Really wanted to like this more

11 07 2012

I really wanted to like “The Dressmaker” by Kate Alcott more. I really did. Alas, I have to be honest and say it fell flat. On a five-star scale, I feel two stars is more appropriate, but I’m giving it three for some indefinable reason that may come to me upon reflection. Three stars is what my gut says, anyhow.

Alcott says the book was built around the question of why only one lifeboat went back to rescue Titanic survivors. The book may have been built around that question, but that question is far from what the book is about. Too bad (if it was about that question, it would’ve been told from the POV of at least one character in a lifeboat that didn’t go back to rescue survivors; as it is, we hear all such rationale secondhand). It could’ve been so much more, and I tell y’all this: if Alcott ever revises it so it should be what it ought to be, I’ll read it. I don’t think I could say that about any other book that disappointed me. In any case, Alcott is a journalist, and it shows. She uses a lot of POVs in the book and doesn’t get into the minds of any character enough. She’s more about reciting facts and saying so and so happened. Plus, the character of Tess is unbelievable. For a girl who is supposed to be so “smart,” she isn’t. Things happen to her too easily as well.

I think Alcott may have been better off writing this as non-fiction. That way, she could actually speculate on what happened. One issue is that she may be trying to tackle too much. The book covers less than a month in “real time,” and a heck of a lot it covers: a girl quitting her job, getting a new job on the Titanic, two immediate love interests, moving out of the worst lodgings pretty much right away, the sinking, the rescues, the aftermath, the hearings in New York, D.C. and then New York again, new characters and new POVs and on and on. This kind of sprawling framework would work better as a non-fiction. This book read a lot like a TV show, and if it were adapted to TV, it could work pretty well, I think.

 

 

 

 





You can’t be innocent and alive

5 07 2012

“The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan…wow. I couldn’t put this novel down. I started it last night in bed after July 4 fireworks. I continued reading it first thing in the morning and just finished.  I haven’t done a full, sole book review in quite a while, so this should also show how much the book impressed me.

Basic plot: A group of shipwreck survivors between the times of the Titanic and the Lusitania struggle to, well, survive in a lifeboat that can’t handle their numbers. They’re immediately faced with many morally gray decisions. For example, right after the wreck, they don’t pick up a child because the boat has no room for him, and survivors battle off with their oars people trying to get into the boat. The moral grayness only increases in the weeks that follow as they’re stranded at sea.

Grace Winter, in first-person narrative, tells the story. She’s a flawed, cunning person, both before and after the shipwreck. Her character doesn’t really grow, nor does it need to. Grace knows who she is and accepts who she is. Some other reviewers have noted they found it hard to “root” for Grace. I didn’t have this problem at all. I was intrigued to see what would happen next, what she would do next. Her mind is one I don’t get to read about nearly enough in literature, and I loved the insight here. She said at one point something like: “You can’t be innocent and alive.” That sums up the morality of the book, I believe. People judge other people with absolutely no insight of what these people have been through and what the judges may have done in their shoes. Life itself is a moral gamble, and morality is situational and relative.

For another book on moral grayness and being stranded at sea, I highly recommend the nonfiction “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick.

 

 





“The Dreamer, Her Angel, and The Stars” — and A Few Other Capsule Reviews

26 05 2012

I’ve not been reading as much lately because I’ve been going up against writer’s block. Bleeeck! However, I HAVE accomplished some reading. I’ve yet again neglected my long-form reviews, so here’s another capsules roundup. Some great reads I want to share.

1) “The Dreamer, Her Angel, and the Stars” by Linda S. North: Arranged marriages are a staple of straight romance, but for obvious reasons, they’re rare in lesbian romance. So, since this book features an arranged lesbian marriage, I was instantly intrigued. Usually, you marry someone you love, right? You meet, go through dating and maybe you live together and get a pet. You discuss kids. THEN comes the wedding.

Ariel and Kiernan do it backward except they meet first. As is usual in many love affairs, the feelings are deeper on one side at first (Kiernan’s side in this instance). Ariel resents having to marry Kiernan, but eventually she comes to realize that while the marriage was arranged, she did have a choice in the matter. She chose to marry Kiernan, and it’s up to Ariel to decide how she reacts. She can continue pouting or make the best of it.

She decides to make the best of it—and not a moment too soon.

This book is an interesting break from traditional lesbian romance and well worth picking up for that reason alone. Kiernan is a believable LIPS (Lesbian in a Power Suit).

This book has no forced intercourse and no Stockholm syndrome, as a couple of reviews indicate.

I felt a few scenes were too long and/or unnecessary, but overall, a solid debut novel. I’d definitely read Linda S. North again.

2) “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick: An engrossing tale of whaling, race and survival at sea. And yeah, um, cannibalism. Read this! One of the best non-fictions I’ve read.

3) “Defending Jacob” by William Landay: I really liked this book. It’s bound to make you think, which is always a good thing. I love how the author captures the voices of teenagers. If you like crime books, pick this up.

4) “Kill Switch” by Neal Baer: The authors’ backgrounds are in TV shows, and it’s obvious. The book reads like a TV show, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just not my style. Don’t expect characters with too much depth. DO expect utilitarian, bare-bones writing. Two stars out of five on my scale.

