Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Gathering of Stories

November Storm: A Collection of Short Stories by Robert Oldshue.

The Iowa University Press describes this Iowa Short Fiction award winner of 2016, as follows:

In each of the stories in Robert Oldshue’s debut collection, the characters want to be decent but find that hard to define. In the first story, an elderly couple is told that delivery of their Thanksgiving dinner has been canceled due to an impending blizzard. Unwilling to have guests but nothing to serve them, they make a run to the grocery, hoping to get there and back before the snow, but crash their car into the last of their neighbors. In “The Receiving Line,” a male prostitute tricks a closeted suburban schoolteacher only to learn that the trick is on him. In “The Woman on the Road,” a twelve-year-old girl negotiates the competing demands of her faith and her family as she is bat mitzvahed in the feminist ferment of the 1980s. The lessons she learns are the lessons learned by a ten-year-old boy in “Fergus B. Fergus,” after which, in “Summer Friend,” two women and one man renegotiate their sixty-year intimacy when sadly, but inevitably, one of them gets ill. “The Home of the Holy Assumption” offers a benediction. A quadriplegic goes missing at a nursing home. Was she assumed? In the process of finding out, all are reminded that caring for others, however imperfectly—even laughably—is the only shot at assumption we have.

This blurb is an excellent overview and assessment of this collection, and I believe that commonality in a book of short fiction helps give an overall cohesiveness to the book, which sometimes allows for a collection to almost feel like a novel (or in this case, due to its length, a novella). However, despite this underlying theme, Oldshue gives us stories that are for the most part, very different one from the other. In this way, Oldshue investigates several different aspects of what wanting to be decent is, for various types of characters. I found that totally commendable, as well as fascinating, and something Oldshue fully succeed in achieving.

Content and theme aside, the question is, was Oldshue successful in mastering the art form of the short story. I have always believed that the shorter (and/or more restrictive, and/or more concise) the form, the harder it is to accomplish. On the surface, Oldshue's style seems be one where the narrator goes off into tangents and back-stories, which seem unrelated to the story's main point. Fortunately, Oldshue has perfected the knack of slipping back to the main story at just the right moment before he's lost the plot. Shortly after that, Oldshue gives us a closing line that seems to be slightly on the obscure side, but after you think about it, is actually very pointed. While some may think this a cliché for the short story form, if executed properly, this can really work magically well, and I think Oldshue has this down pat.

Another thing that impressed me was the everyday language and seemingly casual voice, that Oldshue employs here. Using this, Oldshue speaks to the hearts of his readers, giving us a witty anthology, which at turns is both poignant and insightful. Finally, Oldshue also succeed in rendering both male and female voices for his protagonists, with natural realism. More importantly, Oldshue even portrays young people without making them sound either too childish or excessively precocious. This is one of my pet peeves, and I'm always pleased to read fiction that doesn't fall into either of those traps.

The only problem I had with this collection was that while most of the stories were very compelling, others didn't quite match that quality, and rambled on for a little too long. In particular, I wasn't sure I understood why Oldshue included some of the action in the story "Fergus B. Fergus," which slowed the pace too much for my taste, and some of it didn't seem to connect with the story's point. In addition, in "Summer Friend," we get two main protagonists plus another important minor one. This larger cast of characters proved problematic and I think he should have given us just a little less of their back-stories, which would have made this story more effective. However, these are my only niggles, so I can assure you that I still recommend this collection and believe it deserves four and a half stars out of five.

"November Storm" by Robert Oldshue published by Iowa University Press, released October 1, 2016 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Women witnessing WWII

The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton

Near the end of When World War II, journalists and photojournalists from allied countries had only one thing on their minds - to be the first ones to document the victory of retaking Paris. Among them were women who braved life and limb to "make their careers" by achieving this feat. Meg Waite Clayton's latest novel follows two fictional women attempting to be the first journalists to chronicle this allied victory.

Okay, so I'm a sucker for books about women doing amazing things, or being strong and forthright during times when people expected them to be demure and pretty, in the background. This is exactly that type of book. Waite Clayton follows two women here - Olivia (aka Liv or Livvie) and Jane. These two women are very different. Olivia comes from privilege and money, while Jane is the daughter of a cook and servant to a wealthy family. Despite this, they find themselves together in France, Liv with her cameras and Jane with her typewriter, trying to cover what they hope will be the end of the war. 

