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review 2020-03-02 13:11
The Pretender: A Blackguard in Disguise by Ta'Mara Hanscom
The Pretender: A Blackguard in Disguise by - Ta Mara Hanscom

In April 1975, Tillie Caselli is a starry-eyed 17-year-old artist and Noah Hansen is a 23-year-old Vietnam War veteran and charming alcoholic. Noah doesn't realize it, but his preacher older brother is about to kick him out, a last-ditch effort to hopefully scare him into straightening himself out. It turns out that isn't necessary, however, because all Noah needs is a little motivation in the form of the beautiful, sweet, and proper Tillie. They meet while Tillie is in town for an art show. Tillie technically isn't allowed to date until she's 18, and certainly not without a chaperone, and Noah doesn't realize that she's still a minor. But it's love at first sight, and Tillie, keeping her family's story about knights and blackguards in mind, keeps an eye on Noah's behavior and is sure that he's a knight. From the moment Noah meets her, he doesn't touch a drop of alcohol and behaves like a perfect gentleman.

They promise to meet again and properly introduce Noah to Tillie's parents, but a misunderstanding comes between them. Noah prepares for a future with Tillie, not realizing that her heart has been broken by the belief that he's actually a blackguard. Meanwhile, Alex, the young lawyer Tillie had a crush on before she met Noah, has decided to court Tillie properly.

Okay, I'm going to start with some context. I picked up the first three books in this five-book series at the 2019 Book Bonanza, a convention intended primarily for romance readers. There were literal pallets of these books being given out, and I'm sure a lot of people assumed, as I did, that these were romance novels.

The author markets this series as "clean romance woven with Biblical truths," but there's no evidence of this on the book covers - the Bible quotes at the start of the books are the first indications of what you're getting into. When I grabbed the books at Book Bonanza, I assumed that this was a romance series in which the individual books focused on the self-contained romances of different members of the Caselli family, similar to many of Nora Roberts' trilogies. The Christian and family saga aspects were a surprise, and I'm glad I read a few reviews after getting a few pages into the first book, so that I could revise my expectations.

The bulk of this was okay, although far too slow-paced for my tastes. I wasn't wild about the relationship between Tillie and Noah - Tillie and anyone, honestly. She struck me as painfully naive and immature, someone who needed more time and space to grow, and yet the author kept pairing her up with grown men. Tillie was 17, Noah was 23, and Alex was 25, and although there were some concerns expressed about the various age differences, everyone brushed those aside extremely quickly.

There was a soap opera-like appeal to the story. If Tillie hadn't been so flighty and immature, a lot of her and Noah's future woes could have been done away with in an instant, but she was a 17-year-old idiot, so instead readers were treated to a year and a half of them gradually mending their hearts and building separate lives...which intersected just enough to keep readers wondering when they'd meet again. Considering how things turn out for the both of them by the end of the book, though, I have no idea how Hanscom plans to give them a traditional romance HEA without killing off other characters, having characters divorce each other (which I'm not entirely sure Hanscom would approve of), or having characters cheat on their spouses (which I know Hanscom wouldn't approve of).

It was the soap opera aspect that kept me reading, despite my dislike of the age gap and my impatience with some of the more overt religious aspects of the story. Unfortunately, the story dragged, focusing on things that either bored me, like the Caselli family apple picking festival, or aggravated me, like Tillie's pouting over her brother Petrice's marriage. There was some kind of police or FBI investigation mixed in, involving Tillie's brother Marquette and his wife Tara, that could have been interesting, except that the details were hard to follow - I got the impression Hanscom was far less comfortable writing those parts than she was with everything else.

I could put up with some of the story's religious aspects, but there were parts that made me grit my teeth. Mine and Hanscom's worldviews definitely did not match up. First, the purity culture stuff. The Caselli family had an ironclad rule about chaperoning Caselli girls who dated before age 18, which was why it was so shocking that Tillie went out on a date with Noah without getting permission first (never mind that her being 17 and him being 23 should have been a bigger deal than the unchaperoned date). Incidentally, Hanscom may have introduced an anachronism with her commitment to the purity culture stuff - Tillie wore a purity ring, and I don't think those came into use until the 1990s.

