I had fits and starts of reading last month, with book-filled plane flights on the one hand and meetings-filled days on the other. But I managed to read six books, which isn’t too bad. And they were mostly good! They were all challenge books, so there was a bit of randomness, but it’s a good feeling to dip into the TBR. Even if every book isn’t a winner, it’s one more for the Done pile.
I started strongly, with Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald. It was my first Fitzgerald and I loved it. I have at least two more in the print and ebook TBRs, and there are even more available from the library. Fitzgerald’s books are short, extremely well written, and mostly different from each other. It feels a bit like reading Muriel Spark, but gentler or at least kinder. My full review is here.
My second read was Jeannie Lin’s short story, The Taming of Mei Lin. I have all or almost all of Lin’s Harlequin releases in my collection, but a number of her early books are still in the TBR. This short story is a prequel to Butterfly Swords, which I finally read and really enjoyed last year. I picked this story because it fit the January prompt of Wendy’s TBR challenge (shorts). And it is indeed short, but fun and satisfying. My review is here.
I had planned on posting much more frequently starting January 2019, since I’m not teaching this semester. Hah. Oh well, at least I’ve been reading.
I finally finished Minds of Winter, which I bought when it was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2017. I restarted it several times because I’d pick it up and put it down and then not remember what I’d read. It’s a big, sprawling book, covering many characters, time periods, and even continents, so it helps to read it steadily. But it’s too big (500 pages) to read all at once!
I finally acknowledged that if I didn’t make it a reading project I wasn’t ever going to finish it. And I did want to. So I skimmed the first 100 pages (again) and then settled in. Readers, the journey was well worth the effort.
There are two storylines. One is made up of various polar explorations, starting with Sir John Franklin’s efforts to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and the disappearance of his crew and ship. Somewhat confusingly, the historical storyline starts in Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania), where Franklin was Lieutenant-Governor before his last voyage. Eventually that authorial decision makes sense to the reader, because other important characters are introduced. This storyline moves on to cover the expeditions in search of Franklin’s ship as well as other polar explorations. It’s very wide-ranging and often confusing to those of us who aren’t steeped in Shackleton, Franklin, and Arctic/Antarctic lore. But hang in there because it really does come together in the end in a way that is more than the sum of the parts.
My first book of 2019 is from my regular TBR, an ebook I probably bought because it was on sale. I own three books by Fitzgerald but I’ve never read any of other work despite being a fan of mid-century UK women authors. I picked this one because people were discussing it as part of a Booker-themed reading project at The Mookes and the Gripes GR group. Readers, I loved it.
The story is set among barge-dwellers on the Battersea Reach of the Thames River in the early 1960s. Nella is a wife and mother of two daughters who is separated from her husband. She still seems to love him very much but he won’t live on the boat with her and she refuses to talk to him or visit him in north London, so they are at an impasse. Nella’s river community includes Richard, whose boat is shipshape and whose wife hates living in it; Maurice, a rent-boy who befriends Nella and her daughters and in whom Nella confides; Willis, an aging artist whose boat is barely staying above waterline; and Woodie, who lives half the year alone on his well-maintained boat and half the year on land with his wife. Nella’s children, the frighteningly adult and clear-eyed Martha and the born-to-water Tilda, move among the boats and people constantly and avoid attending their convent school as much as possible.
This is a world of liminality. Everyone is in an in-between state of one kind or another, and while it seems as if nothing is going on, lives are moving and changing, almost imperceptibly. Willis is getting ready to sell his boat, which sets off a chain of related and seemingly unrelated events. Richard’s wife reaches the end of her tether, which changes Richard and Nella’s relationship and brings buried feelings to the surface. Nella’s sister, who lives in Canada and who hovers in the background for much of the story, sending visitors who never arrive, shows up in London at the same time that one of her promised visitors actually arrives at Nella’s barge. The dangers of the rent-boy life finally catch up with Maurice and those around him. After three-quarters of a novel in which things barely seem to happen, everything comes to a melodramatic head.
I do love plane flights for letting me catch up on my reading. I managed two TBR books and a recent release; two of the three were quite short but all were enjoyable.
Harlequin TBR #514: The Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels
Another Neels in my Harlequin ebook TBR that I remembered nothing about, but someone in my Goodreads feed reviewed it positively and I wanted a Christmas read so I read it out of order. As I read, I placed it as a late-era Betty that I didn’t enjoy that much. But this time around it was different. Like most of the newer ones it was shorter than the older ones in terms of wordcount, which meant that the tropes were all there but more sketchily presented. In spite of this, though, the plot point which brings our plain-but-with-beautiful eyes heroine together with her massive-Dutch-Doctor hero was written so effectively that it carried the rest of the story and had me believing in the HEA.
Margo is indeed a vicar’s daugher and lives in a small village where she does vicar’s daughter-ish things and will probably marry a local farmer becasue that’s her best option. Then Gijs van Kessel enters her life and when a tragedy brings them closer together, they embark on a marriage of convenience. There are all the requisite Betty touches: lashings of cream, Margo getting lost and being rescued by Gijs, a Big Mis that delays their mutual declarations of love, and Christmas celebrations. It’s a slight book overall, but it has a couple of scenes that elevate it above the average.
