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review 2015-12-25 13:55
Family, Lies, Race and Life in the South
Shattered Lies - Francis X. Clooney, S.J.

I’m reviewing this book as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team and was offered a free ARC copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The novel, as promised by the description, deals with important themes: family relationships, adultery, betrayal, secrets, lies, race, loss and grief, illness… The story shows us how two families, the Thayers and the Johnsons, who’ve always lived close to each other in the family ranch of the Thayers, a white Southern family, while the Johnsons (African-American) worked for them in a variety of capacities and lived within the grounds, are much more closely linked than they appear at first sight. Kate Thayer, the youngest of the family, finds a diary written by her mother that opens up a Pandora’s Box of secrets and lies, including suicide, child abandonment, and questions about her own identity.

Emotions run high for all the protagonists and also the less important characters, and as the story is narrated in third-person limited point of view it allows the reader to see things from inside the heads (and the hearts) of different characters. This does not make it confusing but instead it gives readers an opportunity to better understand some of the characters, which at first are difficult to like or empathise with (like Katherine, Kate’s grandmother).

The novel is full of emotionally tense moments, and many secrets are revealed very early on. That results in much of the story delving into the changing emotions of the characters (from anger, to guilt, to fear, and back again), with the rhythm of the story speeding up and slowing down at times rather than providing a totally smooth ride.

Despite punctual references to current times (several mentions of Obama, the years when different events took place, and comments about how things have changed over generations), the story seemed to live in a time of its own and in its own environment, creating a somewhat claustrophobic sensation. The only interferences by the outside world take place in the train (where there is a nasty experience with some white youth, and a nice encounter, which to Kate exemplifies the fact that people can fight against prejudice at a personal level, no matter what pressures they are subjected to by their environment), and later in the hospital, although even that serves mostly as a background for the family’s battles and eventual peace. This is mostly a personal story, although it reflects wider themes.

The North and the South are depicted as fairly different worlds, nowadays still, and the codes of behaviour and the topics brought to my mind Faulkner’s novels (although the style and the treatment of the material is completely different). It seemed difficult to believe that in the late 1980s nobody would have spotted that Olivia, Kate’s mother, was pregnant with twins (even if she didn’t want an ultrasound), and that the doctor wouldn’t  think of calling for help when he realised the delivery was not going well (especially as this is a family of means). But perhaps the details are not as important as the experiences in this melodrama that ultimately provides a positive message of hope and forgiveness.

This is an emotionally tense read, with some slower and somewhat iterative self-reflective moments, and some faster ones, exploring issues of identity, prejudice and family that will make you think about your own priorities and preconceived ideas. Ah, and 10% of the royalties go to the Polycystic Kidney Foundation, a very good cause (and relevant to the story).

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review 2015-04-07 03:25
A Classic Psychological Thriller
Rebecca - Daphne du Maurier,Sally Beauman

This is a deceptively simple story, but it's a classic for a reason. There is so much going on here!

On its face, it's the story of an insecure, inexperienced nameless(!) bride who is swept off her feet and brought to the fancy estate of her new husband, a recent widower. Once there, she finds herself being compared to his first wife, Rebecca, who was by all accounts beautiful, vivacious, fashionable, popular, independent, and a force of nature. Isolated and lacking self-esteem, the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself falling into self-doubt, paranoia, and despair, aided by the gaslighting housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (who adored Rebecca).

I don't want to give away all the twists and turns here, but let's just say that du Maurier has the major plot pivot happen about halfway through the book and STILL has you turning the pages impatiently 'til the end; it's that good.

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect is that she makes you, the reader, complicit in some of the shenanigans. You find yourself rooting for people whom you might otherwise be horrified by, and that takes skill. You also might not realize until much later that there were more victims than you thought (sorry for the vagueness) and fewer heroes. The book also has an opening sentence for the ages, and perfect bookends of opening/closing.

It's not a perfect book--some of the prose can be a bit turgid for today's audiences (that's why I took half a star off). But if you're a fan of Jane Eyre, try this one--it's outstanding.

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review 2014-12-14 17:56
Gaslight (1944), directed by George Cukor
Gaslight - Ingrid Bergman,Angela Lansbury

Here, ladies and gentlemen, we have the ax of the 'eadsman and the execution block. These are the originals with which such historic persons as Lady Jane Grey and Queen Catherine Howard was beheaded within these precincts. The victim, kneeling, laid his 'ead upon the block, fitted his neck into the small, hollowed-out space designed to receive it, whereupon the ax descended, severing the 'ead from the torso with one blow...or, in unlucky cases, two.