One thing that struck me about this story was that Waite Clayton decided to invent two fictional characters for this novel, instead of fictionalizing real women who actually joined their male colleagues in chronicling these historical events. Of course, Waite Clayton does disburse quotes from both male and female journalists and photojournalists from this time into the text, as well as refer to them from time to time, but we hardly ever get to "meet" any of these real people inside her story. The disadvantage of doing this is that the story felt less connected to the reality of the events, if only somewhat. On the other hand, the advantage is that this freed Waite Clayton to expand her imagination to its fullest. {NOTE - see update below}

The question is, which one makes for a more compelling novel - something where the fiction imagines scenarios for real people using facts, or something where the facts of an era intertwine with fictional characters? The former requires much more research, since the author needs understand both the circumstances they're writing about, as well as the real-life people in the story - even when they're fictionalizing events meant to fill in the blanks of the records. The latter still requires some research, but the author can delve more into creating their characters while allowing them do things that no real historical person actually did. As far as I'm concerned, I think I prefer the former.

However, even though she employed the latter, I believe that Waite Clayton did a truly lovely job with this novel. She created extremely sympathetic characters and placed them into a plot that was both complex and realistic enough to make us anxious to read on to see what happened to them. Her straightforward style has just the right amounts of imagery to help the reader feel connected to the places and events, without feeling overwhelmed. In fact, some of the scenes are amazingly vivid and realistic, but thankfully, they stop just short of being gory. Most importantly, all these elements connect carefully to make the overall feel of this book both three dimensional and honest. For all this, I think I can easily recommend this novel with a strong rating of four and a half out of five stars. 

UPDATE: You will see in the comments below one from the author. She wrote:
The answer to why fictional characters is that I wanted to be able to collect a lot of different experiences from a lot of different journalists, and share the most compelling in one story. Quite sure I did far more research on this one than I would have needed to do to deliver the story of any one of the journalists mentioned in the front, for which the novel is definitely meant to be an homage. 
My reply to this is - excellent point! It didn't occur to me that Waite Clayton used many real women, and then made them into composites to develop these two characters. I therefore stand corrected. This type of approach certainly needs as much, if not more research than just designing totally fictional characters and placing them into real, historic situations.  Thank you, Meg, for that clarification.

"The Race for Paris" by Meg Waite Clayton published by Harper, released August 2015 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Not a blueprint!

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

(Note: This is my 200th book review! To celebrate this, I thought it only right it should be about a classic novel. This also gives me the opportunity to throw in a bit of politics, which my readers know I've completely avoided using this blog for until now.)

Most people have heard of, if not read, this speculative fiction book by Margaret Atwood. For those who don't know, this is a dystopian story of what Atwood imagined could happen if men took total dominance over women, and relegated them to being only wives, servants and baby-making machines. Originally published in 1985, this novel was a way for Atwood to fictionalize her own social commentary after observing increasing Christian fundamentalism that included no small amount of anti-women rhetoric.

Before I go any further, I should note that I was a bit late to this party. I only read this novel this past year, although I've long wanted to read it. When I needed audio books to "read" while recovering from surgery on my eyelids, this was my first choice. A choice I do not regret in the least, including the fact that I found Clare Danes' voice to be particularly appropriate to read the protagonist Offred's account of her ordeals in the Republic of Gilead. In fact, the natural strain and worry that Danes' voice has (which sometimes annoyed me while watching her in Homeland), was what made her reading this book so effective. For this alone, I could give this book a full five stars, but of course, there are many more reasons why it deserves top marks.

First, this book, despite its age, is no less relevant today than it was in 1985. In fact, I urge you to listen to this interview with her from the BBC, which proves this very point. Note her answer when she's asked if she didn't over speculate as to how bad it could get if the religious right were to take hold. However, the point isn't if she's predicted a real possibility or not. No, the point is how Atwood portrays this with such amazing subtlety, that it is a wonder to behold. You see, most of the story focuses on Offred's personal account of being a handmaid, a woman taken from her home and forced to become a surrogate to produce offspring for a wealthy childless couple. At the same time, Atwood slips the back-story of how society evolved into such an oppressive state into only a couple of passages sprinkled throughout the book. These are very telling, remarkably pointed, and frankly, very scary. Let me quote from this book to prove this point.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, just like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn't even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn't even an enemy you could put your finger on.

After a couple of lines, she adds this:

Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn't be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.

Now, combine this with her more recent speculative fiction novel, The Heart Goes Last, that includes her vision of how an oligarchy can find a "solution" to the crime, poverty, unemployment and homelessness problems, and you have yourself the type of society that certain elements in today's America might see as the perfect "wet dream" for the country's future.

I'm not saying that this will happen, but I must admit that there have been statements made throughout the present election campaign, that point to my wondering if someone isn't actually reading Atwood to get some nasty ideas. With people excusing misogyny, seriously calling to repeal the 19th Amendment (which gave women the right to vote), and the increasing xenophobia, Islamophobia and general racism, isn't something like this just remotely possible? Furthermore, when I read articles like this or this (and sadly, these are just from today), I think that Atwood is right, "Somebody has to tell the Republicans the Handmaid's Tale is not a blueprint." For that matter, we need to keep them away from "The Heart Goes Last" as well.