There were a few other little things here and there that bothered me, but the multi-page anti-abortion bit was particularly bad. A not particularly religious character got pregnant and said she was planning to get an abortion since she couldn't be with the father and since she was a drunk who couldn't care for a child. She was then counseled by multiple characters who told her "If you have an abortion you'll regret it for the rest of your life. You might even die. (Anecdote about a girl who killed herself after her abortion.) And also, abortions are terrifying. (Anecdote about a greasy "doctor" who scared off a terrified girl who'd been about to get an illegal abortion, never mind that safer legal options were now available.)" But they didn't just want to talk her out of having an abortion. If she planned to keep the baby rather than give it up for adoption, she needed to marry so that she wouldn't be a single mother. The result was a terrible decision that added to the overall soap opera feel of the book, but this time not in an even vaguely fun way.

In a lot of ways, this wasn't as bad as I'd expected it to be. I was interested enough in the characters to read reviews of some of the later books, in order to try to figure out what happened to them. However, I'm not interested enough to actually continue reading the series. I suspect Hanscom wants readers to root for Tillie and Noah as a couple, but at this point I think they're better off not seeing each other again. The soap opera appeal is still there, but it's not worth putting up with more achingly slow pacing and Christian moralizing.

Extras:

A "special message to the reader" specifically about the book's "proverbial 'wanton woman,'" the character who wanted an abortion. It underscored that the author and I really, really do not have the same worldview. Also, a one-page preview of the next book in the series.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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review 2020-02-09 18:47
Complex family relationships and serious issues in a long book for devoted Keyes’s fans
Grown Ups - Marian Keyes

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK-Michael Joseph for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Marian Keyes is a very well-known and popular Irish author, but this is the first novel of hers I read and therefore I can’t compare it to her previous novels. Based on reviews, some readers feel that it is less tight and less funny than some of her other books, but not everybody agrees. I’ll leave it to her fans to make their own minds up.

This novel is the story of a family, well, or of the families of three Irish brothers, John, Ed and Liam Casey, their wives and children. It is a family saga of sorts, although it does not cover several generations of the same family. I must confess that when I read the description I thought this would be the story of what happened when Cara, due to her concussion, started spilling the beans about everything and everybody, and how that would evolve. But Keyes uses that point in the story as the introduction to the characters, and then goes back in time, to a few months earlier, so we learn the reasons behind some of the secrets she reveals, and we also learn a lot about the characters. A lot. This is a very long book, and at first the timeline can seem confusing because of the initial scene, but once we go back in time, the novel progresses in a chronological order (not perfect, because often the characters will remember their past, how the couples met, or details of their previous lives, and those will be interspersed with the actual events), up to the point where it catches up with the birthday celebration dinner for Johnny (quite late in the book), and then moves forward until the end of the novel. We learn about each couple and each individual (at least the adults, not so much the children), although we learn more about the women than about the men: we learn about Jessie’s role in organising family events, inviting everybody and keeping the family together; we read about Cara, who is eminently practical and loves hotels but lacks in confidence in other areas and suffers from a very unhealthy relationship with food (that develops into a full blown bulimia); we read about Nell, the newcomer to the family, an unconventional theatre designer whom everybody loves despite (or perhaps because) of her unique style; and about the brothers:  Johnny, who married the widow of his best friend and is at times overwhelmed by his wife’s need to control and organise and by the legacy of her previous marriage; Ed, who is the kindest and more supportive of the three; and Liam, who seems attractive, light and fun to begin with but  things aren’t always as they seem. Ferdia, Jessie’s son from her first marriage, is a young man who changes enormously through the novel. Oh, and he is a hunk, as we are reminded quite often.