The first of my Harlequin TBR reviews is a Harlequin Romance by a new-to-me author, Jennie Adams. I used to buy a lot of HR because I liked the fact that the heroes and heroines were more or less ordinarily people and the settings weren’t over the top. There are a lot of babies in this line, which I prefer in moderation, and I probably picked this because it was baby-free.
It wasn’t a great read. But I read the whole thing, and I get to cross one off the list.
Surprise: Outback Proposal by Jennie Adams
This is an Australian-set romance in the regular Harlequin Romance line. The main trope is older woman-younger man, with workplace romance and road trip as secondary tropes. Sadly, I found the heroine unbearable and I couldn’t believe in the HEA. Jayne is 35, outwardly successful in her career, and attractive. She’s working in the family company and trying to persuade her father, the boss, to promote her to partner, but he’s fixed his eye on a young new male hire as his heir apparent (picture the ambitious shark played by James Spader in Baby Boom but with less charisma). The father is basically a selfish, sexist jerk whose first wife (Jayne’s mother) walked out on him, leaving Jayne and her sister behind. Since then he’s gone through several wives, with each being younger than the last. This upbringing has made Jayne pathologically insecure and distrustful of all relationships. She has no friends we can discern, either. She “socializes” with men to go to events, but these are all entirely chaste encounters so the men don’t stick around.
The hero is Alex, who has his own sad backstory: he was abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage by his mother and he only learned her name and circumstances when he received a posthumously mailed letter from her. He joined forces with two other boys at the orphanage and made a found family, but he’s also wary of attachment. So we have two damaged people.
Given that, it’s a bit disconcerting that the story opens with Jayne and Alex having an introductory business meeting about a potential contract and half of the exposition and internal monologuing is about how hot they find each other. And in Jayne’s case, how unattractive she must be, given her ancient age. My eyes, they could not stop rolling. There are all kinds of problems that can come with a 10-year age gap between a 25YO and a 35YO, but the obvious one of maturity is brushed aside quickly. No, it’s because Jayne is a cougar and Alex can’t possibly want her.
Brandon Hobson has written at least two previous novels and a bunch of short stories, but this is my first book by him. It tells the story of about two years in the life of 14/15 year old Sequoyah, who has been living in foster homes and shelters since his mother was sent to prison for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Sequoyah loves his mother but he has learned to distance himself from her, for his own sake. His case worker finds him a new foster placement in a rural area a couple of hours from where he’d been living in Tulsa, OK. He becomes the third foster kid in the Troutt’s house, along with 17YO Rosemary and 13YO George. Sequoyah is Cherokee and Rosemary is Kiowa, and that creates an instant bond between them, but their connection deepens as they spend time together. It’s never sexual but it’s emotionally very intense. George and Sequoyah share a room and also get to know each other, and mostly they get along, but George is focused and obsessive about his interests (he’s writing a novel, among other things) and he has trauma-based fears. So it’s not really a friendship, although they grow to care for each other’s well being. The Troutts are a bit odd but kind and supportive. The caseworker is also kind and supportive, although necessarily from a distance.
The entire story is told through Sequoyah’s POV. We learn about his upbringing and background through his ruminations and flashbacks, including his childhood in Cherokee County, his mother’s lapses, and the kitchen accident that left him with obvious facial scarring. Sequoyah wants to connect with people but he doesn’t really know how, and he veers from aloof to intensely attached depending on his mood and general state. He’s very much a teenage boy, but one who has had a difficult life and is having to make his way without stability or supportive love from any family members. His found family isn’t bad, especially given what it could be, and he does the best he can with it. Rosemary becomes the focus of his obsessive interest and attention, which creates problems because she is unstable and unpredictable.
Although a lot of things happen in the course of the novel, they’re related at such a controlled, subtle pitch that they don’t feel consequential until they sink in. In the hands of another writer the story could have been highly emotional and melodramatic. But that’s not how Sequoyah experiences and internalizes it, so we don’t either. The way it creeps up on the reader made it far more devastating to read than it would have been if the emotions had been raw on the page.
Johnson’s debut novel (after a collection of well-received short stories) has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and has mostly quite positive reviews, so I’m in the minority in seeing it as a very mixed bag. It has some lovely turns of phrase and the descriptions of nature (and the characters’ relationships to nature) are striking and often very effective, but the overall project just didn’t work for me. The novel feels both over-egged and under-baked.
It’s over-egged because there is just too much going on that doesn’t feel entirely under the control of the author. It’s about a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in an unusual community, mysterious mythical creatures who sow fear and dread in that community, family secrets, and the reworking of Greek myths in contemporary terms. That’s a lot of freight for one short novel to carry. While the character of Gretel does most of the narration, the fulcrum of the book is her mother, Sarah, whose choices and actions shape much of the forward momentum of the past and present storylines. She gets an assist from the character of Fiona, a transgender woman who sees the future and feels compelled to warn those in danger. Fiona’s premonitions bring two storylines together in a way that is surprising unless you haven’t been told of or figured out which Greek myth is being reproduced here.
