A celebrity before the days of celebrity, Charles Dickens was a genius and an enigma who created some of the most potent novels in history. Behind theA celebrity before the days of celebrity, Charles Dickens was a genius and an enigma who created some of the most potent novels in history. Behind the scenes, Dickens was a man unlike any other, with strange beliefs, warring passions and an eclectic lifestyle. In this biography by famous author Jane Smiley, Dickens’ life and works are explored in great depth and with generous helpings of sympathy, interest and wonder. From his secrecy about his troubled childhood to his eventual marriage to a woman whom he would one day repudiate, Smiley gives us a profound insight into the inner workings of the man whose fame seemed to be ever increasing. She shares with her readers his rapturous enjoyment of his notoriety and reveals the ways Dickens sought to eradicate society’s social and political ills through his stories. She also sheds light on how he unintentionally captured the personalities and behaviors of both himself and his counterparts in his amazingly fluid and distinctive tales. Smiley reveals all this with a deep sense of understanding and intimate knowledge that mirrors the devotion of his many fans, and even the critics who panned him. Part biography, part literary critique, Charles Dickens: A Life is at once a fascinating study of a man who was ahead of his time and also, tragically, a product of it.
Though I haven’t read Dickens’ work extensively, I do consider him to be one of my favorite authors, and I’m constantly amazed at the unique and sensitive qualities of his writing. I am, in fact, so interested in Dickens and his work that I’m trying to undertake a project where I read all his published work incrementally throughout the new year. It's a vast undertaking, for most of Dickens’ books are very long, but I hope one day to be able to complete this journey through the works of an author whom I find amazing and inimitable. When I was approached to review this book, I did a happy little dance of joy and immediately said yes, for I could think of no better way to get close to this author than to read about his life and work in biographical form. This book was entrancing from the outset, and Smiley’s manipulation of her material was both expert and alluring. I learned so much about Dickens that I felt, as I closed the covers, as if I had gotten an intimate peek into the mind of a man who defies easy description.
As many readers of Dickens will attest, there is no one who writes a story in quite the way this man did. Many other authors manage to imitate him in their rich portrayal of character, but there is truly only one Dickens, and love him or hate him, this cannot be denied. One of the things that was most interesting about this book was discovering that each story he wrote had a good deal of autobiographical material threaded through it, and as Dickens matured as an author and his perceptions of the world changed, his characters also grew more evolved and multifaceted. Many of his characters were archetypes, and many of them were based on the very people he lived with, worked with or associated closely with. I found it interesting that Dickens seemed to have only two or three versions of the women in his tales, and these women were based on the limited and very prejudicial beliefs that he held. Most of his female characters were either based on his wife (who, in later years, he held little esteem for) or took on the virginal and unsullied role of those paramours that Dickens always kept out of public sight. It's stated rather clearly that it's only at the end of his life that Dickens truly began to understand women, and this also was reflected in his work.
Dickens was also very adept at making social statements and addressing pressing public concerns in his work, and used the platform of his novels to share his disgust and sadness at the failure of the system to adequately provide for the lower class. Much of his work has the hallmark of broaching topics of public sanitation, the workhouse, orphanages, and other systems where people fall through the cracks and are forgotten. Though these are topics he includes in his books, these aren’t the subjects of his books, and in his own way Dickens creates a pastiche of narrative, character and drama with an underlying and low level admonishment of the system that so many found themselves at the mercy of. Dickens sought to entertain but also to educate, and in this light, his work takes on a new meaning and portent that most modern readers remain unaware of. Not only was Dickens a very successful author, he was arguably the first celebrity to ever take the stage, with dramatic readings and recitations punctuating his literary work.
The one area where I have a bone to pick with Dickens is in his abysmal treatment of his wife. While it's true she wasn’t his first choice, as time went on and she made the gradual transition from paramour to maternal figure, Dickens seemed to gradually devalue her and make increasingly impractical demands of her. It seems he could only think of women in very limited ways, and her gradual transition from one type of woman to another drew his ire and ill-concealed hatred. It's also worth noting that Dickens’ life was marked by considerable restlessness and a desire for concealment and movement. The fact that he had scores of children and a wife who was more content to stay put was just another annoyance that he seemed to never get over. As an artist, Dickens was sublime, but as an everyday man, he was irascible and demanding, and I doubt I would have wanted to know him personally, though at times he was known to be generous, kind and exciting.
I had the time of my life with this book, getting to know both the very private and illustrious public sides of Dickens’ life. I would recommend this book to readers who are fans of his work or are just curious about the legendary artist who swept the country by storm and created the “domestic drama,” a type of novel that had never been attempted before. It was a pleasure to read this biography because, while it was clear that Smiley much admired and touted Dickens and his work, she was not blinded by his stardom and was able to paint the man behind the words with realism, honesty and impartiality. A very solid biography. Recommended....more
Gunnar Gunderson is a physicist with some pretty straightforward ways at looking at the world. While his research delving into the physics of absoluteGunnar Gunderson is a physicist with some pretty straightforward ways at looking at the world. While his research delving into the physics of absolute zero is going very well and he’s just secured tenure at the university, Gunnar suddenly feels an intense need to find a mate and wants to act on this desire quickly. While on a small hiatus from his teaching and research, Gunnar decides to devote his three day stretch to finding a woman whom he can settle down with. But three days being what it is, Gunnar finds himself in a pickle when his strange preparations for meeting the girl of his dreams don’t go as planned. However, he’s delighted when a chance encounter puts him in the way of a very attractive woman who is receptive and open to Gunnar in a way that none have been before. From the moment they meet, Gunnar and his paramour are smitten, and when Gunnar agrees to go to great lengths to be with the woman he loves, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. Thus the three day courtship of his imagination takes on some huge permutations, and Gunnar begins to realize there are huge differences between love and science. In this hugely heartwarming and emotionally eloquent saga of Gunnar and the stirring of his heart, Meeks shares with us a most endearing man, looking for love and enchantment in some very unusual ways.
Every time I discover that Chris Meeks is putting out a new book, I get unusually antsy about getting my hands on it. It’s always a pleasure to discover the way in which he will capture my attention and immerse me in the lives of characters that are so complex and concrete that they are difficult to separate from their real life counterparts. Meeks is always upping the ante and outdoing himself with each successive book, growing and stretching as an author whom I’ve come to trust and admire. This latest book was different for Meeks in that he explored the human comedy and tragedy of love in a perfect arena, juxtaposing it as he did with stone cold scientific fact. It was lovely the way the immutable played against the transcendental, and the way Gunnar emotionally slid from his staunch and scientific opinions on love to a more refined and relaxed attitude when it came to taking a chance and letting the desires of his secret heart be fulfilled.