Gaslight stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula, Charles Boyer as Gregory, and Joseph Cotton.

Early in the film Paula sings from Gaetano Donizetti's tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Paula's mother was an opera singer. Before she was murdered. It doesn't seem to occur to Paula that perhaps the two facts are related, even though she knows perfectly well that her mother was strangled.

I saw an opera once, though it wasn't Lucia. It was Tosca, and the occasion was a class field trip. I can't say that it broadened my horizons much, except in that it taught me one thing: that the kid who sits enthralled by opera is a weird kid. Not a bad kid, but a very odd duck indeed.

Comic opera is another matter entirely, at least when it is written by Gilbert and Sullivan. My Dad had several recordings of their work, and I believe I am the better for having heard them. Indeed, I now own them.

But back to Lucia. Is this the greatest in-joke ever? I'd call it foreshadowing, but not even the lightest of shadows is visible in the dark. Gaslight, as it happens, is about a man trying to drive his wife insane. In the opera, which is based on The Bride of Lammermoor, a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lucia goes insane. Even better, a letter figures prominently in both. How I envy the man or woman who watches Gaslight and actually gets all this! Why, with all that education, they'd have to be very model of a modern major-general.

Details, details. Gaslight is a movie with many lovely details. Another, in the previous vein, is that Paula reads from Charlotte Bronte's Villette, which also includes some of the same themes as this film. (I didn't get that one, either, having not read the book.) Most of them, however, are more generally accessible, like one involving a glove and its missing mate. The trouble is, the whole doesn't quite equal the parts.

I won't go all feminist on you and explain why Paula's passivity and submissiveness are abhorrent -- partly because I don't even believe that; still, speaking as a human being, I feel that she could have done more in her own defense. Not that it would have been easy. The idea is, traumatized by her mother's death, Paula falls in love with a man who dreams of living in a house in London. Paula, of course, owns just such a house -- her mother's, to which she hasn't returned since the tragedy. On edge already, Paula is pushed further by Gregory, her husband, who keeps her closed in the house and turns the servants, who are Paula's only real contact with the outside world, against her. He does things like hiding a picture and then asking her where it's gone, insinuating she took it and forgot all about it. It takes its toll. Yet being told that you are insane is rather like hallucinating. I scoff when characters see things that plainly aren't there and go on with their lives without a second thought (this happens far too often), and I scoff here at Paula, who resists Gregory's psychological assaults only in her mind. In my mind, I am screaming, Do something, for crying out loud!

A bigger problem is Gregory. Gregory has a reason for doing all this. But if he is the picture of methodical planning and execution in the matter of wrecking Paula's sanity, he is inexplicably haphazard and disorganized in his deeper plot. It makes no sense at all.

Undeniably, though, Ingrid Bergman is a beautiful Paula. She is well-paired here with George Cukor, famously known as a "woman's director." (While the epithet has validity, one wonders, given the director's sexual orientation, if it wasn't also intended as a slur.) More importantly, she plays the part well; she won the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance. Charles Boyer is also quite good, being by turns thoroughly charming and darkly menacing.

Details, details. Gaslight, set in the Edwardian era, also won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. It's a pretty film, and all that gas lighting is very romantic. In a tortured souls kind of way.

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review 2014-09-26 23:27
Swordspoint: A Melodrama of Manners - Ellen Kushner

If I could sum this book up in one statement, it is:
This is one of those books I could discuss often and probably change my mind about very easily.

Isn't it funny how you get around to reading some books by accident?    I picked up the sequel to Swordspoint during an Audible sale.   I was excited to get to it, because Neil Gaiman produced? Helped to produce? it.   Neil is an excellent audiobook narrator and an audiobook afficionado, which I find kind of awesome, and he is helping to bring some of his favorites to audiobook.

So I picked up this book, Gaiman junkie that I am, and during the introduction, he drops that this is the second in the Riverside series, so back to Audible I go to get this.

