An epic novel of young American adults who survived the country's "decades of discontent," the 1960s and 1970s. It is an antidote tho the stream of sa...moreAn epic novel of young American adults who survived the country's "decades of discontent," the 1960s and 1970s. It is an antidote tho the stream of sad 50th memorials, beginning with the JFK assassination and continuing through those of 1968, accompanied through 1975 and beyond by the Vietnam war and its aftermath and the racial, gender, counter-culture and broad social unrest at home. It spins a story of pride and resilience under difficult circumstances, honoring ordinary Americans who lived through the era and the musicians, artists and entertainers who helped them through it.(less)
Kimberly Shursen’s debut novel,“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” is a contemporary romantic thriller meriting the descriptor “page-turner” other reviewers have app...moreKimberly Shursen’s debut novel,“Itsy Bitsy Spider,” is a contemporary romantic thriller meriting the descriptor “page-turner” other reviewers have appended to it. It is fast paced from the outset to end and has been compared to Grisham and others in this genre. I would make a further comparison to Ludlum, although the novel has nothing to do with spies. Like the Bourne series, however, the novel pits isolated and threatened protagonists against a villain with unlimited resources who pursues them through multiple well-trained and mostly unknown henchmen. This intensifies the level of tension and fear as they seek both safety and retribution. The novel has a cinematic feel, opening as some movies do, with a traumatic scene taken from deep within the story before it introduces the characters in the opening chapter. You can almost see the opening credits roll after that preface.
The timing of the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” release is a bit unfortunate, as the novel is set in Boston and the antagonist is a criminal mayor concealing a history as a murderer and serial child molester and supported by corrupt police and other institutions. In the wake of the Boston Marathon terrorist event, the civic institutions of Boston are being justly showered with praise and the setting may drive away some readers. Potential readers should know that the Boston-specific setting is not particularly central to the plot. You may easily make a mental substitution of any major American city you particularly dislike and enjoy the story without guilt.
Like other novels in this genre, “Itsy Bitsy Spider” has a romantic element and a survival element. Usually the romantic pairing, mostly led by the male partner, survives through their own heroic action. Here the “supporting cast” is more critical. A girl from the male protagonist’s office (somewhat reminiscent of Lisbeth Salander from “Dragon Tattoo”) and her down-to-earth boyfriend are far more essential to a positive outcome than either one of the romantic couple. That appeals to me, as I would certainly be toast if left exclusively to my own devices to survive a pack of killers.
There is a tension in thrillers between maintaining the fast pace while developing the personalities of the characters and addressing social issues. Shursen clearly wants her novels to take on contemporary issues (here, child molestation) as well as vividly portray her characters. Here, the frenetic pace of the story is overwhelmingly successful and child abuse issues are well presented (especially the self-denial of the villain’s wife.
Regarding character development, Shursen does not attempt a backstory or psychological explanation for the villain’s behavior. I think that was a sound choice. It may not be productive to try to understand the person trying to kill you, much less search for some redemptive explanation. For me, the secondary characters were better developed than the romantic leads, where the basis for their mutual attraction could be amplified. Despite being a guy, “drop dead gorgeous” isn’t quite enough, since a couple of drinks will cure imperfections if the psychological connection is there.
So, the thrill ride is the strong suit in this debut novel Take it to the beach and a few margaritas and many chapters later you may want to give it a 5. Wear a sunscreen, because you won’t stop reading. An excellent beginning for a promising author. (less)
Reviewing Reflections is something of a challenge because it is a collection of some seventy poems and essays without an obvious unifying theme or str...moreReviewing Reflections is something of a challenge because it is a collection of some seventy poems and essays without an obvious unifying theme or structure. As I read, I was reminded of a couple of drawers at home where I place things for convenience: receipts, screwdrivers, ballpoints, miscellaneous business cards, etc. Occasionally I throw out some things that have outlived their usefulness to be replaced by new objects, say, a pair of pliers or a USB drive, but some things have been in those drawers for ten years. The organizing principle is basically “if you never move it you can always find it again.” Reflections seemed to me to be that drawer of Allison Bruning’s literary musings. Hey, it works for me, so I like that approach.