As you can imagine from the description, the book delves into secrets, family relationships (these three families are very enmeshed and that explains some of the bizarre happenings), the nature of love, trust, confidence, self-worth, how relationships change over the years, there is an important subplot about body image and bulimia (very well done, in my opinion), parenting…  There are also funny/dreadful murder-mystery parties, luxury hotels, alternative festivals, romance (with some age difference)… This is not a page turner in the sense of a plot moved by action and suspense. It is more like a soap opera where the lives of the characters ebb and flow, with some peaks of excitement, triumphs and disappointments.

I have mentioned the main characters, although there are many others, including the younger children, friends, work colleagues, staff at the different places where they spend time, collaborators, and although some of the secondary characters are quite memorable, and I didn’t dislike the main characters either (apart from one, but no spoilers), I can’t say I connected with any of them in particular. I liked Nell, Cara (her struggle with bulimia is one of the most realistic and best written parts of the book for me), and Ed, but I didn’t feel personally invested in their stories, although I kept reading, and it’s a long book, so that is saying something.

The story is narrated in the third person from the alternating point of view of the main characters, especially the females, but we also get snippets of what the men think at times. The change in point of view can take place sometimes within the same chapter (several of the characters can meet at an event, for example, and the point of view will then follow someone else), but I didn’t find it confusing, as they are all very different, and we quickly learn to tell them apart.

Keyes writing flows well, and she can easily pass from describing an interior, to making readers share in the state of mind and distress of one of her characters, and although she touches on serious subjects, her writing is not over dramatic or heavy. There are some light scenes, but the book is far from funny overall, although there are moments where the wit of the writer shines through (as I said, some of her habitual readers complained about the novel not being as funny as some of her previous ones, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a laugh-out-loud read). I very much enjoyed the Irish expressions and some of the dialogue sparkled, showing the talent and range of the author. As a little taster, here I leave you with a snippet of a conversation between Jessie and an analyst who is helping her decide how to move her business forward. He is “slightly” creepy.

‘…And the thing is, the thing, Karl that I have just remembered—‘

‘Yeah?’

‘Is that I have a very sexy, non-repulsive husband.’

‘Forty minutes ago you could “never forgive him”.’

‘Time is a great healer.’

The passage is witty but it also illustrates how contradictory we can all be, and there is plenty of that in the novel.

Everything is resolved in the end, and although I think some situations dragged a bit, overall I enjoyed the ending and it fulfilled my expectations.

In sum, this is a book I’d recommend to readers who love stories about big families, especially set in Ireland, who aren’t looking for a lot of laughs, or for diverse characters, and who don’t mind spending a long time with a book. I did wonder if this book wouldn’t have worked better as a collection, with individual volumes being dedicated to each one of the families (I think that at least some of the books, for example the one dedicated to Cara and Ed, would have been stronger), and a tighter edit might also have turned it into a more manageable book for the general public, but I have no doubt that Marian Keyes can write compelling characters, and I’ll check some more of her work in the future. Ah, there are some very mild sex scenes (at least very mild for me, and I don’t like erotica), in case somebody is looking for a totally clean book.

 

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review 2019-11-05 12:43
A beautiful family saga full of magic and compelling writing
The Dutch House - Ann Patchett

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I’ve heard of Ann Patchett but hadn’t read any of her novels until now, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to get started. And I really liked the book cover and was intrigued by the title as well. Having read this novel, I’m sure it won’t be the last of the author’s books I read.

Although most reviews are positive, some readers who are familiar with her previous novels felt disappointed, while others loved it as much, if not more, as her previous work. As I said, I have nothing to compare it with, but I enjoyed it. I loved the characters (most of all), I loved the setting, and the writing, that can be lyrical, touching, and humorous in turns.

This is the story of a family, or, to be precise, of two siblings and the people they meet along the way. Maeve and Danny become a family-unit through unfortunate (and at times bizarre) circumstances. Their mother leaves when Danny, the younger of the two, is only three years old, and Maeve becomes his sister/mother/life coach/career advisor and many more things. Their father, Cyril, a real estate magnate, is consumed by his business and never explains much, either about his background, their mother, or the house, the Dutch House of the title. When he marries Andrea, who has two daughters of her own, things change, and when he dies, things take an even more dramatic turn.