The under-baked part comes from the sketchiness of opacity of many of the characterizations, with some of the characters seeming to exist primarily to further the plot. Sarah, whose character is essential to giving meaning and depth to the story, remained frustratingly out of reach. I was told she was charismatic and nearly irresistible, but I rarely saw why. Margot’s family was strongly on page when Gretel needed them for information and when Fiona’s part in the story was at the forefront, but they weren’t fleshed out much beyond that, and even in the scenes in which they appeared they felt half-drawn. Charlie came across the same way to me.
I’ve been waiting for this novel for a while, and when it landed on my ereader I told myself I would go slow. I couldn’t do it. The language sucked me in and I kept reading until I finished. It’s a short novel but packed with beautiful imagery and interesting characters.
The book is divided into four parts, with the first three introducing different narrators and settings and the fourth bring the three disparate stories together. The first, Farouk’s story, is shattering. Farouk is a doctor in Syria and he and his family have paid a broker to get them out, via boat, to Europe and future safety. Farouk’s wife is ready to take the risk and their daughter is cheerful and relatively unaware. When things go terribly wrong, Farouk can’t cope with the reality.
What worked so well for me in this story was that Ryan didn’t attempt to portray a highly realistic and detailed portrait of a Syrian refugee’s life and context. Instead, he concentrates on Farouk the relatively privileged, educated man who has confidence that his money and sophistication will keep him from making avoidable or irretrievable mistakes. He doesn’t, and that compounds the tragedy and makes it even harder for him to come to terms with what happens. It’s a different way to approach a refugee as Anyman, emphasis on the “man,” because were we to see the story through his wife Martha’s eyes it would have been a different one. While as a reader I concentrated on the story being told, I realized in retrospect that this was also a story about masculinity and how it privileges and confines Farouk.
This is the first book of Kushner’s that I’ve read, but I was aware of her earlier novels and I knew the general subject and themes of this one before I started reading it as part of the Booker 2018 longlist. It has received a lot of advance press and glowing reviews, and Kushner has given a number of interviews. It’s definitely been one of the most talked-about books of the year.
I went into it with high hopes, because mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex are issues I’m very interested in. But I found this book to be quite disappointing overall. It has flashes of brilliance, and Kushner has a distinctive and interesting writing style, but the flaws made it a very frustrating read.
These are big subjects, hard to wrestle into a coherent form, and it shows. The main narrator of the novel is Romy Hall, a 30-something woman who is serving two life sentences plus six years for the killing of her stalker. Romy has earned her living as a dancer in a strip club and supports her young son, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. She earns just enough to survive, living in the Tenderloin in SF and in a run-down immigrant neighborhood in LA. When she is arrested she winds up in county jail until her trial, where she is represented by an overworked public defender. She refuses to plea bargain (unlike the vast majority of indigent plaintiffs) and winds up with a very harsh sentence and incarceration in the Central California Women’s Prison in Chowchilla (here renamed Stanville). This is where the story begins; we learn Romy’s past through flashbacks and conversations.
In addition to Romy, we get POV narration from another inmate, Martinez, as well as two men: Gordon Hauser is a permanently-ABD English grad student who gets a job as a teacher in Stanville, and Doc is a bent cop who is in prison for life for two murders (he’s convicted for two but has killed more than that). Hauser is well-meaning but ineffectual and somewhat pathetic; Doc is a sociopathic racist and misogynist. Oh, and we also get excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diaries, to which Kushner had access through an artist friend.
I don’t read a lot of poetry and the last verse novel I read was Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, which came out many years ago. But I was intrigued by the reviews and when it made the Booker longlist I moved it up the TBR. Robertson is a highly acclaimed poet, one of two people who has won the Forward Prize for poetry in three different categories.
This is a true verse novel, in my opinion. It is written primarily in poetic form (with short prose sections) but it has the structure and beats of a prose novel. The narrator is Walker, a Canadian veteran of World War II. We meet Walker in New York City in 1948, where he has landed because he feels he cannot go home again and pick up his old life, not given the man he feels he has become. Walker is still suffering psychologically and emotionally from his war experiences, and he is very much a loner. He decides to move west to Los Angeles, where he lives in an SRO and obtains a job on a left-leaning daily newspaper.
Walker is drawn to the skid row community, many of whom are veterans, and he strikes up a friendship with Billy, an African-American veteran and activist. Billy introduces him to members of the community, and Walker gets to know the people in his neighborhood, many of whom are old and in financially precarious circumstances. He spends much of his time walking the streets of LA, from downtown to the ocean. The veteran and senior community he is part of is in stark contrast to the image of Los Angeles as new, presentist, and ever-growing, with construction wiping out what past existed. This perspective is both challenged and reinforced by the film industry: challenged because film noir in particular exposes the corrupt and seedy underside of the construction boom, and reinforced because it can’t help showing Los Angeles in a glamorous light.