 

 

 

 





Many reviews in one post!

1 05 2012

This post isn’t going to be a full fledged review of any one book. Instead, it’ll be capsule reviews of several books. I’ve neglected my reviewing lately, but I’ve been gulping books down. Didn’t want to miss the chance to get the word out about some great reads. (These aren’t ALL the books I’ve read lately, just the highlights.)

In no order below we have…

“Death at La Fenice” by Donna Leon: If a book is set in Italy, chances are I’ll snatch it up. I loved my three weeks in Italy and so have a weakness for such books. “Death at La Fenice” takes place in Venice, and Leon does the city justice. Seeing gay, lesbian and bisexual characters in such a mainstream mystery was awesome. Even awesomer was looking at Leon’s other books (“La Fenice” was published in the early 1990s, although it just came out in ebook) and seeing that some of the lesbian characters return in future books. Observing the evolution of respect and tolerance for GBLTs over time will be interesting.

I got “La Fenice” for just 99 cents for the Nook. As of yesterday, it was still at the same price. Probably the same for Kindle. Warning: the rest of the books in the series are priced about $9.99 and higher. I’ve already put some on reserve at the library. Yep, back to reading some print books for me! 😉

Bottom line: great, gripping mystery and I am thrilled to  have discovered a new mystery writer.

“Word Painting” by Rebecca McClanahan: A must-read for any writer. This book on description will take your writing to the next level. I hope it does mine! I wish I had read this book a long time ago, but better late than never. Whether you’re a newbie or a seasoned writer, I reckon this book has something for you.

“Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer: If you can read only one book from this bunch, pick this one. It tells the story of several doomed Mount Everest expeditions, focusing on one in particular. It becomes clear why corpses dot the slopes of Mount Everest.  This book combines many genres in one: adventure, mystery, historical fiction, journalism, world affairs (the interplay among the various expeditions from different countries is fascinating. Krakauer didn’t think too highly of the South Africans, for example). I felt like I was freezing up there along with Krakauer. A must read.

“Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth” by James M. Tabor: An eye-opening read on the science of caving. There’s a race underfoot to reach the deepest place on Earth first. Where is it and who will win?

“Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan”: A must-read for anyone interested in politics and presidential assassinations. The Lincoln assassination fascinates me (JFK not so much, I don’t know why) so when I saw this book, I knew I had to read it. Reagan had a flair for comedy which alone makes this book worth the read. It’s compelling in all areas, though.

“You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You’re Deluding Yourself ” by David McRaney: The title alone is explanation enough for why you should read this. You’ll recognize yourself, even if you don’t want to or even if you won’t admit it to yourself.

“A Civil Action” by Jonathan Harr: I love legal thrillers/courtroom books and TV shows. There aren’t enough of them in books, but this nonfiction book scratched that itch and then some. I never realized putting together a class-action suit was so exhausting.

“The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean” by Susan Casey: A fascinating look at surfing and giant waves.

“Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch” by Sally Smith Bedell: A nice study of Elizabeth II’s life from her birth until now. Only three stars, though. It comes across as too much of an “official” biography. Rumors of Prince Philip’s cheating, for example, are swept under the rug with basically this explanation: “He didn’t do it.” Um? Need more than that, especially since many other biographies I read went into detail on WHY he did cheat. However, this book portrayed Diana much as I believe she was. It doesn’t flinch from her troubles, her psychological condition and her eating disorders. It even says that if one of the queen’s trusted aides hadn’t died before Diana, Diana would’ve had a much better chance fitting in with the royals. This book also gave the best look I’ve read so far on why Elizabeth, even if she wanted to, couldn’t let her sister, Margaret, marry her first love.





Maybe O.J. Didn’t Do It

29 03 2012

I’ve read many O.J. Simpson books, but this one is probably the most important. The book “O.J. Is Innocent and I Can Prove It” by William C. Dear is a must-read on several levels.  The most obvious level, of course, is that it quite compellingly presents an argument for O.J.’s innocence in the killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. (However, it posits O.J. helped the true killer cover up the crime and took the blame, so to speak, for the true killer.) The book presents a suspect whom the police never interviewed BUT a suspect for whom O.J. got a defense attorney for the day after the murders for no apparent reason.  O.J. also has a history of cleaning up after this suspect’s violent acts. This suspect was never interviewed, police didn’t bother to look into him, so why the defense attorney?

Who is this suspect? Jason Simpson, O.J.’s son (who was 24 at the time of the killings). Now, let me say something here. My purpose in this review is not to persuade you O.J. is innocent or that Jason is guilty. I’m not going to get into debates about that UNTIL you’ve read this book. Then we’ll talk. 😉

My mind remains open as to who killed Nicole and Ron, but Jason is someone the police should have interviewed for sure. He has blackouts, has assaulted multiple girlfriends, describes himself as a Jekyll and Hyde, was snubbed by Nicole on the day of the murders, had a handwritten time card on the night of the killings (the only handwritten time card among computerized punch-outs) and no alibi. In interviews (not police interviews, of course), Jason Simpson’s story keeps changing. The book gives a long, detailed list as to why O.J. is innocent and why Jason should be considered a major suspect.