The story, such as it is, is narrated in the first person by Danny, who claims to have intended to tell the story of his sister (a rather extraordinary individual I’d love to meet in real life), but he realised that this could not be done in isolation from his own and from that of many others who had also played parts in the events they might not have been fully aware of at the time. Although there is an overall chronological order to the novel, Danny’s memory sometimes circles back and forth to moments or events that are related or linked, at least in his mind, to what he is thinking or talking about at the time. He explores the memories around the Dutch House (a seemingly mysterious place although things don’t go in the direction readers might expect), and how the different people seem to have contrasting versions of what went on and totally different feelings about it as well. Was their mother a saint, or a heartless woman who abandoned her children in her eagerness to help unknown others? Was Andrea a greedy woman (the wicked stepmother of fairy tales) who married their father for his money and then threw them out? Or did she truly love him and resented them for their connection to him? Was Maeve domineering and manipulative or selfless and generous? Why didn’t Danny’s wife, Celeste, and his sister get on? What power did the Dutch House have over its inhabitants?

As I have already mentioned, I loved the characters. Although we don’t get to know all of them completely (this is the story Danny is telling, and at times he can be remarkably lacking in insight and even curiosity), that is part of the charm of the story. This would make a great novel for book clubs, as there is much to discuss, and I am sure different readers will have totally different opinions on the characters and their possible motives and/or justifications. Interpretations are left open, and although there is an end (yes, a happy ending of sorts), the ending does not necessarily provide an explanation for everything that happens, at least not a definitive one. As is the case in real life, people are unknowable, and even those we think we know best can surprise us at times.

I also loved the house. The similarities to a fairy tale are mentioned in the description and in many of the reviews, and perhaps because we first see the house from the perspective of a little boy, there is something magical about it. There are secret drawers, paintings of previous owners, gold leaf decorations, hidden storage places, and the house seems to hold an ongoing influence over those who’ve ever lived or worked there. I would love to visit it, and the combination of grand mansion and some of the characteristics of a gothic castle work well and give it a strong personality, although it might not live up to everybody’s expectations.

I have read some of the negative comments, and I do understand them and don’t necessarily disagree with the points they make, although I feel they don’t detract from the novel. Some people note that there is no plot or story behind it and complain that it is slow. This is a family saga, and as such there is no conventional plot or a great revelation (there are quite a few secrets and misunderstandings that get cleared out, but that is not the same) at the end. Because this is a book about memory, family life, growing older, and forgiveness, it is not a straightforward narration or a page-turner where the main point is to keep the action moving. Life happens at its own pace; there are funny moments, sad moments, enlightening moments, inspiring ones, and disappointments as well. The writing is compelling, but people who love stories full of action and a quick pace should not attempt this novel, unless they are willing to try something different. Some readers also complain that some of the storylines are unrealistic… Well, this is a novel, and I’ve read some that required a much higher degree of suspension of disbelief than this one, but I am sure realism is not what the author was after.

I loved this novel and would recommend it to readers who appreciate a focus on character, beautiful writing, and some touches of magic and are fond of the adult fairy-tale. As usual, I recommend readers who aren’t sure if they’d enjoy it or not, to try a book sample and see how they feel. I look forward to reading more of Patchett’s stories in the future. I have the feeling that they won’t disappoint.

 

 

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review 2019-09-08 19:49
Heartland by Sarah Smarsh
Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth - Sarah Smarsh

This book is poverty memoir, family saga and nonfiction piece rolled into one. The family memoir is interesting and enjoyable. The nonfiction aspect, though, is hamstrung by the author’s refusal to cite her sources. And the whole book is jumbled together, jumping from one topic to the next without taking the time to fully consider and develop ideas or draw important distinctions.

Sarah Smarsh grew up poor in rural Kansas. On her mom’s side, she came from several generations of high-crisis poverty: women who dropped out of school young, had babies as teenagers with the wrong men, and were constantly on the move, escaping from one bad situation into another. Smarsh got lucky in that before her birth, her grandmother married a stable farmer; when her parents’ lives were too chaotic, she moved in with her grandparents at the farm, and her grandfather and father loved and cared for her, unlike many of the men in her female relatives’ lives. But the farm was always poor despite the family’s hard work; everyone had to struggle to make ends meet, and in working hard to get through school and escape her family’s way of life, Smarsh had to struggle against everything her family knew, remaking herself into a person they hardly recognized.