Gunnar was one interesting dude. While he’s a very successful physicist and not a bad teacher, there’s a component of his life that’s lacking, and it takes a wave of success to realize that he needs someone to share it with. He’s funny and self-depreciating, but unrealistic about love because he doesn’t understand it or how it works. Gunnar is very comfortable looking at love as a scientific problem, and because of this his attempts to solve it as such are usually impractical and don’t make a lick of sense. And when you stop to analyze what Gunnar thinks about love, it’s enough to make you question what love is and wonder if there are any universal rules that apply to love at all. Meeks subtly proposes these questions by putting Gunnar through his paces, and as the reader laughs at the improbable notions of his protagonist, there’s an element of perplexity as to why it shouldn’t be so. Discovering love isn’t like discovering a new isotope or element, but there is the same flush of initial recognition and the same enthusiasm to share your discovery with the world. For all that, love will not and cannot react in an explicit and time tested manner. For Gunnar, this is a realization that comes to chafe at him. While I could sympathize deeply with Gunnar plight, I could also laughingly relate to what he was going through at times. He had an uncanny knack in his humanness to be thoroughly affective and involving, his confusion and beliefs both charged with the spark of genuine humanness that is a hallmark in Meeks’ writing.
When Gunnar decides to immerse himself in the experience of love and to let go of the safety of some of his ideas and his world, he’s in for a rude awakening. This new twist to his love affair baffles and untethers him. Once again, Gunnar tries to insert himself into science, but this time, the results are different. One of the most elegant things about this novel was the way that science and physics were more than ideas. Not only were they solid and sculpted plot elements, they gave the narrative a push/pull between two very different ideas and schools of thought that Gunnar tried to apply to his life. When leaving science behind to venture towards love, Gunnar becomes lost and directionless and finds himself fervently wishing to be ensconced in a world he understands and feels safe to him. But unfortunately, these new directions cannot be reversed so easily, leaving him feeling unmoored and angry. Always at the back of his mind is another opportunity for love that has passed him by, and as Gunnar grows less and less comfortable with the situation, his mind wanders to places where it’s painful for it to go. It was here that Gunnar loses himself and loses his way. The tenderness and confusion of his heart was on full display, and there was an element of hopelessness and melancholy that effused this section of the book and drew me deeper and deeper into Gunnar’s heartache and grief. But no matter how deeply shattered he felt, there was a glimmering light to his personality that clued me in to not counting him out of the game just yet.
While the first sections of the book were lighthearted and comedic, the middle was more somber and reflective. Towards the end, there’s a measure of redemption for Gunnar, and there’s a sense that the time has come for this man. Gunnar’s plight is the path that will take him from the safety of ideas he can hide behind to the raw and uncharted territory of the unknown, finally landing him in a place where he doesn’t need to have all the answers and can let his heart soar. I was rooting for this man to extricate himself from the mire he had unwittingly gotten himself into, but was also appreciative that Meeks gave his character a heart that was truly ardent and that I could relate to without difficulty. As a character, Gunnar grows exponentially, and that’s something I love to see in the books I read. Plot, character and motivation combine into the perfect confection of a book that sees its readers cheering along for the underdog: a specimen who seems to have it all figured out but is repeatedly shocked when his hypothesis doesn’t lead to the desired outcome. Gunnar and his life go from looking into the yawning maw of hopelessness to landing in a harbor of contentment and fulfillment with a satisfying and well deserved conclusion. There are elements that are left up in the air, but one has the feeling that this new Gunnar will react with with a preciseness of the heart that has eluded him before.
This book was another winner for Meeks, and decidedly so. It was in scope and emotion a very different book than The Brightest Moon of the Century, but in some ways, the concern I had for Gunnar both rivaled and matched the concern I had for Edward in Brightest Moon. This is a story that is fundamentally original and inventive. It forces its reader to ask pressing questions about not only the state of the protagonist’s heart and mind, but their own, and proves to both that the ideas we sometimes hold dear may limit us in imperceptible but very life altering ways. A deeply resonant read that manages to be funny without sacrificing its gravity. Highly recommended! ...more
When Diana Bishop, a scholar working on alchemical research in England for an upcoming conference, requests a manuscript from the Bodelian library, shWhen Diana Bishop, a scholar working on alchemical research in England for an upcoming conference, requests a manuscript from the Bodelian library, she unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will change her life forever. You see, Diana is a reluctant witch who comes from a long line of very powerful spell casters, and though she has forcefully denied her power and magic after the horrific deaths of her parents many years ago, her magic is about to come crashing down all around her. The manuscript in question is called Ashamole 782, and when Diana recalls it from the library, she inadvertently casts a spell that opens the enchanted book, which has been lost for thousands of years. Soon the library is filled with curious and malevolent witches, daemons and vampires, all hungry for the secrets that Ashamole 782 is hiding. Into this mix of curious creatures comes Matthew Clairmont, a very powerful and exceptionally handsome vampire, who seems to take an unusual interest in Diana. But this is a problem because vampires and witches can never mix, according to old customs and laws. However, Matthew is not to be deterred, and before Diana knows it, she’s in over her head not only with unexpected feelings for Matthew, but with protecting Ashamole 782 from greedy and vicious creatures who wish to plunder it for their own ends. So begins an epic tale of forbidden love between two very powerful creatures who are on the run to protect not only themselves and their unspeakable relationship, but the magical book that may contain the secret history and future of the daemons, witches and vampires who long to possess it. Thrilling, provocative, and enthralling, A Discovery of Witches takes its readers on a fantastical and magical journey of epic proportions and leaves them spellbound and hungry for more.
I’d heard a lot about this book before picking it up and had remembered that Steph had reviewed it for BookPage earlier this year and had fallen in love with it. I normally pay attention when Steph falls in love with a book because I think she has great taste, so when I was looking for something to get engrossed in over the long weekend, I decided to pick this one up and give it a shot. It was sort of a dicey proposition because before reading the book I wasn’t sure how I felt about books that carried heavy paranormal elements, and aside from the Harry Potter books, this was a relatively new genre for me. Despite my reservations, when I really got into this book, I was totally hooked, and found that the book mixed the elements of The Outlander series with the magic and wizardry of the Harry Potter saga. There was even a little bit of Twilight in here (to my dismay) but this book was much more entrancing that Twilight could ever hope to be.
There was a lot going on in this book. From interspecies love affairs, to secret manuscripts and societies, to time travel and magic, to academia and intrigue, this book had it all. It was the kind of story you can’t help but get invested in quickly because it was so vivid and perfectly imagined. The characters (which were a well developed and varied lot) were not stereotypical and this was a great feature because often it’s too easy to fall into stereotypes within the framework of a paranormal tale. I also liked the myths and backstories that Harkness created behind the various creatures. They each had their own defining features and special talents, and I was surprised that she varied a bit from the usual vampire lore to create a subtly different species than what I had come to expect. The book was long by anyone’s standards, but it never felt arduous or overwritten, and the story was consistently morphing between its different elements, making it all seem fresh and exciting. A lot of space was given over to the practice of magic, which is another thing I enjoyed. It was all so refreshing and clever, and the worldbuilding was also done exceptionally well. Each of these components felt very organic and was written with aplomb and energy that gave the story a life and mythology of its own.
