Tag Archive | women

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: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Sharp ObjectsSharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although Sharp Objects is my third Gillian Flynn novel, it’s Ms. Flynn’s first, for which she won a well-deserved Edgar. It’s beautifully written, deeply disturbing, and knock-your-socks-off holy-cow-what-the-hell-just-happened good.

Camille Preaker is sent by the editor of the tiny Chicago daily where she works back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, which is little more than a wide spot in the road, to cover the story of two murdered girls and the potential story of a serial killer. Camille left Wind Gap years ago to escape her toxic family and save her own life. She’s not sure she’s managed to do either; in Chicago, while she may have been suicidal, at least she wasn’t carving words into her own skin. Still, Camille is severely damaged. When we meet her mother and stepfather, we begin to understand why.

Because her newspaper doesn’t have the budget to put her up in a motel while on assignment, Camille must stay in her family home while she is in town. Her mother Adora, with an eye to “what would the neighbors think?”, grudgingly grants Camille shelter but insists she keep “all that unpleasantness” out of her house. All that unpleasantness encompasses not only the murders of the two girls, but anything unpleasant that has ever happened, up to and including the death of Camille’s younger half-sister Marian when Camille was 13. Camille has another much younger half-sister, Amma, whom she barely knows, who at times seems just as sickly as Marian was, but at others is robust enough to excel in her “Mean Girl” “Queen Bee” role at the local middle school. Throw in Alan, Camille’s ineffective and virtually silent stepfather, and this dysfunctional family is complete.

We see all this through Camille’s eyes; we are privy to her inner dialogue with all its twists and turns and justifications and attempts to make sense of how she ended up back in the same hellhole she tried to escape. As she reacquaints herself with Wind Gap, she recalls incidents from her past associated with each place. In the park where one girl, Natalie, was last seen alive:

The dirt from the baseball field hovered a few feet above the ground. I could taste it the back of my throat like tea left brewing too long…Garrett Park was the place everyone met on weekends to drink beer or smoke pot or get jerked off three feet into the woods. It was where I was first kissed, at age thirteen, by a football player with a pack of chaw tucked down in his gums.

And getting ready for Natalie’s funeral:

My mother was wearing blue to the funeral…She also wore blue to Marian’s funeral, and so did Marian. She was astonished I didn’t remember this. I remembered Marian being buried in a pale pink dress. This was no surprise. My mother and I generally differ on all things concerning my dead sister.

Camille is more resilient than she knows, but not quite as strong as she needs to be. She drinks too much and too often. She writes the names of the murdered girls and other words on her skin, using ballpoint pen and lipstick instead of a knife. She has questionable judgment in sex partners. And investigating these murders eventually leads her deep into her own history with devastating consequences.

In Camille, Gillian Flynn has created a deeply flawed protagonist who makes bad decisions out of weakness, out of trauma, out of a desire to flee from raw emotion, and she makes us cheer for her even while we shake our heads in dismay at her poor choices. And in the end, I loved Camille and wished her the very best future she can possibly make for herself.

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Book review: The Good Dream by Donna VanLiere

Four of five stars

Sarah Ivorie Walker is 30 years old and single, which is a shame in 1950 rural Tennessee. Ivorie, as she’s known, stayed home with her elderly parents, taking care of them, and now that her mother has passed on, she’s all alone out there on her little homestead. But she has her garden, and her milk cow, and her job at the local public school to keep her busy. One fine summer day, she notices one of her tomato vines is broken, and something’s been in the peas and green beans. Some durn critter is messing up her vegetable patch. She’s determined to trap it. Sure enough, she does: the critter is a little boy. A speechless, neglected, and severely abused little boy who’s been sneaking down out of the hills at night to eat out of her garden. Ivorie decides to take him in and raise him herself. And suddenly, she’s not only a spinster, but a scandal.

Donna VanLiere tells us the story in alternate chapters, first through Ivorie’s eyes, and then through the eyes of our nameless boy. And it’s a sweet story, but not sentimental. Ivorie’s no nonsense approach to all things permits no truck with sentimentality. Still, that isn’t to say a reader won’t shed a tear or two, especially with the closing paragraphs. A lovely lovely book, perfect to read on a summer’s day, while sitting on the front porch drinking iced tea, watching the neighborhood children play in the yard, and counting one’s blessings.