Smarsh's writing is good, the stories compelling, and Smarsh delves into the emotional effects of her own life and her family’s lives, while also discussing the bigger picture and the trends in America. She does a great job of empathizing with her family members and portraying them fairly and sympathetically, even when their issues and their actions were hurtful to her. At the same time, the subject is all jumbled: each (long) chapter has a broad theme, and while her story of her own life is mostly chronological, within each chapter she’ll tell various excerpts of the lives of her mother, father, grandmother, and sometimes even great- and great-great-grandparents, and then intersperse it with historical information and political opinions. While perhaps less artistic, I think the family saga would have made a lot more sense in chronological order, rather than telling different bits of the same person’s life story in different places scattered all throughout the book.

And the broader nonfiction aspect also leaves something to be desired. The author includes no citations, nor even a list of the works that had the greatest influence on this one; she notes only at the beginning that “Points on United States and world history, politics, public policy, and other matters beyond the private experience are based on news stories, studies, and books I deemed accurate and reliable in my capacity as a journalist. They are conveyed with my perspective.” Oh, come on. Journalism isn’t supposed to be taken on faith; you tell us where you got your information, and then we can evaluate it. And this is a shame also for those interested in delving further into some of the topics discussed.

Then too, the author – who apparently has political ambitions – seems eager to speak for poverty as a whole, even while noting that her young life as a poor farmer is so unusual in today’s America that many of the friends she made later assumed it was a lifestyle that no longer existed. Her family is resourceful and even self-sufficient in ways that are rare today: they produce at least some of their own food; they build and repair their own houses. Smarsh’s family carries a lot of social problems – lots of drinking and partying, teen pregnancy, violent or absent fathers, constantly moving from one place to another and changing schools – but she also inherited a connection to the land and a trove of practical skills and knowledge that I think distinguishes her from most poor Americans. She’s really discussing two different types of poverty here – that of her mother’s family and that of her grandfather – but never acknowledges the distinction, nor that many people in poverty have an experience unlike either of these.

I generally enjoyed reading this book; I liked the author’s voice, in spite of her addressing the book to an imaginary daughter, and I found her and her family’s stories interesting and compelling. But I don’t like authors expecting me to take their arguments on faith, and I found the nonfiction aspects shallow.

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review 2019-08-11 18:07
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water by Michael Dorris
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water - Michael Dorris

Next time I’m tempted to wax poetic about how great fiction editing used to be, or to worry that a poorly conceived new release is evidence of the profession’s demise, I’ll remind myself of this book. This distinctively 80s mess of unrealized potential and terrible editing choices.

This is a family saga, beginning in Seattle with a biracial teenager, Rayona, whose mother, Christine, suddenly decides they are going back to Montana, to the reservation where Christine grew up. The first large chunk of the book is told from Rayona’s point-of-view, the second, slightly larger chunk from Christine’s, and then a small segment at the end comes from the family matriarch, Ida.

The first mistake is that it’s all told in the first person. It goes almost without saying that all three voices sound the same; first-time novelists love to do multiple narrators and they always turn out this way. But here this is more than a literary criticism; the voice is so jarringly wrong for both Rayona and Christine – who together narrate 80% of the book – that it distanced me from their characters. For fifteen-year-old Rayona – apparently a cautious, sensitive girl – it’s far too detached, ironic, world-weary, mature. And for Christine too – heedless, self-deluding, emotional – it’s too detached, too self-aware. Only for Ida, who really is a tough, bitter, independent, too-old-for-your-shit type, does it work. It took me quite awhile to realize that this disconnect between character and voice was what was throwing me out of their stories. But in the end I think I only got to know Rayona or Christine when not in their heads.