The Matthew and Diana contingent was one that was easy to enjoy because of the obvious sparks between them and the fact that their love was forbidden. There was a whiff of the exotic when it came to the very touching and sensual interactions between them. I may have swooned a little bit when reading about Matthew’s romantic overtures. Though they tried mightily to stay away from each other, it was obvious that they would find a way to be together despite the danger their relationship created, even if it started a war between the supernatural creatures. Which it did. Like the vampires that we have come to know, Matthew could be possessive and overbearing, but in a flash of brilliance, Harkness created her Matthew as a genetic scientist who was obsessed with finding out the secrets behind the singularities of the different species of creatures. He was a very intense character, full of passion and drive, and he had a very strict set of ethics that were difficult to sway. Diana, on the other hand, was somewhat reserved on the outside but very conflicted on the inside. Often plagued by anxiety, she relished physical endeavors and was stubbornly resolute about refusing to embrace her inner witch. These two players were very different, resulting in a lot of friction that generated some very bright sparks. It was lovely to watch them slowly melting towards each other, despite their instincts telling them that it was not safe to do so.
Between the mysteries of the enchanted manuscript, the malevolent witches and vampires out to destroy Diana, and the secret world of magic that lay just beyond human eyes, A Discovery of Witches was filled with action and adventure. Subtle quirks in the storyline were also really appreciated, like the house that had ideas and behaviors of its own and the delicious history of Matthew’s vampire family living in France. It was the type of book that you pick up for only a moment, and before you know it, hours have passed. Danger, love, creatures, fabulist science, and old grudges mixed themselves into a delicious hodgepodge of a book that I couldn’t tear myself away from. The only quibble I had with it was discovering very close to the end that the book ended on a cliffhanger that will be resolved in future books. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have the next installment in my hot little hands right now! The book was intense and mystifying, and it continually surprised me with its inventive plot and the strength of the amorous relationship between two very different creatures.
This was a tremendously entertaining book, and it came at just the right time for me, as I had been gorging on much more depressing reads for many weeks now. Unexpectedly, this book took on a life of its own as I read, and read, and read. I exclaimed to anyone that would listen that I found a new favorite, and that’s saying a lot for me. If you’re even mildly curious about this book, I would strongly urge you to pick it up and give it a try. It will surprise you for sure, and keep you guessing all the way to the final page. A wonderful and mystical page turner of the highest order. Heartily recommended! ...more
In this memoir, the life of a young woman growing up in cold war Leningrad is explored with depth and feeling as she struggles to come of age in the vIn this memoir, the life of a young woman growing up in cold war Leningrad is explored with depth and feeling as she struggles to come of age in the very forbidding and intense landscape of the former Soviet Union. Life for Elena and her family hasn’t always been easy. Through her parents’ hard work, Lena and her sister aren’t living at the bottom rungs of the communist society, but there isn’t a lot of extra in their lives either. Elena’s mother, once a surgeon during the war, is now teaching anatomy at the university. Elena has been raised to believe in the superiority of Russia and communism and to regard the rest of the world with suspicion and cynicism. Much to her mother’s dismay, these views strangely begin to melt away as she matures into a young woman. When Elena’s sister decides to pursue a career in acting instead of medicine or engineering, the idea that there multiple paths to happiness begins to occur to her, despite the messages she gets from society. As Elena begins to rise through the professional world and falls in line to do exactly what’s expected of her, a chance meeting with an American drastically alters the future that has been so carefully arranged by her and her mother. When the once iron grip of the Soviet Union begins to loosen its hold on Elena, her life will never be the same and the future that‘s laid out before her will be unlike anything she could have ever imagined.
This book has been compared to the Russian version of Angela’s Ashes, and has also been touted as being amusing and wry, which is not exactly my experience with it. While I did grow to appreciate this coming of age story, the first hundred pages were a little rocky for me. When the storyline began to shift, I must say I was a little more pleased that the book was going in a different direction. I’m not sure if my reactions were due to the very maudlin aspects of life in Russia or due to the fact that everything in this tale seemed so dark and reeked of cynicism, but for the most part, I found this to be a very heavy read. It’s not that this was a bad book, but it was, for the most part, rather darkly portrayed.
Elena is a girl like most. She hungers for love and opportunity and doesn’t quite understand how to discover the secrets behind these things and how to figure out the mysteries of life. She’s very secretive with her mother and doesn’t seem to have a very healthy relationship with her at all. It was easy to see why, though, because her mother was extremely militant about controlling her daughters and forcing them to do the things that she found acceptable. I got the feeling that Elena was proud of her mother, but that doesn’t translate into intimacy, which is something I don’t think Elena had with anyone in the story. A lot of her reactions to the world around her were very familiar to me because a lot of them dealt with her feelings of disconnection from that world; a world that she would one day be expected to take part in and flourish in. It was obvious that Elena suffered from a great amount of naivety and to a certain degree had been very sheltered throughout her upbringing, and I kept asking myself if this was a byproduct of the very oppressive place in which she lived or her mother’s overprotectiveness. In some ways I felt that Elena never really matured the way that those in the West do; she never had those coming of age moments that are so crucial to forming adult perceptions. When she did finally have these moments, she had already crossed the threshold into adulthood.
It bothered me a little to hear all the comments about how the West was filled with rotten capitalist pigs, and how our society was belittled as an untrustworthy foreign melange full of greed and debauchery. I began to realize that although Elena and her parents said these things often, these ideas stemmed from the propaganda that the Soviet Union generated over many years and thorough various means. This doesn’t mean that it wasn’t annoying, only that I understood how a group of people could be so indoctrinated into thinking that the progressive west was just too radical and progressive. To tell you the truth, the Russia of this time sounded horrible, and stories of waiting in line for hours to procure a few rolls of toilet paper seemed as alien to me as capitalism probably seemed to Elena and her family. The Russia of this time period was no joke, and Gorokhova really succeeds in identifying the menacing aspects that the government used to keep its citizens under control. These sections, to me, were the darkest of the book, and lent Elena’s reminiscences a casual cruelty and sense of abiding provocation.
There was a very deep sense of pragmatism that permeated the minds of the characters in this story. Despite the very foreign aspects of life in cold war Russia, it was clear to see that the people living in this society were not only downtrodden and overburdened, but deeply instilled with a degree of pride and a false illusion of superiority. As Elena realizes that life in Russia is not what she wants and takes steps to release the country’s hold over her, she begins to see that the life she and her family have been living is one of half realized dreams and fruitless sacrifice. Though the situation that enables her to escape is not a perfect solution, it’s one I think many will be able to relate to, and one that Elena herself feels a begrudging appreciation for, despite it’s challenges and inconveniences. When all is said and done, Elena is able to make peace, not only with herself, but more importantly, with her mother and her homeland.
Though this wasn’t my favorite memoir, it did provide a lot of chewy food for thought and a very deep exposure to a way of life that’s extremely alien to my own. It was filled with the cultural details that readers of this genre will appreciate, but there’s no denying that the story is rather bleak. I did end up admiring Elena Gorokhova for her stoicism and her ability to persevere, and I think that this is a book that would open a lot of readers’ eyes to the very different lives that are lived outside the United States.