And I listened.
It's not my preferred style of audiobook, with multiple narrators.   I'm a little peeved that the multiple narrators are not used throughout the book, but only during passages  deemed important or those with heightened tension.   You have Kushner giving the audiobook it's "regular" read for most of the book (and she is good), but then the characters have their own voices.  It's just... odd.   And I don't like the sound effects (swords clashing, walking, horses, shouting).   I eventually got used to it, but I would not recommend this book in this format.


Onto the actual substance of the book - I don't think this is fantasy, strictly speaking.  It's much more historical fiction/romance set in an imaginary time & place.   There's no magic or anything otherwordly that distracts from the main story line.

We have the set up of the nobleman/aristocracy who run an unnamed City and the people who live in it.    One of the main characters, Richard, is a swordsman, which nobles will hire out to duel, challenge others on honor, be honor guards for weddings, etc.

Richard is living in the poorest area of the city with his lover, Alec.   He is engaged by noblemen to do different killings/duels.

The other part of the story line is the shenanigans of the noblemen and their maneuvering around the political and social sphere.


The world building was really good.  The writing was solid and very easy to follow.   I can't say that I just adored this book, but I was interested in it, and the political machinations of the characters and how Richard was caught up in it, but I was not interested in any of the characters (well, except maybe the Duchess).    Richard is a sociopath who is in love with Alec, for no reason I can discern, and Alec is a troubled, cynical, and really annoying youth who I neither like nor care about.    

I did like the politics and social maneuvering, and I think this book lives up a bit to the idea that it's an Austen-esque take on a fantastical society.   It gives the foibles, humor, mockery and silliness of antiquated situations, which was cute (best word I can think of there).


I was a little bit peeved, though, because while the book was very open with male non-heteronormative behavior (apparently homosexual behavior among men was nothing to raise an eyebrow at and quite common), you don't see any glimpses of these kind of relationships between women, and women were still stuck subservient in a very strong patriarchal system.

I had a hard time wondering why we couldn't have stronger women, lesbian relationships, or a more egalitarian system while we're totally accepting of (male) homosexual behavior, and from a woman writer, no less. 

I don't know, the story was interesting, interesting enough that I was curious about what happened next and immediately started The Privilege of the Sword, and I did like it overall, I think.   

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review 2014-07-04 21:20
Review: The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
The Kitchen House - Kathleen Grissom

I tried approaching The Kitchen House with an open mind and dismiss the overall melodramatic tone of the book, but I am quite puzzled by the extent to which this book has gained popularity among readers and book clubs.  The story is premised around a young Irish girl named Lavinia who is sold as an indentured servant to plantation owners in Virginia and whose formative years are shaped by slaves who take her in and raise her as if she is their own kin.  While Lavinia's naivety can be excused in the beginning chapters of the book due to her age and lack of understanding of American society when she first immigrates to this country, it kind of blows my mind that the author continues to portray Lavinia as some innocent sacrificial lamb.  It's completely implausible that a character like Lavinia remains oblivious to slavery or to the fact that she is also property owned by other human beings.  I just don't buy that a child raised by slaves on a plantation can be so colorblind and make so many dumb and misinformed decisions.


Even though some of the brutality of slavery is accurately captured in the narrative, I thought a lot of the events that unfolded cheapened the story and were created solely for the purpose of entertainment and to create a "shock factor" as opposed to really examining the origins of racism and slavery in American history and how this destructive system has shaped this "great" country as we know it today.  Today is July 4th and while all the festivities scheduled today in celebration of America's independence are good fun, it would do well to remember the dark history of this country and how so many people lived here for centuries without freedom of choice or the right to live the lives they wanted.


I won't go into too much depth about how much the depiction of women really bothered me in this book, but the female characters are all permissive, meek, love-sick fools.  Horrible things are done to them but they all somehow manage to rally together in their misery and bond with each other after they are exposed to abuse and cruelty at the hands of white men (and yes, all the men who are not slaves in this book are basically evil or despicable - even good ole' Will Stephens grossly proclaims later in the story that he always thought of twelve year old Lavinia as 'his girl.' **gags**).  Mama Mae and Belle are perhaps the two most complex and interesting characters in the book, but as events unfold their struggles become kind of pointless. 


It's also so irritating how many times a character states something to the effect of, "I just know something bad is coming or about to happen," and then you turn the page and someone dies, is raped, is beaten, or is sold to another plantation.  I'm sorry, but the writing is not so wonderful and I would steer clear of The Kitchen House as there are other books that do a much better job addressing slavery and its lingering impact on the U.S.




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