fight so desperately for their day-to-day survival, to find a piece of solid ground where they can stand tall and be safe.

I know these people. I see them every day in my work. And while I may dislike them on one level, I still love them on an entirely different level, a “there but for the grace of God” level. These are the denizens of the trash-strewn trailer parks and the ramshackle tumbledown farmhouses. This is the mother too proud for food stamps but terrified she can’t feed her children. This is the teenage boy learning to be a man in today’s world and lacking any positive role model to emulate. This is the young girl bounced from relative to relative because no one wants her to stay for long, but everyone refuses to let become a ward of the state because she’s family and “we take care of our own.” They break my heart with their failure, their abject poverty, with being beaten down by a trick of circumstance and the consequence of poor choices.

But in the end, I admire Libby. She had a tough row to hoe. She’s a survivor. I hope she finds some happiness someday.

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Book review: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All The Confusion? by Johan Harstad

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? by Johan Harstad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The person you love is 72.8 percent water and there’s been no rain for weeks.”

With that opening sentence to set the tone, Johan Harstad moves us gently into the world of Mattias, age 29, a gardener, a resident of Stavanger, Norway, a man who wants nothing out of life than to be unnoticed and unnoticeable.

I was the kid in your class in elementary school, in high school, in college, whose name you can’t remember when you take out the class photo ten years later…the one you didn’t miss when I left your class and started at another school, or when I didn’t come to your party…the one you thought didn’t have a life….I was practically invisible, wasn’t I? And I was perhaps the happiest person you could have known.

Mattias lives with his girlfriend Helle and works at a nursery. He idolizes Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, because he was second. One fine day, he loses both job and girlfriend and decides to accompany his friends’ band to a gig in the Faroe Islands as their sound tech. But something happens….and the next thing both we and Mattias know, he’s in a residential psychiatric facility in Torshavn.

Mattias spends the next year navigating his new surroundings and coming to terms with his illness. During that time, he integrates himself into a community, making a human connection, with his psychiatrist Havstein, with the other residents, for perhaps the first time.

Havstein runs the facility with a loose rein and dreams of moving to the Caribbean. Ennen listens to The Cardigans and rides buses obsessively and believes she isn’t real.

Ennen gets it into her head that she is, in fact, that person, that person from nowhere, the person who looks at you that way, on a bus, on a train, or catching a plane, the woman you never see again, she’s convinced that anyone who mentions such an experience has in fact seen her, which is why she doesn’t exist.

Palli, a welder and sailor, barely speaks. Anna is the mother hen, the domestic goddess, the quiet center who keeps the household running. Together with Mattias, a family of sorts forms…or, more accurately, Mattias is adopted into the family already formed, each member with a weakness, a fragile hold on reality, each strengthened and perfected by the solidarity of the group.

Mattias’s thoughts tell the story, streaming in clear, spare prose and paragraphs punctuated almost solely by commas. This run-on running train-of-thought style provoked the occasional “Oh, come on, give me a period already!” response, but for the most part was unobtrusive and served the story well. The bleak far northern European locale — unfamiliar enough to this untraveled American that I had to find it on a map — is so fundamental to the psyche and behavior of Mattias and the others that it can be considered a character of the novel itself. And the story is bleak, gray, cold, like its locale, locked in a perpetual winter, but in the end, spring comes round again, and there’s warmth and sweetness and just the merest hint of sunshine for Mattias.

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Book review: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

So, here’s the thing. I know this is supposed to be one of the seminal works of American literature, and blazingly funny to boot. And while I have no doubt Catch-22 will maintain its place in the canon regardless of anything I write, I found the whole thing quite tedious.

Perhaps that was Heller’s point: that war is tedious, that war doesn’t make sense, that the only way for a soldier to survive a war with sanity intact is to develop a sense of the absurd and act on it. But after 144 pages, I knew I didn’t care enough about Yossarian or any other character to follow the absurdity for another 300 pages.

Thus, a two-star rating simply because I didn’t care. No reflection on writing quality. Just bored with content.

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Book review: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The Anatomy of GhostsThe Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Books are not luxuries. They are meat and drink for the mind.”

This quote from John Holdsworth, a major character in The Anatomy of Ghosts, is a simple truth. And The Anatomy of Ghosts is a twelve-course feast.

Holdsworth is a widowed bookseller, haunted by his failures as a parent and husband, eking out a living in 18th century London selling used volumes from a handcart. One day he is approached by the emissary of Lady Anne Oldershaw, offering him the position of curator of her late husband’s library, with the obligation of cataloguing and placing a value on its contents in anticipation of its bestowal upon university. This seemingly simple task has a corollary obligation: return Lady Anne’s son Frank to sanity, and thus restored, to London.

Young Frank has been committed to a sanitarium because he insists he has seen a ghost while at school in Cambridge. Holdsworth retrieves him from the hospital and sets him up in a secluded country cottage. While Frank whiles away his time in the fresh country air, Holdsworth is delving into the fact of the ghost…for Frank’s ghost was Sylvia, the deceased wife of Philip Whichcote, and the circumstances of her death are questionable, at best.

Holdsworth is a reluctant sleuth, bound by contemporary conventions of place and social structure, but his curiosity is driven in part by his unresolved guilt over the deaths of his own wife and son, and he oversteps his bounds so carefully those above him in social strata barely notice. He uncovers a secretive society whose chief object is debauchery and blasphemy, and sniffs out a connection between young Oldershaw, the deceased Sylvia, Whichcote, and numerous other players of high rank in the small theater that is Cambridge University. Everything, everyone, is connected, whether or not they are aware of the connection.

Andrew Taylor tells his multi-layered story with clarity and precision. His attention to detail, his ear for dialogue, his creation of character, all are wicked sharp. This sentence, for example, tells the reader everything one needs to know about both individuals mentioned: “The doorstep was whitestoned every morning by a gangling maid named Dorcas, a poorhouse apprentice who feared Mrs Phear far more than she feared Almighty God because He at least was reputed to be merciful.” Sights, smells, sartorial details — all lovingly exposited almost to the point of wishing for a kerchief of one’s own to hold to one’s nose. The Anatomy of Ghosts is a rare treat for a lover of historical fiction and a lover of mysteries. Both are exquisitely contained within this one volume. If I had to make a comparison between them, I’d say with The Anatomy of Ghosts, Andrew Taylor has outdone Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.

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

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