In this tense and erotically charged new novel from Maxine Swann, three very different women experience life in Buenos Aires, Argentina amid a backdroIn this tense and erotically charged new novel from Maxine Swann, three very different women experience life in Buenos Aires, Argentina amid a backdrop of tropical torpor and haute society. When Daisy, an American divorcee, escapes to Argentina after a medical scare, she’s at first withdrawn and alienated from her new surroundings and their inhabitants. When one day she’s discovered by Leonarda, a young Argentine woman with a strange sprightly outlook that hides a deep streak of masochism, Daisy is thrown headlong into a very confusing world of desire, repulsion and jealousy. Meanwhile, Isolde, a beautiful Austrian, is trying to use her looks and connections to climb into the upper echelons of Argentine society, but is finding that her brash neediness is undoing all of her careful work of ingratiating herself with the upper-class locals. As Isolde and Daisy experience a new world with very different rules than they’re used to, they’ll come face to face with their insecurities and strengths in a place where appearances and motives may be deceiving, and where their passions and fears are juxtaposed with the lives they left behind.
I have to say I wasn’t sure what to expect of The Foreigners. I had thought it would be a quiet story of a few women’s adventures abroad, with an emphasis on character development and a look into the exotic locale of Argentina. What I got was a dizzying ride into the heart of two very different women on the edge of a society that’s sometimes cruel and that prided itself on appearances and facades that were designed to make foreigners feel superior while being silently sneered at in private.
When Daisy arrives in Argentina, ostensibly to work on a grant project, she’s more aimless than involved, but that all changes when young Leonarda chooses her as a target for her whirlwind courtship and strange power plays. As the two get caught up in increasingly bizarre and dangerous forays, Daisy is held emotionally captive by a woman who seems to like to have people in her thrall and who executes malevolent games of desire and violence. As Daisy and Leonarda wind their way through the city, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering what was behind Leonarda’s manipulations and disturbing trysts with a man that she goaded Daisy into agreeing to humiliate. It was a volatile situation that grabbed my by the throat, and though I got the impression that Daisy felt the danger too, it didn’t stop her from being fully inveigled by the games Leonarda was playing. Working on Daisy’s visceral side, Leonarda began to warp her slowly, baiting her with passion, attention and complicity. It was a heady mix for Daisy, and for myself, and I began to see that although Daisy thought she had things under control, Leonarda was like a wild animal who would not be contained. The end result was a mix of obsession and jealousy that pricked Daisy violently and caused her to behave in some very uncharacteristic ways.
The situation with Isolde was also uncomfortable. Coming to Argentina seemed to be Isolde’s way of escaping the conundrum of settling down like the other women from her hometown. Isolde was an emotionally needy woman who tried to insinuate herself into the quasi-aristocracy of Argentina but who somehow kept getting it wrong. She was constantly humiliating and debasing herself in her desire to be at the center of the action, and her unfortunate relationships with all the wrong men kept her from being taken seriously in the right circles. Isolde was a beautiful woman, but along with her penchant for being pushy and overbearing, she was also running out of money and had no way of obtaining what she needed other than by promoting herself as an international art procurer. This was fraught with problems because Isolde had greatly embellished her credentials and experience, and often she would negate her chances by becoming romantically involved with her prospective employers. In Isolde there was a constant flux of self-sabotaging behavior that for some reason she refused to acknowledge or rectify. Isolde was constantly at war with herself and often her fear of being alone and unwanted made her do some very unwise things.
As things speed towards a conclusion, the situation between Leonarda and Daisy begins to turn very strange, with the prey becoming the predator. But is this merely what Daisy wants to believe, and will she ever really be able to turn the tables on a woman who refuses to be subdued and marginalized? Isolde, too, finds herself in very foreign straights and must come to accept a life that at times horrifies and embarrasses her. It’s at this point that the story begins to creep into the edges of the readers psyche and crouches there, waiting to spring into its final haunting conclusion. Obsession and mayhem turn to debasement and cruelty for one, and expectations come crashing down for the other, into a reality that is unpleasant and tinged with regret. Both women, seeing the futility of the lives they’ve led, begin to come to terms with what they’ve become and realize that there is indeed a way out.
I was greatly impressed with Maxine Swann’s narrative, and it was thrilling to be brought to the brink of suspense and discomfort by her elegant and spare prose. This was an emotionally charged book that kept me constantly reevaluating and that felt dire albeit in a very quiet way. It was also erotic at points without being vulgar, its strangeness tempered with a curious feeling of intimacy. I would certainly recommend this book to people who are looking for something different that will penetrate their sensibilities in a slightly untoward way. A fantastic read, and one that I would highly recommend. ...more
When Ariel and her family move into a new neighborhood across town, she’s hopeful that great friendships, new opportunities and a new life are just arWhen Ariel and her family move into a new neighborhood across town, she’s hopeful that great friendships, new opportunities and a new life are just around the corner, but life with three boys and a husband who’s constantly traveling has her more than frazzled. That’s why she’s so excited to be welcomed into the neighborhood and taken under the wing of the community’s most “together” woman, Justine. Justine is not only a great mom and wife but she’s super organized and creative, the woman that all the other women strive to be. Ariel finds Justine’s tutelage to be just what she needs, and she begins to relish her new life and Justine’s place in it. But something is niggling at Ariel, for Justine isn’t always as open and friendly as she could be, and although she’s chosen Ariel to be her protégée, it seems there’s an underlying struggle for the women to really bridge the distance between them and become the close friends that Ariel wishes them to be. It turns out that Justine has a secret she’s trying to keep from Ariel and the other neighbors, and this secret is destined to change the lives of all those around her. But Justine won’t heed any warnings and determinedly rushes towards a fate that will shock everyone and destroy several lives. Will Ariel stay quiet and protect Justine and their faltering friendship, or will she have to do a very difficult thing and expose the woman who she so desires to emulate, a woman who makes it look so easy?
Last year at SIBA, when I had the awesome opportunity to meet Marybeth Whalen, one of the things we discussed was the book she was currently working on called She Makes It Look Easy. When I heard the premise and how the book came to be, I was really excited and added it to my mental list of books to watch for in the new year. Well, okay, that’s not exactly true. This book was THE book that I was most excited to read in the coming year, and luckily for me, it was just as page-turning as I had hoped it would be. In its intricate plot and realistic female protagonists, this is a book that bent my mind around the delicate issues of female friendships and the secrets we keep hidden from those who we love, even when they destroy us.
Ariel is a woman like many others. Her life is one big to-do list that keeps stretching further and further into infinity. She’s stressed in her attempts to raise three young boys and in her marriage with a husband who’s mildly reproving that she can’t get it all together. She’s a lot like me and, I’m sure, a lot like many women out there today. Ariel is waiting for the day things become manageable, but it doesn’t seem like that day will ever come. Enter Justine, the queen of the neighborhood. Justine is poised, elegant, and has every aspect of her life under control. She teaches a class on organization at the church, where women all over the neighborhood come to stare and admire. She irons her shorts. Need I say more? When Justine picks Ariel as her new project, Ariel is flattered and overcome with thoughts that she may have just found her new best friend. But Ariel has put Justine on a pedestal and doesn’t see the real Justine behind the facade. In her struggles to conform to Justine’s ideals, Ariel is unsure of herself and has some issues with her self-esteem. She feels grateful, but also somehow oddly detached from Justine. This is a situation that bothers her greatly, because wasn’t her friendship with Justine supposed to be fulfilling and edifying?