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

Book review: A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends by Stacy Bierlein

Two of five stars

In this collection of short stories, Stacy Bierlein examines women’s relationships to their men, their children, their parents, each other, and the world at large. Her tales are sexually graphic, funny, philosophical, poignant, and — to me — somewhat annoying.

Maybe it’s modern short fiction that bothers me. A piece in which a character muses about the things he sees while waiting at the bus stop, and then ends when the character gets on the bus is a writing exercise, not a short story. Not that this particular collection contains that exact scenario, but it’s a “for instance”. Where’s the growth of the character in such a piece? Ms. Bierlein’s collection contains several such writing exercises — beautifully done, with lovely words and startling imagery, but not meeting my idea of what a short story should be: something with a beginning, a middle, an end; situation, conflict, resolution.

This is what happens when one is raised on Edgar Allan Poe, Shirley Jackson, and Ray Bradbury: expectation of a certain rigidity of form. Maybe one day I will let go of those expectations and be a little more flexible. Until then, I think I’ll stick with novel length fiction. Or short stories by the above-mentioned authors.

Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program for the opportunity to read this collection.

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.

Book review: Discovering The Body by Mary Howard

Two of five stars

Two years ago, Linda Garbo walked into her friend Luci’s kitchen and found her dead on the floor. Linda’s testimony was instrumental in convicting Peter Garvey, a local mechanic and Luci’s secret lover, of the crime. But lately, Linda has been having flashes of memory, leading to doubts and second thoughts about her statements during the investigation and at trial. Was it really Peter Garvey she saw outside the house that day? Or was it someone else?

Linda sets out to explore her memory, if only to set her mind at ease that she did not help convict an innocent man. But in her quest for truth, she uncovers a few secrets that others would rather have kept quiet. Such is the result of questions raised in a small town.

The story is quietly told, low-key, almost meandering, and seemed to take forever to come to the point. I can’t argue that it’s badly written — it has lovely prose and engaging characters — but its less than 300 pages felt interminable: one of the reasons it took me over a month to finish it. I kept putting it down and walking away.

Truthfully, the way this novel was set up, I fully expected it to reveal Linda as the murderer, who had somehow forgotten she had done it — traumatic amnesia of some sort — and the memories were now surfacing out of guilt over marrying Luci’s boyfriend Charlie within months of Luci’s death. That author Mary Howard didn’t take us there both surprised and somehow disappointed me. I’m sure this unmet expectation has a lot to do with my lack of enjoyment of the story.

Book review: Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Two of five stars

I picked up the Sepulchre audiobook from the bargain bin at the local megachain bookstore because I wanted something to listen to on a cross-country road trip and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money.

Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t. Spend a lot of money, that is.

As with Mosse’s previous novel, Labyrinth, I wanted to like this story. Historical setting juxtaposed against modern setting, with a supernatural-ish link between them: just my cup of tea. As with Labyrinth again, the premise was better than the execution.

17-year-old Léonie Vernier and her older brother Anatole leave their mother behind and flee 1891 Paris for the country at the invitation of their Aunt Isolde, widow of their mother’s estranged brother. Anatole has some rather nasty people after him, and Léonie just wants to get out of the city for a while. Upon arriving at the country estate, the Domain de la Cade in Rennes-les-Bain, they settle in for a long visit. But all is not as it seems at the Domain, and the siblings, along with their aunt, may not have left all the danger behind them in Paris.

Jump to modern-day France, and meet 26-year-old American graduate student Meredith Martin, who is researching a biography on Debussy as well as her own family history. She has also come to the Domain de la Cade, now an exclusive hotel, in search of both a family connection and a Debussy connection. She is eerily familiar with the Domain although she’s never before visited. And soon she also discovers danger lurking for her in the recesses and grounds of the estate.

The story pops back and forth between these eras in a fairly logical pattern and is entertaining enough. I had some difficulty with character differentiation: the reader, whose name escapes me at the moment, had a convincing French accent although she made little distinction between the female voices. She did not give Meredith an American accent, which did not help. I found Léonie annoying, whiny, and overly childish for her age. I didn’t care much for any of the female characters, which is unfortunate since the story was essentially theirs. In fact, I didn’t care much for any of the characters. If I’d had been reading a hard copy rather than listening while driving across Oklahoma, Texas, and the desert Southwest, I’d have put it down and found something else. As such, I was a captive audience. But I breathed a sigh of relief — “Thank heavens that’s over!” — when I finished the last disc just as I pulled in front of the hotel where I would be staying in California. It’s hard to say whether the relief came more from being done with the drive or the book.