Why this book is a must-read on other levels: it shows the danger of police tunnel vision. The police decided O.J. was guilty without even investigating him and any other suspects.

It also shows how badly police botched the crime scene with its carelessness. However, there are a few blood samples, skin samples, a shoe print and fingerprints that remain unidentified. The police say the case remains open, then in the next breath, say it’s closed. Which is it? It seems to be whichever is most convenient at the moment for the cops. When it’s a request to get Jason Simpson’s DNA and fingerprints for comparison, the cops say the case is closed, OJ was tried but found not guilty (whatever sense that makes). When it’s media speech, the police say the case is open.

The police still refuse to interview Jason Simpson despite many experts, including Henry Lee, saying he is at the very least a plausible suspect.

I could write on and on and on about this book, but I urge you to just read it. Please. I’ve read books on both sides of the O.J. argument, and I’ve always felt something was a bit fishy, a bit off. This book could very well explain the answer.

 





More Now Now Now, Please! :)

29 03 2012

“Whatever You Love” by Louise Doughty is one of these books that makes me want to read the author’s back list NOW NOW NOW. The book does have its weaknesses, but boy, oh boy, Doughty has the right (write) stuff. And it doesn’t hurt the story is set in England.

My biggest beef, I think, is that the blurb is misleading. Here it is: When a hit-and-run car crash claims Laura’s daughter Betty, her life is turned upside down. But when the courts rule the death an accident, the lines dividing justice from punishment will blur as Laura embarks on her own quest for vengeance.

Not much is actually focused on the vengeance, and more should have been for sure. Maybe the last fifty, sixty pages focused on vengeance, and in a delicious twist, it’s not really vengeance against the person we think it’ll be. And the ending is open as to whether vengeance WAS achieved.

Doughty writes beautifully, but like with a book I reviewed recently, the writing sometimes gets in the way of the story. (I love beautiful writing but not for the sake of beautiful writing that otherwise does nothing for the story.) So, yeah, I skimmed or outright skipped large swaths. But even so, there’s plenty that made me want to keep going. You can tell just how much of a good voice Doughty has because right near the beginning, she delves into a huge chunk of back story. She writes it so well it doesn’t really come across as back story.

This is a definite recommend from me.

 

 





In “Pennance,” a Star Is Born

23 03 2012

One of the best (and somewhat rare) feelings I get when I read a book by a first-time published author combines my author/editor/reader personas. It’s this feeling: “Wow. This person will be a star someday.”

How can I tell? Voice. Turn of phrase.  Writing style. Differentiation. It’s simple to explain yet complex, too. Pretty much any book has flaws, and it’s very telling (to me, anyway) when the above four characteristics rise to the top despite the flaws.

I had this “oh yeah!” feeling the other day when I started “Pennance” by Clare Ashton. I must admit to having a small bias here, though. The book is set in England, and I love British stories, British mysteries, British character-driven tales. Think Elizabeth George and Ruth Rendell, for example. Plus, it just seems to me that many British stories do a great job of making the setting a true character in the story. This is definitely the case with “Pennance,” which is set in a town of the same name.

Here’s the blurb of the book from Amazon: Lucy is haunted by the death of her partner, Jake, and lives in paranoid fear and reclusion. She lives in a small, introverted village in Cornwall called Pennance, and is surrounded by Jake’s family and memories of him. She feels intensely guilty about his death and thinks someone is out to get her in retribution. Relief appears to come when a new neighbour, Karen, enters her life, but is that when the real threat begins?

Pennance is a creepy, odd character, and when the story opens, it has shaped Lucy into what basically amounts to a shell of a person. The story takes its time unfolding, which mirrors life in Pennance. By the 1/4 point, the central conflict has yet to appear, which may turn off some readers. It’s a tradeoff that seems to have paid off for Ashton, though. We see Lucy make her once-weekly trip to the store, we see her avoid her dead  boyfriend’s mother, we see her shrink in fear at visitors, we see her interact with the ghost/presence of her dead boyfriend. That’s Lucy’s life, and while she isn’t happy, she deals with it and has made her lot with it. The appearance of Karen, a new neighbor (and who is also a new love interest) and her children changes everything.

There is no doubt Ashton can write, and she’s bursting with potential. I fully expect some issues with first-person POV to be resolved for her future books. One example: “Pennance” has an overuse of “I felt,” “I wondered,” “I imagined,” etc. This plays with the flow of the story and makes the journey to the real conflict feel slower than it should. Lucy, especially at the beginning, is a character who very much lives in her head and who doesn’t interact much. “I felt sick” is also overused, and I was not clear on HOW Lucy was sick. Saying “The walls squeezed in” or “Nausea stung my throat” instead of “I felt sick” would have been more demonstrative plus would’ve made for less “I” subjects. This is a pretty easy thing to correct for future works.

Despite the bumps in “Pennance,” Ashton’s talent is evident. I will most definitely be checking out her future books. She’s a star in the making.