The second mistake is the pacing. At 372 pages, the book is on the longer side for realistic fiction, and it has enough plot for maybe half those pages. Mostly Dorris disguises the lack of forward momentum with – or perhaps loses it in – overly detailed but ultimately unimportant scenes. And the lack of focus, the unnecessary words and scenes, corrode the story both on a macro level and a scene-by-scene one. A five-page scene details Christine’s buying a membership in a video rental club. Meanwhile, Christine’s entire 153-page POV section contains only 10 pages at the end that don’t overlap with Rayona’s; overwhelmingly, this middle chunk is spent rehashing things we already know or could infer from Rayona’s section. And Rayona’s section, too, spends a lot of time developing her relationships with minor characters and settings which then never appear again. I seriously considered quitting the novel in the middle.

But here’s an example so that you can judge for yourself. In this scene, Christine is finally alone with her former nemesis – her brother’s best friend – just after the brother’s funeral:

“The waitress arrived to take our order, and I paid her my full attention. She must have been sixty-five, but all the same she gave Dayton the once-over while she waited for us to decide. Dayton had a Montanaburger with fries, and I had the meatloaf plate with a tossed salad on the side.

“What kind of dressing you want with that, hon?” She peered at me from above her black and rhinestone glasses frames.

“What do you have?”

“French, Thousand Island, Green Goddess, and Creamy Italian,” she recited.

“Italian,” I said, like a city girl who knew her way around.

“I need a à la carte Italian,” she called across the serving counter into the kitchen, and tacked the page with our orders on a metal wheel, though we were the only ones eating. The cook spun it to see what to fix.

Red and green holiday tinsel still lined the doors and a string of colored lights framed the mirror behind the bar. The waitress moved from table to empty table, sashaying her hips as she straightened the ketchup bottles. She had a high bouffant the color of washed-out lace, exactly like the angel hair that swirled beneath the artificial tree with gold ornaments that was balanced on a table at the end of the room. She was decorated too. Over her beige turtleneck she wore a black felt bolero with MERRY and CHRISTMAS written in green glitter on either side, and around her neck hung a pendant made from a Bic lighter in a gold lamé case. It swung like a charm between her low breasts.”


Look, I don’t care about this diner or waitress that we’ll never see again. I’m here for the interaction between Christine and Dayton – which winds up getting less page time than the exhaustive description of the restaurant and its menu.

The third mistake is the ending, and there too, Dorris’s writing is tripped up by lack of proportion – by which I mean, a failure to allocate the most space, and the most important space, to the parts of the story that are important, while compressing the minor details into smaller and less prominent segments. There isn’t really an ending here. Rayona’s and Christine’s sections end at seemingly random points, and then Ida’s section turns out to be entirely backstory, ending when Christine was an adolescent, and neither giving Ida’s viewpoint on the subsequent bitter conflict between the two women, nor providing any resolution in the present.

But there’s one aspect of the ending that was particularly curious to me: both Rayona’s and Ida’s sections end on a discussion of Christine’s adolescent religious disenchantment, which doesn’t seem to be important to Christine herself at all. At most, this episode supplies a simplistic answer to the question “why is Christine a party girl?”, which isn’t a question I expect to be at the forefront of any reader’s mind.

The questions the novel does raise, and then never answers, in order of importance as I saw it: What does Rayona’s future hold? Where will she live, what sort of understanding will she reach with the other major characters, will she break gender barriers in rodeo, will she ever return those blasted videotapes? Why is Ida so bad at showing her love? Will Christine ever accept responsibility for what she did to Lee? Were Lee and Dayton a couple?

(spoiler show)

I wound up wondering if perhaps Dorris gave this episode such prominent billing because he intended the novel to be a critique of religion, or at least of Christian outsiders on reservations – but that doesn’t really fit the rest of the novel. The priests, while of questionable morality, are minor characters who act to facilitate decisions other people have already made, rather than driving the action themselves.

In the end, the frustration never paid off. There was potential in the characters and plot and settings, and that kept me reading. But ultimately, like the title itself, this book consists of too many words with too little meaning (the raft, while visited, is never particularly important). I wouldn’t recommend it.

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