Justine, on the other hand, is a woman who looks out for number one and only number one. Her friendship with Ariel is much like some of the other friendships she’s had in the neighborhood, some of which have ended very badly. She has delusions of a greater life just waiting for her somewhere else, and her relationship with her husband is a nadir of hurt feelings and rejection. She has a definite feeling of superiority that she hides with a big smile and a patina of false concern for others. Justine is a walking contradiction. She cares what others think of her and her life, but underneath it all, she couldn’t care less if she hurts an innocent person who gets caught up in her quest for fulfillment. She was scary at times and could be overwhelmingly cold and calculating. But under it all, I think Justine was confused and had really bought into the idea that she was the center of everything. She believed in her grandeur and believed that her desires were more important than others and their feelings. It was hard not to feel sorry for her because her life was a big masquerade that she constantly fooled herself into believing was all about her.
When Justine decides to take matters into her own hands, Ariel discovers the real reason Justine has been grooming her, and it breaks her heart. Where Whalen excels is in the tense and realistic push/pull between these two very different women. There is hurt and confusion on one side, balanced with manipulation and secrecy on the other. Whalen gets the complex chemistry of female relationships just right in this very tightly paced book. Themes of rejection and of subsuming oneself for another are just the beginning of the story in this complex and portentous relationship between Justine and Ariel. And though misinterpretation and misunderstandings abound, I could really feel the struggle in Ariel’s heart for a woman whom she so admired and wanted to love. I could also feel the disillusionment and hopelessness that Justine was going through, and the combination of these two very different protagonists living within each other’s worlds was accompanied by my breathless anticipation for how things would turn out for both of them. It was a complex balance of longed-for intimacy and shifted expectations, and turning the last page, I discovered that, like real life, these situations can be messy and at times painful.
I was totally enthralled with this book and had no trouble shirking other obligations so I could spend more time with it. The emotional complexity and the perfectly imagined friendship between the two women was something that I quite literally couldn’t put down. Justine’s decision to take her life into another direction, despite all warnings and the fact that she destroyed the lives of others, was also something I read with more than a little schadenfreude, and with the talent of Whalen’s plotting and character creation, I was even able to sympathize with her at times. This was a great book that I hope gets lots of attention because it tells a story that’s not only believable, but intense. A great read and highly recommended! ...more
Beattie Blaxton is shaken and distraught when she finds herself with child in 1930’s Ireland, being neither married nor even engaged to the child’s faBeattie Blaxton is shaken and distraught when she finds herself with child in 1930’s Ireland, being neither married nor even engaged to the child’s father. After an unsuccessful attempt to part from her lover and give her unborn child up for adoption, her lover Henry comes to the rescue and spirits her away to Australia. But life for Beattie is still not easy, as Henry, having absconded from his legal wife, is quite a drinker and spendthrift who also has a problem with gambling. Soon Beattie decides to take her chances alone with her young daughter in a town where an unmarried mother is not looked upon kindly. When Beattie secures a job as a maid at a struggling sheep farm called Wildflower Hill, her future begins a slow revolution that will take her from the bottom rungs of society to the upper echelons of wealth and power. But along the way, there is much she will have to sacrifice. Two generations later, Beattie’s granddaughter Emma is having her own struggles. As a premiere ballerina who is just hitting the upper age range for a successful career, Emma has just had a career-ending injury. After weeks of wallowing following her accident and an untimely break-up, Emma is called into her grandmother’s lawyer’s office to take receipt of the last piece of her inheritance. But it’s not wealth that has been imparted to her, and when she discovers just what Beattie meant her to do, she embarks on a trip to Tasmania and Wildflower Hill, where she will discover the truth about herself and about her grandmother’s past that was kept hidden for many dark years. Blending the lingering past with the intoxicating present, Kimberly Freeman gives us the lives of two women cut from the same cloth, yet so very, very different.
Though Beattie and Emma were very similar characters, there were some substantial ways in which they differed. While I would have to say that Beattie was the more courageous and motivated, Emma sometimes appeared a little more cold and less emotionally evolved than her grandmother. Part of this may have been that Beattie got a lot more page space and her conundrums were a lot more interesting and heartrending than Emma’s refusal to let her dancing career go. While I did like both women, I think I felt more at home in the historical sections, because for some reason that story had a little more gravity and drama to it. Emma’s story was by far lighter and more redolent of romance than the hardship of Beattie’s story, though the narrative devices that tied these two stories together was strong and did have me very curious.
The historical parts of the story had a lot of different and pressing issues taking place within its structure. Not only was the difficulty of being a single mother explored, but also the dubious position that Beattie got herself in when she agreed to let Henry share custody of Lucy, her daughter. It was heartrending to read about the problems that faced a woman on her own in Australia, from the town’s prejudice and intolerance of Beattie and her hired hands, to the way that religion was used as a weapon to subdue and control those who were felt to be out of line. Beattie maintains a strength and fortitude throughout her trials, but even the most casual reader can see that all this wears on her and slowly breaks her spirit. By the end of her tale, Beattie is a shadow of her former self and her dreams and hopes have been subtly replaced by secrets and longing. It was interesting to see this morphing of such a strong character into a woman who was beset with regrets, and one can argue that although Beattie was wildly successful in some venues, she had to sacrifice so many things for that success that it must have been a bittersweet victory.
Emma too was discovering that some of her life was going to have to be sacrificed, and one of the problems that arose from this situation was that Emma had no idea of who she was outside of her dancing. From childhood, Emma was able to indulge this creative side of herself to the detriment of forming real relationships and attachments. Though she did have a relationship with a very successful man, it turns out that most of that relationship was a facade as well. As Emma begins to see that there is more to life than the pursuit of her dancing career, she discovers a side of herself that she didn’t know existed; and in her search for the clues to Beattie’s past, Emma comes to find that her new life is ripe with possibilities and opportunities. I liked that Emma was able to pull away from the character traits that were subsuming her real intellect and grace, and that she was eventually open to starting a new chapter in her life that was slated to go in a very different direction. Her romantic entanglements were refreshing as well, and I was very pleased at her final choice of paramour.
Throughout this story a lot of very sensitive issues were brought up. From the prejudices that the aboriginal peoples have faced, to the problems that arose during a mixed-race relationship during the 50’s, to the sticky issue of parental rights, there were a lot of thoughtful and emotional landmines in this tale. And while some of these issues were never fully resolved, there was a great striving for enlightenment and understanding from the principals in the story. At its heart, there were vast currents of prejudice and dishonor and hatred that had to be dealt with, and in dealing with these very uncomfortable topics, there was a lot of character growth. I admit that it wasn’t always empowering and comfortable growth, but I really admire Freeman for sticking to her guns and including so many serious topics in a book that really could have been just about the fluff. In the end so many questions are raised and explored that it was easy to categorize this book as a thoughtful and intelligent read.