Leaving politics aside (as much as possible), I want to emphasize that Atwood's genius is in viewing the real world, and imagining where the wrong direction could take us. Using that as a basis of her books, she attempts to warn us how these paths could wind up damaging society as a whole. The question is, will we listen and take heed, or will we allow someone to twist Atwood's vivid imagination to bring about a real-life dystopia? I'm hoping it will be the former, and of course, this book deserves a full five stars out of five - for both the content, and the excellent audio version.

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (your purchase contributes to world-wide literacy) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Different? Yes, but…

Today Will be Different by Maria Semple

Eleanor is having a very difficult time right now. Her budding cross-dressing son is once again pretending to be sick to get out of school, and she really should be working on her book - her graphic memoir - but one thing leads to another and, well, yes, this day really is turning out to be different; or is it?

When any author makes a splash, my immediate tendency is to read something by that author that’s received less acclaim, if possible. I feel that this is a good way for me to gauge how closely attuned these authors are to my personal taste. That way, if I dislike the writing, I won't be panning something that "everybody loves." On the other hand, if I like this "lesser" work, I can be almost assured that I will enjoy their "hit" as much, if not more. Semple's last novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, was a real success, gaining four and five stars from many authors and reviewers I respect; so the opportunity to read this book was one I couldn't refuse.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid that Semple's third novel has essentially turned me off to looking at her other work. Now, I realize that Semple is actually a very good writer, particularly when it comes to absurdities and humor. Her track record is one that is quite impressive (having contributed to such fun TV shows as "Mad About You" and "Ellen," as well as helping produce "Arrested Development"). The problem is that as fun as these vignettes are (in and of themselves), they just don't hold together as a cohesive story, at least not on paper. In fact, if done right, this book could be turned into an adorably funny movie or TV series. But on paper... sorry. One reason for this is the problems with all of the back-story parts. In the book, these melded almost indistinguishably into the present action, with no segues in the text, and the only thing separating the past from the present being blank lines between the paragraphs or a new page of text (and sometimes not even that). This made for a very confusing read.

Of course, perhaps that was Semple's plan to begin with - to give the readers a book that baffles them in order to amplify Eleanor's being such a befuddled woman. If that's the case, then Semple certainly succeeded. However, as far as I was concerned, the way I had to puzzle over this book annoyed and frustrated me, which made in an overall failure. Moreover, I think that if Semple had succeeded in making Eleanor a more sympathetic character, perhaps this story wouldn't have bothered me as much. I think my main problem with Eleanor was that Semple made her far too clueless despite having a relatively successful career. Yes, there are people who succeed amazingly in one area of their lives while failing miserably in other areas. Unfortunately, in Eleanor's case, Semple underplayed the successes and overplayed her density and inabilities. For example, Eleanor's illustration work was impressive enough to land her a book deal to write a graphic memoir. Sadly, Eleanor's life made her miss her deadline. That's reasonable, until you realize that she's missed that deadline by EIGHT years! I'm sorry, but that's just stupid.

Regrettably, this isn't the only obtuse thing in this book. There are parts in Eleanor's past that pop up seemingly at random, although these are generally the types of things that come back to haunt the present. Semple does follow through with some of these, but when the book finishes there are still bunches of unresolved and unrelated things still out there, flying around like gnats. All of this made me think that somewhere along the way Semple lost the point (or perhaps jumped the shark), and what we're left with is very nicely written work that is simply a jumble of incidents surrounding a very sad woman. Semple repeats this with the beautifully drawn graphic story "The Flood Girls" included in the book, which despite the artistry, is nothing more than a mishmash of pretty but disjointed pictures.

This isn't to say that Semple isn't a talented writer, because I think she is (and she's an accomplished artist, as well), but obviously her previous novel must have been more focused than this one. With all this in mind, and after much deliberation, I'm sorry but I'm going to have to give this book a low rating of two and a half stars out of five, and cannot - in all honesty - recommend it to my readers (although I'm sure some of them might still want to read this. I would love to hear from those that do read this book who disagree with me).

"Today Will be Different" by Maria Semple, published by Hachette Book Group (a division of Little, Brown & Company), release date October 4, 2016, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a proof copy of this book in return for an honest review (and if this isn't honest, I don't know what is)!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Teaser Tuesday for September 13, 2016

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of A Daily Rhythm. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