The reader who approaches Reflections without expectations of an agenda, genre-related focus, or dominant message will find a number of pleasures. Following my metaphor, she is inviting you to look into the drawer and see if you can find what you need. There is a disarming charm about that, an honesty and lack of pretense that are the strength of Reflections. You will find essays on American historical topics that could become the framework for novels, short stories or political commentary, poems ranging moving love tributes to limericks, all offered up in a guileless manner, unaffected and without pretense. The title of the collection is appropriate, but not in the pattern of Poe, pondering weak and weary in the dark of night, but rather a bright room of mirrors allowing the reader to see Bruning’s writing abilities from all sides and angles, as she considers her heritage, regional history, acquaintances, and historical figures large and small and as she plays with form and style. Looked at in that fashion, and appreciative of the rarity of this approach, I give her volume a strong rating for readers with a mind open to such an eclectic offering. As a writer of American historical fiction, I found the essays concerning little known individuals and groups in American history the most interesting in themselves and for their potential for elaboration.
Some readers are likely to be put off by Bruning’s seeming reliance on unfettered talent rather than studied craft or by the randomness of the structure. As to the first comment, I thought that some of the poems had the spontaneity of a first inspiration but lacked the refinement that comes through multiple edits. With the religious poems in particular, the path has been so well trodden over the centuries that it is difficult to choose words that convey a fresh revelation. This is an area where exploring the depths below the initially expressed emotions may serve the poet well. On the second point, I thought that the poems and the essays each might have been structured into two or three blocks to better allow the mode or theme of one piece to better flow into another. Of course, some of the uniqueness of the collection would have suffered from that move toward the conventional. Still, I have found that my “let it be” method of maintaining my drawers works better for me than for others. (The juxtaposition of an essay on anthropology and a limerick about a man eating his shoe is a bit like finding the spare key among the vitamin pills. Some may be puzzled by the logic.)
Reflections is a glimpse inside the head and heart of a writer unafraid of candid self-expression. Enjoy her frankness and potential for growth as an author. (less)
I confess that I am not a fan of the paranormal genre and was not inclined initially to give the novel a high rating because of that bias. Thinking it...moreI confess that I am not a fan of the paranormal genre and was not inclined initially to give the novel a high rating because of that bias. Thinking it over, however, the overall quality of the writing merits a better ranking. A Fine Likeness is one of those novels that falls between genres: American historical fiction with a regional focus, paranormal, a bit of the "Western." That may limit the readership, but the writing shouldn't be penalized for that. My rating is intended for fans of one of those genres who might be tempted into the crossover represented by Sean McLachlan's work.
The author does an excellent job in incorporating accurate Civil War and Missouri history and handles the military action sequences with ease. The tale reads smoothly and is a very easy read. The motivations of the main protagonists on both sides of the conflict are realistically developed. The novel requires a leap of imagination that Confederate guerrilla leader William "Bloody Bill" Anderson was the heat of a cult of devil worshipers and not simply your garden-variety sociopath. Most readers will not be troubled by any damage to the bushwhacker's reputation.
I liked the novel, but and would have enjoyed it even more as straight American historical fiction with more character development of the lead protagonst from each side of the war, and with fewer demonic figurines and visions. The writer, in my opinion, has the capability of writing solid literary fiction. In the meantime, he is seeking to create a unique niche in popular fiction and has come up with an interesting volume for that empty shelf. (less)
A work of literary historical fiction that should attract a general readership as well as those with special interest in the assimilation of immigrant...moreA work of literary historical fiction that should attract a general readership as well as those with special interest in the assimilation of immigrants into rural American culture and/or in the years living up to the Civil War and the profound impact of the war on communities in the path of that devastating event. The novel touches on important episodes in American history (the War of Regulation in North Carolina, the Mexican War) that have been greatly overshadowed by the Civil War, as well as addressing aspects of that great war itself that are not often discussed. The politically inclined may find insights into rural American attitudes that persist to the present day as a result of the assimilation experience of the segments of American society addressed in the novel.