Though I preferred the historical sections to the contemporary ones, both were done rather well, and each half of the story seemed to blend into a satisfying whole that I came to appreciate and enjoy. It’s not only a book about relationships, but about ideas that challenged the times they were captured in. Also, as the book ends in a bit of an ambiguous fashion, I’m wondering if there might ever be plans for a sequel. If so, I would definitely be in line to read it. A very thoughtful and entertaining read. ...more
Bezellia Grove is an young and affluent Southern girl who has inherited her unusual name from a long line of affluent Bezellias. But this Bezellia isBezellia Grove is an young and affluent Southern girl who has inherited her unusual name from a long line of affluent Bezellias. But this Bezellia is more than she appears and is living a most unusual life behind the closed doors of her plantation style home in Tennessee. Though she’s passionate and expressive, Bezellia and her younger sister Adeliade live in fear of their sometimes abusive and always neglectful mother, while the girls’ father is unusually quiet and absent most of the time. This leaves Bezellia to be raised by the two African-American house servants, Maizelle and Nathaniel, who become a set of quasi-parents to the two troubled girls. As Bezellia finds her faltering way through adolescence and young adulthood, she will become affected by a horrific family accident and and engage in an illicit and innocent love that will change her and shape her future. And just when it seems that things can’t get any more complicated for Bezellia, she begins to uncover a few haunting secrets about her mother’s past that may begin to explain the woman she’s become. In this beautiful and intricate southern tale filled with heartbreak, longing and redemption, the irrepressible Bezellia Grove and her very unique life spin outward into the minds of readers who might discover that being true to yourself is sometimes the hardest job of all.
It’s not often that I read a book that so touches me and makes me fall in love so helplessly with its main character. It’s also not often that I sit up until the wee hours of the morning racing to finish a story that I can’t seem to put down. But it does happen, and it happened with The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove. Between the magic and perfect cadence of Gilmore’s writing, and the nerve twisting story of Bezellia’s life, I ended up completely surrendering to my love for this book and reading avidly to find out what would become of this very unusual girl who lived a very unconventional life.
From the first few pages, the relationship between Bezellia and her mother become painfully obvious. While Bezellia was just beginning to explore the world around her and find her place in it, her mother was dutifully trying to shove her into little prescribed boxes of her own making. And really, Bezellia was, and remained, the antithesis of her mother throughout the book’s permutations. It was tragic to see the forlorn Bezellia hungering for her mother’s love; a love that would never be granted to her. It was even more disheartening to watch Bezellia’s mother slowly spiral away from the people who loved her into greater abuses and tantrums, slowly being enveloped by alcoholism. While Bezellia’s mother was either climbing the rickety social ladder or drinking, both Bezellia and her sister grew very attached to Maizelle and Nathaniel, who took the children under their wing and cared for them as their own. Very early on Bezellia realizes that the marginalization of these two people, and the black community in general, is sickeningly unfair, and though she tries to shift the balance of power for them and with them, it proves a huge wedge to move on her own. The balance of power that exists in her home is one that is unfortunately not rare for that time period, and though Bezellia kicks and bucks it away, she’s also hindered by social custom and the narrow-mindedness of the time.
When Bezellia falls in love with a socially unsuitable match, her predicament draws all kinds of attention, and it’s attention that she desperately wants to ignore and avoid. It’s a love that she feels is destined for her, and though society tries to dictate to her about the unacceptable nature of this relationship, Bezellia refuses to listen. But this isn’t the only problem she’s having, because her family life is in ever increasing shambles. Bezellia finds herself the head of her family, the one who everyone looks to for answers. It’s a confusing and heartbreaking time for her, but she never seems to loose her pluck, and her reserves, though at an all time low, don’t ever seem to be depleted. I admired Bezellia during these sections because she carried loads that her narrow shoulders should have never been responsible for. Gilmore creates her Bezellia with vigor and aplomb, packing her heroine with an unflappable desire for individuality and freedom that takes her into unexpected places and situations, and carries her through some of the most difficult times a young woman can face. Though her life is stilted and hobbled by her troubles, Bezellia finds a way to gracefully maintain equilibrium.
For the most part, the thing that I made me feel so connected to this book was my total immersion into Bezellia’s life and my complete sympathy for her story. Bezellia wasn’t the type of character to willingly force herself into contortions of emotion that weren’t authentic to her, which made life a lot harder for someone who lived in a home where appearances were everything, both inside and outside the doors. She was also an idealist in a place where her ideals aren’t appreciated or understood, which pitted her against even those who she loved and regarded with respect. Her overwhelming desire to be loved in “the right way” often compromised her emotional stability, and is a factor of her personality that I think a lot of women will understand. Bezellia’s uncomfortable and fraught relationship with her mother is also packed with landmines for her character’s development and growth, and in some ways I could really relate to her struggles in this area. She was a very real character with some very realistic flaws and attributes that made me care for her almost instantly.
This was one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, for many reasons that I stated above. In addition, Gilmore’s writing was very smooth and fluid and made it easy for me to become thoroughly submerged. She held me captivated in her storyteller’s hands until that final haunting conclusion. If you haven’t read this wonderful story yet, I would highly recommend it. I think it would strike the perfect chord in many different readers, and would be appreciated by many....more
At Armitage, a high school for the extremely wealthy and privileged, a murder has just taken place. It seems that one of the most popular and influentAt Armitage, a high school for the extremely wealthy and privileged, a murder has just taken place. It seems that one of the most popular and influential students, Claire Harkness, has been found dead in her dormitory and there are no obvious suspects. But that’s not even the half of it, for when Claire’s body is discovered, it soon becomes apparent that she had given birth just a few days prior to the murder. In addition to having kept her pregnancy a secret in the close boarding school atmosphere, the baby that Claire delivered is missing as well. As students and faculty scramble about trying to tie up the loose ends, one of the interim teachers, Madeline Christopher, takes it upon herself to investigate the murder. But what she finds will take her into the dimensions of illicit relationships, secret societies and dangerous hazing that some students will do anything to keep under wraps. With the help of a handsome detective who also has had a tarnished history at Armitage, Madeline begins to realize that she may be in over her head and that the students of Armitage are hiding much more than anyone ever realized. Taut with psychological suspense, The Twisted Thread is a thrilling mystery with a shocking conclusion that will leave its readers chilled to the core.
While I typically don’t enjoy books of this genre, when I read the premise, I thought there might be something here that differed from most of today’s thriller/suspense novels. While I was right on some level, I was also a little less than enamored with the book as a whole. When sitting down to write this review, I realize that to fully do the book justice, I need to be able to parse and piece out the various layers and attributes of the story to fully get a grip on what I felt about the book.
One of the things I really liked about this book was that it gave a full picture of what life in a boarding school was like from the perspective of the teachers and faculty. The students’ experiences weren’t really at the center of the novel, but as I’m not a student anymore myself, I appreciated the look into the adult world of the boarding school and the way that rivalries and factions still existed among the adults, as they obviously did with the students. Madeline is very much on the outside of most of these groups as a teaching intern, and Bacon does a good job of creating tension in her character by showing her strong reactions to long-standing traditions and the exclusive behavior that goes hand in hand with this kind of atmosphere. Madeline is a unique character in that she stands outside the group, both with the teachers and students, and therefore has a curious mix of envy and repudiation for both the students and the other faculty. I liked her a lot, and felt that she was a very realistic and emotionally complex character who was curiously different than most of her colleagues.