  • Grab your current read (or the next book on your reading list)
  • Open to a random page
  • Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
  • BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
  • Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teaser:
 "It should have come as no surprise to Eleanor that Lester's party, her baby sister Ivy, Ivy the willowy, translucent one with the fluttery aura (she was the air and Eleanor was the earth), Ivy six-foot-one in ninth grade, who, a week before high school graduation went to model in Paris and then Japan but had no luck in New York where it mattered, who followed an acting coach to the Berkshires which ended up being a cult and had to be rescued by Eleanor and her then-boyfriend Joe, Ivy who miraculously booked a Dior campaign so her face was all over the subways one summer but lost all that money and her modeling connections in an ironically named Ponzi scheme, "Friends Helping Friends," Ivy who hitchhiked to Telluride for an ayahuasca ceremony and stayed three years shacking up with the shaman, Mestre Mike, next finding religion in Fat is a Feminist Issue, Toxic Parents and Healing the Shame that Binds You, this Ivy who became a certified masseuse but quit because the constant transfer of bad energy was making her weak, she was allergic to wheat and cut out sugar before anyone was allergic to wheat and cut out sugar, she also refused to eat meat because it was biting into animal screams and she avoided nuts because viruses clung to nuts, the Ivy whose skin had become dry and eye sockets saggy, who couldn't shake her angry dry cough, who Eleanor's by-then-husband, Joe, a surgeon who knew a dying bulimic when he saw one, checked into an Eating Disorder Unit on Second Avenue where Ivy was forced on arrival to eat a Sloppy Joe on a white bun, despite sobbing and gagging and collapsing on the linoleum floor, Ivy who was now answering phones for David Parry, rock-and-roll manager and husband of Violet, the heat writer of Looper Wash, as a personal favor to Eleanor, Ivy who was now thirty-three and healthy if getting a little old for her act, it was this Ivy who came to Lester's party, it was this Ivy who met Bucky, captivated Bucky, went back to St. Regis with Bucky, and now to New Orleans the next day.

"A year later they were married."

--  Today Will be Different by Maria Semple. (Pages 133-4 of the print version.)

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment on Jenn's latest post, here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Eling for Healing

The Last Will of Moira Leahy by Therese Walsh

Almost a decade after a tragic accident, Maeve Leahy is still trying to come to terms with what happened between her and her identical twin sister, Moira. When a Javanese knife, called a Kris, comes into Maeve's life, its mystery and magic bring these past events to the fore.

After reading Walsh's novel, "Moon Sisters," I noticed that it was her second book. Not long afterwards, this debut novel went on special sale on Amazon, and I decided to buy it. Now that I've read both books, it seems that Walsh likes the theme of sisters and their relationships. Whereas in Moon Sisters, the two girls were of different ages, here we have twins, but the connections between them are equally as strong, with equal amounts of highlights and conflicts between them. The most striking difference between these books is the vehicles that Walsh uses to further these stories. In Moon Sisters, Olivia's Synesthesia plays a large part in the story. Here, however, we have the magical realism (or perhaps I should call it mystical realism) of the power behind the Kris. Mind you, the mixing up of the senses that Synesthesia causes is somewhat similar to the unexplained effects that the Kris has on Maeve. On the other hand, the Synesthesia allowed for far more poetry in Walsh's prose than this book included.

Walsh's style here was somewhat less developed here than in her second book, you can still see her talent for drawing images with words was already well in play. As for her plot development, there were many elements used to further the story. We had chapters of Maeve and Moira as young girls, to deepen our understanding of them and their relationship. For the present day story, Walsh introduces us to I felt that Walsh used the Kris somewhat unevenly, although this wasn't very problematic. What I mean by this is that Walsh uses the Kris as a vehicle in the present, mostly to point up the relationship between Maeve and Moira, which worked fine. However, during the parts where the book goes back to when Maeve and Moira are young, the event that involved a similar knife back then seemed insignificant, by comparison. This is probably because the Kris wasn't part of the major incident between the twins. Furthermore, Maeve's relationship with Noel, who meets her in Rome to find the author of the anonymous notes about the Kris, has another angle to it besides romance. This complicates things with the plot, but not enough to make it too difficult to follow.

The complexities of the plot, and the weaknesses I found there, are the main reasons why I can't give five stars to this book. The other reason is that I also felt that the character development was a touch on the thin side. Yes, all of the main characters were sympathetic, and Walsh gave us good amounts of information in their back-stories to help us understand their motivations behind their actions. However, they didn't really come alive for me, and I had a hard time picturing them fully in my imagination. This is where Walsh's second novel is more successful, but more importantly, where we can see how she's progressed and improved as a writer.

In short, although this novel isn't perfect, I did enjoy it. Most particularly, I found the story to be compelling, and I liked how the narrative flipped between Moira in the chapters describing their youth, and Maeve during the present day sections. I appreciated the research into the Kris, and that Walsh didn't overwhelm us with boring facts, but allowed the history to seep into the story, and thereby enrich both the book and its readers. I also think that the title of this book has a deeper meaning than the obvious, and I always appreciate that (especially since I also like to pique readers' interest through mysterious titles). For all this, I think that three and a half stars out of five is the right rating for this book, and I can certainly recommend it.

"The Last Will of Moira Leahy" by Therese Walsh is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.