Like the author's contemporary novel, The Duke Don't Dance, the novel is a saga involving multiple protagonists over a substantial time period, weaving an evocative tale of elements of the American social landscape with whom the reader may be unfamiliar. (less)
I liked this novel a great deal, although I thought it could be subtantially expanded to improve the depth of character development. The story is effe...moreI liked this novel a great deal, although I thought it could be subtantially expanded to improve the depth of character development. The story is effectively told from the perspective of the young girl who is the central protagonist. Still, I would like to have learned more of her parents and other aspects of the "backstory" that enabled the girl to be so open and unprejudiced in an era with so much racial turmoil. Perhaps that is accounted for merely by the innocence of youth, but that might be more credible today than it would have been more than fifty years ago. Perhaps bringing out something in the father's military career or her mother's sensitive nature might have strengthened the impact of the story.
The above said, the texture of the narrative is evocative and makes for a satisfying read. The girl's relationships with her peers, elders of varying outlooks and backgrounds and especially the living and dead male objects of her concern and attraction across racial lines are delicately brought to life. The Girl Who Swam to Atlantis is a worthy read from an author whose further development you may wish to follow.(less)
I'm one of those who were a bit disappointed in this novel, particularly after its good New York Times review by Janet Maslin. I though the cultural r...moreI'm one of those who were a bit disappointed in this novel, particularly after its good New York Times review by Janet Maslin. I though the cultural references were rather stale and uninspiring to either nostalgia or insight (e.g. the dwelling on James Bond movies). The treatment of the lead protagonist as an incredible overachiever seemed rather pretentious. In my view, its a decent read that does pick up as you get deeper into it, somewhat diminished by the window it provides on the author's ego.(less)
Diane Thomas took on a difficult task of writing an entire novel as correspondence between two persons: one famous (a 20-21 year old Elvis Presley) an...moreDiane Thomas took on a difficult task of writing an entire novel as correspondence between two persons: one famous (a 20-21 year old Elvis Presley) and one unknown (Achsa, a 14-15 year old precocious teenage girl drawn from the author’s imagination and experience). As a contemporary of the young protagonist (but not as precocious) and an Elvis fan “back in the day,” I read her novel appreciatively. Apart from the challenging narrative form, Thomas faced the constraint of building a believable story through employing a well-known and heavily investigated figure a co-narrator. She successfully confronted this in an accurate, uncompromising manner both as to the career of the young Elvis and fine details of the mid-fifties in which he rose to fame.
The results are also largely successful emotionally, but more so with the development of the child of her own creation than with the rock star. This is the story of Achsa, her growing maturation into a bright young woman, her relationship to her parents and the secrets she slowly uncovers. It is well written and moving. The portrayal of the young Elvis is less compelling, as is one of the main pillars of the fictional correspondence – correcting Elvis’ bad grammar. The author’s dedication to historical accuracy may have been a constraining factor here. His part of the correspondence is terse and his motivations left somewhat ambiguous.
At the time the story begins, 1955, Elvis is a 20-year old high school graduate two years out of school. Despite holding jobs and being obsessed with music, he had been a C student, “getting by” following a better start as a freshman. Although the high school once gave him a low IQ assessment of 70, the general opinion was that he was far smarter than that, attested to by his later military service and career development. In any case, at age twenty, Elvis had certainly been taught that “ain’t “ was improper, along with the other elementary grammar tips the young girl conveyed with each letter. If he used bad grammar it was because he didn’t care to correct it. Still, one could easily read the correspondence as implying that Elvis was mentally challenged. A better interpretation is that he was amused by the presumptuous young girl seeking to educate a man six years her senior, but quickly became fond of her, interested in her problems and politely “put up with it.”
The Elvis in the letters is kind, unprejudiced and open-minded and struggling to adapt to his emerging fame. The novel’s portrayal comports with his biographies, but doesn’t add much to the drama of the tale. In the story, Elvis is basically a sounding board or, at times, just a rationale for Achsa pouring out her feelings on paper, whether he reads the letters or not. Elvis role as a protagonist is empathetic, but passive. One wonders whether Thomas might have told the story just as well with only his music providing atmosphere. After all, the tale is about Achsa and her parents, and the context of racial prejudice and sexism surrounding them, not really so much about how the music changed or how that music, Elvis Presley’s music, contributed to changing attitudes. Achsa makes her voyage of discovery fundamentally on her own, with Elvis serving as a safe, sympathetic person to whom she can share her feelings. Achsa’s mother’s feelings and her fateful decision to resolve them had nothing obvious to do with the new music. The novel reveals few new insights into Elvis’ own evolution on racial and other social issues or his impact on those issues.