The parts of the book I had the most problem with were the actual pieces and puzzles of the mystery itself. It just wasn’t as shocking or inventive as I thought it was going to be, and as such it was a touch disappointing. I felt like I had read this book before, and its bits and pieces could have been culled from various other books in this genre to form the story I read here. While I liked the backstory and plot developments that centered on the ancillary characters, the story of Claire’s death and her missing child just didn’t feel all that compelling. I can’t say I guessed the crucial plot points, but when I finally discovered them I wasn’t overly enthralled with the way the story came together. And this may be entirely my fault. I’ve been known to be quite picky when it comes to this genre, and sometimes I think I’m unreasonably so. Regardless of this fact, there just wasn’t enough gristle for me here to make it remarkable, though I did like other aspects of the book.
When you boil this book down to its most basic elements, I felt the more plebeian aspects of the story far outweighed the more mysterious aspects. I wanted to find out if Madeline would ever find a romantic partner. I wanted to know more about the detective and his life outside his job, and I wanted to find out more about the personal lives of the faculty and all the hidden fault lines regarding the social hierarchy at the school. Certain parts of the book felt underdeveloped to me as well, and I felt that the secret society plotline could have been more fully worked to a lot greater effect. As it was, I think I’ll be alone in the fact that I appreciated all the wrong things in this tale of murder and mayhem.
Though this wasn’t a great read for me, I fully expect that I may be in the minority here and that my overarching particularity might have ruined some of the magic that this book had to offer. It really wasn’t a bad little book, and I think that those readers of suspense and thrillers will have a much better time of it than I did. I think it would also appeal to those who like books about academia, and for those sections alone, the book was worth reading. ...more
In the small Newfoundland island town of Paradise Deep a strange occurrence has turned the town upside down. It seems a huge whale has beached itselfIn the small Newfoundland island town of Paradise Deep a strange occurrence has turned the town upside down. It seems a huge whale has beached itself on the shore, and due to the fishing town’s recent hardships, the residents soon begin to divvy up the carcass for food and fuel. But when the widow Devine begins to cut through the animals stomach, she and the other onlookers are surprised to see a man tumble out. He’s a strange man indeed, with his white hair and skin, and he seems to be mute as well. He also stinks of dead fish, and it’s a smell destined to never go away. So begins the magical and dense saga of a town that’s unlike any you’ll ever experience. Love and hate, passions and feuds, birth and death, they’re all encompassed in this winding and rich tale of a town lost in the middle of the ocean, a town that society forgot. As Crummey follows the handful of families on the island over a span of a hundred years or more, we share in their heartbreaks and sorrows, their triumphs and defeats. In this magnificent and unusual tale, the magic of Paradise Deep and its inhabitants is cleverly meted out with an eye for the fantastical, wonderful and strange.
This was a hard book to summarize; not because it was confusing but because there was just so much going on that it would have been impossible to even hint at all the plot permutations and narrative twists. I found that although I tried to sit down and read this one straight through, it was almost impossible to do so because of the book’s density and the abundance of genealogical information. This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did. I thought there was a great use of magical realism that didn’t end up stretching into absurdity and that all the various components of the town’s saga were captivating and engaging. Though it took me awhile to rip through this one, I was very pleased with both the journey and the destination.
Part of what I loved about this book was Crummey’s ability to be playful and at times crass. It was obvious that although there was a lot of gravity in this story, the author didn’t take himself or his characters too seriously; in turn, I was rewarded with a great sense of the joviality of Paradise Deep’s residents. There were some heartbreaking moments as well, and the balance between gravity and humor was one that was well played within this tale. The more I read, the deeper I fell into the spell of the story and the more intimately I began to understand the characters and their motivations. There was a great give and take here, a seesawing between the details of the town’s growth and the characters’ interplay with one another that was mingled with just a touch of the magical realism that I so enjoy.
I think it’s a feat to manage such a sprawling novel the way that Crummey did. The book wasn’t astronomically large, but seemed to encompass so much time in a succinct and elegant way. From the moment the strange man is disgorged from the whale’s belly, Crummey is off and running with his history of Paradise Deep and his eccentric cast of characters, who are always doing something surprising and counter-intuitive. I also really enjoyed Crummey’s character creation because it was extremely layered for a book of this scope and size. Most of the characters were given a lot of development and substance, which is impressive considering that there were probably over two dozen characters in play. But what’s also impressive is that Galore didn’t feel overpopulated at all. While there were times when I had to check the family tree in the front of the book, each character managed to be singular and richly defined.
When I finally got to the last page, I fully realized the magic that Crummey had managed with this book. His story went from engaging and intriguing to ephemeral and awe-inspiring. It was an ending that I had started to guess at, but the implications it created made me rethink the whole story. And when I started to look back, I saw that those missing puzzle pieces had been there all along, just waiting for a savvy reader to pick them up and fit them all together. I can’t say I knew this all along though, and had to wait for that final page for the wheels to begin churning in my brain. In some ways, this book reminded me of A Hundred Years of Solitude, with its scope and intention feeling very similar. It also reminded me that when magical realism is done right, it can be just…well, magical.
I’m going to have to jump on the bandwagon and join the other reviewers who thought this book was brilliant. It wasn’t what I had been expecting, and although I had read several reviews, the book was constantly surprising to me. Though I went into things with high expectations, Galore really delivered and inspired me to check out more of Crummey’s work. It was definitely a dense and chewy book, but one that I think a lot of readers would enjoy. I know it was an unexpected treat for me. This is a book I would definitely recommend. ...more
When Grace Caton boards a plane heading to New York from Trinidad, she’s only sixteen years old. Promised a home with a distant cousin in America, GraWhen Grace Caton boards a plane heading to New York from Trinidad, she’s only sixteen years old. Promised a home with a distant cousin in America, Grace is both excited and scared as she makes her way abroad. But when Grace arrives, she finds that she’s been stranded with no one to retrieve her from the airport and nowhere to live. Soon Grace is living with the mercurial Sylvia and her patchwork family. Though Grace isn’t exactly freeloading at Sylvia’s, her luck in the job department has been pretty meager. As Grace searches for the perfect position, she is also considering marrying Sylvia’s brother Bo for a green card. Just when she thinks she’ll never get a job, a call comes for her regarding a nanny position. But Miriam, the woman offering the job, wants to hire Grace to be her maid, nanny and helper, all for ridiculously low salary. What is Grace to do with no other options on the horizon? With a sinking heart, she agrees to the job, and her life is never the same. Moving between the circles of Island immigrant nannies, her party-loving friends, and her mish-mash family at Sylvia’s, Grace discovers that life in New York isn’t as easy as she once imagined it would be, but despite the hardship and disadvantages she faces, she will not turn tail and run back home. At times funny, at times tragic, this is the tale of a young girl left on her own to manage life in the big city, and of the people she meets who will sometimes help and sometimes hinder her.