The author is talented and I look forward to her next. Readers who get into the young girl’s story through her half on the correspondence have given this novel top ratings. It is a quite a good read from that perspective. Readers looking for more vivid interaction between both parties to the correspondence, or a broader message of whether Elvis was a catalyst for cultural change or a product of it might not be fully satisfied. Value this novel for the “small story” well told and be properly rewarded. (less)
An exceptionally influential book, which helped set the tone for much of the 1960s and had a great impact on the second half of the so-called silent g...moreAn exceptionally influential book, which helped set the tone for much of the 1960s and had a great impact on the second half of the so-called silent generation (b. circa 1935-1945. Its influence came through its powerfil poetic narrative,(less)
But maybe four stars for romantic fantasy buffs; five for those buffs who also haven’t had a hot date for a very long time. The Curse of Nefertiti is...moreBut maybe four stars for romantic fantasy buffs; five for those buffs who also haven’t had a hot date for a very long time. The Curse of Nefertiti is in a women’s genre that I seldom read (being a grizzled male writer described by one critic as “Evelyn Waugh with a claw hammer”). However, I did read the book after seeing positive reviews and the novel’s prologue on the author’s web site. I am rating the novel here in terms of my ill-informed take on makes a novel stand out within the romantic fantasy genre.
Immediately drawing interest in the novel’s prologue is its first person, staccato writing style, a courageous choice when current literary convention is inclined toward third person artfully crafted paragraphs. Ratcliff’s style, heavily reliant on very short sentences and paragraphs, is analogous to musically crisp passages of disconnected parts or sounds. To me, that works effectively in the context of the novel. The tale begins with a dream and leads into a step-by-step illusory awakening (or progressive delusion if the reader prefers) that the narrator is actually the reborn queen of the Nile from centuries before Cleopatra. The style allows Ratcliff to transition seamlessly between alter egos without prelude or warning, also an effective device in this story.
Kayla, the heroine, is guided to her revelation by powerful hormones and a reincarnated Egyptian deity who appears to be largely modeled on Fabio. (It’s women’s fantasy, so guys, get over it.) Under such circumstances, one should not expect her train of thought to be expressed in refined philosophical paragraphs and they are not. In the beginning of the book, she thinks as an intelligent young person in the twenties might think, confronted with the mundane (empty refrigerators and too many cats), problem ridden friends and family, work obligations and confused sexual instincts and relationship issues, all layered over haunting psychological disturbances in dark corners of consciousness. In the middle, while Nefertiti has yet to claim her soul, Aphrodite has obviously claimed her body, bringing yet more disjointed trauma and pleasure. Finally, she transitions into the guilt-ridden Nefertiti, struggling with the consequences of a youthful curse. She copes with all this in short alternating bursts of logic and instinct grounded in the moment. The explicit text is staccato. Underlying that, however, is an implicit ostinato, a repeated rhythmic pattern in the short paragraphs that sustains the atmosphere of the tale.
The plot is rather conventional. As a genre piece, it is properly salacious, particularly in the middle portions. (When a boy, I dog-eared the sexual passages in Peyton Place; but to dog-ear Nefertiti would require an entire kennel.) Gender roles are those time-honored in good literature and bad. (The strong, but vulnerable female is subdued, yet elevated by the potent male; here, a sort of trans-dimensional taming of the shrew.) Speaking for my own gender, I can assure the author that none of us of the male persuasion, even in our prime and at our most magnificent, were ever perfect reincarnated god kings. In fact, the text makes pretty clear that even the Pharaoh (and his alter ego) has a dark side. Kayla doesn’t see that when she is ultimately faced with the dilemma of most romantic novels: is it best to live with only the memory of the perfect love or the reality of the inevitable imperfection of a tangible companion? Without introducing a plot spoiler, Ratcliff manages to dodge the clichéd “Love Story” ending without compromising her heroine to accept a “second best.” Apparently the author hasn’t yet given up on male perfection either. All things in good time.
Good art may use conventional forms. It’s a matter of what you do with it. For a debut novel it was quite a lot. If, as Charline Ratcliff claims, her novels stem from dreams, dreams are uncontrollable and lead in unexpected directions. As her portfolio of dreams increase, I expect we will see a broadening of themes and depth of subject matter within her chosen genre or into the riskier realm of literary fiction. Richard Sharp
This is a very well written thoughtful novel that I limit to four stars partly because the author's own four-star self review indicates to me that she...moreThis is a very well written thoughtful novel that I limit to four stars partly because the author's own four-star self review indicates to me that she expects to follow this excellent work with something even better, which I will eagerly await. The novel may be considered Southern fiction and shares the theme of troubled protagonists and an atmosphere of melancholy which characterize many Southern novels, but it is far from a genre piece. The protagonists are flawed, but they are not self-destructive, their concerns are realistic and their resolution plausible.
Although ths novel contains frightening scenes and creates an unsettling anticipation of potential disaster, this is ultimately a gentle story. There is more threat than violence and even the most fearful character eventually makes a choice that may easily be seen as a sensible decision benefitting all concerned.
The plot is populated by characters who are isolated, not part of the culture as the main female character, or part of the culture but damaged, as the main male protagonist, so as to not fully partake of it. Their ability to overcome these disabilities through their mutual humanity makes the novel satisfying on both emotional and intellectual levels. (less)
Having worked extensively in southern Africa, I found this memoir particularly moving and enlightening, explaining much about my friends and acquainta...moreHaving worked extensively in southern Africa, I found this memoir particularly moving and enlightening, explaining much about my friends and acquaintances of both English and African heritage who lived through the decolonization of Rhodesia. A great read for anyone and an essential read for those working or living in that part oh the world.(less)
Starts slowly as the story of a sadsack middle management publications exec with an unsatisfactory home life, but picks up as the book progresses. It...moreStarts slowly as the story of a sadsack middle management publications exec with an unsatisfactory home life, but picks up as the book progresses. It winds up rather nicely as Russell Wiley, the lead protagonist shucks off his frustrations as an unappreciated talent who has lost his ability to give his full energy to the job and decides to take on the role of a "unicorn," adopting the image of a successful executive, delegating the detail work to his staff. He begins dealing with his peers and superiors through adopting a somewhat cynical attitude that he has everything under control, while manipulating personnel decisions to his benefit. This leads to a conclusion that, without revealing plot spoilers, might best be described as a middle management fantasy outcome.
The novel is amusing in a low key manner that captures a good amount of reality of office life in a struggling enterprise and the humor improves as the story progresses. While the main character is not especially sympathetic at the outset, he becomes more so toward the finish. I enjoyed the read.(less)
The rating is a summary of reviews to date on amazon.com by ForeWord Clarion, Kirkus and customer reviewers. Described as "gritty and witty," "beautif...moreThe rating is a summary of reviews to date on amazon.com by ForeWord Clarion, Kirkus and customer reviewers. Described as "gritty and witty," "beautifully written" and compared to works of Henry James and Joseph Heller. The novel is a tale of the lives of seven protagonists of America's "silent generation" compressed between the Greatest Generation and Baby Boom and is described as "very entertaining, enlightening, and a great read for people of any generation." (less)
The Doors, and in particular Morrison, were an important cultural infuence in my novel on the so-called silent generation, "The Duke Don't Dance." Mor...moreThe Doors, and in particular Morrison, were an important cultural infuence in my novel on the so-called silent generation, "The Duke Don't Dance." Morrison spoke to both the disaffected younger generation at home as well as those enmired in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, where the Doors' recordings were highly popular, or perhaps better described as addictive. He appealed to both the simple despair of those who summarized the continuous stream of casualties in the words "it don't mean nothin'" and those seeking some intellectal anchor in the references to Blake, Brecht and ancient Irish legends. Morrison's poetry is fractured and obscure, but not merely the ramblings of a drug addict. Still, it can only be appreciated in the context of the widespread national trauma of the '60s and '70s, not today's compartmentalized society where warriors, minorities and poor are insulated from the mainstream.(less)