This was one of those books that was really hard to put down. From the very beginning, I was caught up in Grace’s unusual tale. She had a great head on her shoulders and was very responsible, which is really unusual for a sixteen year old girl. Grace is living in an untenable situation at Sylvia’s because the family lives a very low income and restricted life. Grace’s presence is a godsend for Sylvia, who uses Grace’s services in minding her small children in exchange for room and board. But Sylvia is not always the best roommate, and the five residents are living in a two room apartment that may or may not be hazardous for their health. Sylvia can also be demanding and uppity, which is one of the reasons Grace must find herself another situation soon. But her lack of a green card is something that hinders her time and time again.
When Grace finally lands a job with Miriam Bruckner, she knows she’s being taken advantage of but has no better option. Miriam is not only overly demanding but can be racist at times, and her inappropriate comments sometimes went over Grace’s head. Not so with me. When I read how Miriam would exploit Grace and then treat her with racist contempt, my blood would boil. I felt a little angry with Grace for standing by and taking all this ridiculous abuse, but time and time again, I realized she had no other options available to her. There were also some subtle sexual tension between Miriam’s husband and Grace, which did not go unnoticed by Miriam. Grace’s only respite from this horrible family was her connection to the other nannies in the building. But even there, there were rivalries and factions that Grace was loathe to get caught up in. There was a lot of internal and external conflict in this book, and it was all very realistic and emotionally charged. In spite of Grace’s innocence, there was a lot of messiness to her life and the lives of those around her, and in her struggle for freedom and independence she began to grow both in wisdom and experience.
The third aspect of this book had to do with Grace’s ties to her island acquaintances living in New York, and these, I think, were my favorite sections. The interactions between Grace and her friends were sometimes portrayed in heavy patios dialect, and having had a few friends from the small islands many years ago, the patios brought back a lot of memories. Grace’s friendship with Kathy, another girl who immigrated from her village to New York, was full of gentle teasing and genuine affection. Often it was Kathy who saw Grace through her toughest times, and the two girls did a lot of leaning on one another over the course of the story. There was even a love component in this story in the form of another islander named Brent. As Grace begins to realize her own worth and to navigate her own struggles, her friends, including an American from her building, become the heart of her support system. I had a very affable reaction to her growing social ties and their effects as the book wound its way forward.
I really enjoyed Minding Ben for a lot of reasons, primairly because of the interplay between the dramatic tension and the character creation of the story. Brown does an exceptional job imbuing her story with all the elements that a reader will find engrossing and takes the narrative through many believable twists and turns that kept me hungering for more. It was a really diverting read, and certain sections had a deliciously scandalous feel to them. This book would be a perfect beach read, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling for the unapologetic and winsome Grace. A very intriguing read, and one that I won’t soon forget. Highly recommended. ...more
For Frances, a young Chinese-American girl who lives in a dilapidated apartment with her mother, the pressure to succeed and fulfill her mother’s dreaFor Frances, a young Chinese-American girl who lives in a dilapidated apartment with her mother, the pressure to succeed and fulfill her mother’s dreams for her is almost too much to bear. Though Frances is an excellent student, her mother is constantly pushing her to more and more rigorous feats of academics, hoping that one day Frances will become a doctor and take care of her financially. But though her mother is ostensibly looking out for Frances’ welfare, she can be very abusive and demeaning. At times, it’s all Frances can do not to give up when her mother repeatedly attacks her, both physically and emotionally. When a mistake is made with Frances’ schedule during senior year, she finds herself taking a speech class instead of the calculus class she needs to get into Berkley. Frances decides to remain in the class, and finds the class and its related competitions are the one safe haven for a girl who is trying to make her way against the heavy strictures of her mother. Soon Frances is lying and enlisting the help of her best friend to hide the fact that she’s competing in speech tournaments. Will Frances ever be free of her manipulative and cruel mother, or will she eventually bend and succumb to forces that seem stronger and stronger everyday? In this stunning and perceptive work of fiction, Cara Chow brings us the life of girl who’s desperate to escape the power of her all-consuming and abusive mother, and shares the triumphs and defeats she faces on her journey towards freedom.
When I was initially pitched this book, the publicist mentioned the story had a lot in common with that very controversial non-fiction work, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Though I haven’t read the book, I’ve certainly read about the controversy it sparked, and found that this book did indeed have a lot of the same hallmarks as Battle Hymn. It was a tough read, and while at first I didn’t see the problem with the behavior of Frances’ mother, her misbehavior grew exponentially until I could no longer stand her and I was desperate to see Frances free herself of her mother’s poisonous influence.
Part of the reason Frances wasn’t able to defend herself against her mother’s tirades and abuse was because she had been instilled with a sense of family loyalty, and because her mother touted the belief that she should always be honored, respected and obeyed. It was hard for Frances to believe her mother didn’t have her best interest at heart, and the constant put-downs and debasement had a very negative effect on her self esteem. I couldn’t believe her mother was so nasty and caustic when it came to belittling her daughter and I found it repugnant that her sole motivation for pushing Frances into medical school was her own self-interest. When Frances begins to strike out on her own, her mother seems to always be one step ahead of her and soon discovers that Frances isn’t following the directions that have been set for her. This leads to more acrimonious abuse and name calling, and I began to despair for Frances and the horrible life she had to lead. Another component of the problem was that Frances and her mother were isolated from most of the community and had very little outside influence with which to temper themselves. Shutting out the rest of society, Frances’ mother kept her alienated and afraid, unable to go to anyone for the help she so desperately needed.
When Frances breaks out of her shell and begins to compete in speech competitions, she really begins to flower, both emotionally and socially, but all her advancements must be hidden from her jealous and controlling mother. As she becomes more and more enveloped in speech, she’s mentored by a teacher who cares for her and encourages her, giving Frances a sense of self worth that even her mother can’t take away. Eventually, of course, there is a showdown, and Frances’ mother becomes not only violent and abusive but painfully self-serving and controlling. It’s up to Frances to break away from her mother and into the kind of life she wants to lead, and though she’s only spreading her wings into adulthood, her mother mistakes her independence for betrayal. As Frances steps away from her mother’s influence, I cheered for her and got completely invested in her struggle to be free from the oppression that her mother so diligently presses upon her. It’s the journey from battered and abused child to free young woman that captivated me and kept me turning the pages.
I’m not sure this book directly parallels Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother because where one speaks of control and subservience in the mother/child relationship, the other speaks of unspeakable cruelty and abuse committed in a relationship that is in some ways supposed to be sacred. The book did remind me a little bit of Girl In Translation because both dealt with the relationship between a Chinese mother and daughter, and both highlighted the fallout caused by high academic and social expectations perpetrated by Chinese mothers. Girl in Translation differs because it didn’t feature abuse and manipulation on the maternal side, and I found that by introducing this concept into the story, the emotional component was heightened by several degrees. Though it was an uncomfortable story to read, it was realistic and at times very angering.