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review 2020-06-16 11:27
Will leave you with a smile
The Lake Never Tells - Alex Tully

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team, and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

This is the first of Tully’s books I’ve read, although it is the third novel she has published, and in the ‘About the author’ section of her page and her books she describes her stories as ‘feel good’ stories, and she states that she hopes ‘readers will smile after turning the last page’. Well, hope accomplished, as far as I’m concerned.

The book description provides enough clues as to the general plot of the story. This is the story of a summer that changed the lives of the young characters at the centre of the story. Two of them, Zoe and Parker, live in a trailer park at the shore of a lake, just a stone’s throw from a posh resort ‘Crystal Waters’. They both have unconventional families (Parker lost his mother in tragic circumstances, never met his father, and lives with his grandmother, who is the strict but fair and wonderful Shirley; while Zoe lives with her single Mom, Debbie, who refuses to take responsibility for anybody, even herself, and acts much younger than her years). Zoe’s best friend, Meredith, the daughter of the local sheriff, can be pushy and harsh at times, but she is also funny and amusing, and always has Zoe’s back. Ethan, a young boy from the posh side of the divide who has come for the summer, somewhat stumbles into their group dragging his own problems with him. Although his life and circumstances might seem charmed from the outside, his parents’ relationship is a sham, and he suffered a traumatic event one year ago that he has not fully recovered from. It has changed him and turned him into somebody quite different. As the novel advances, we come to realise that Ethan’s change might have been for the better, even if that is not so evident for him at the beginning of the story. The novel fits well into the YA genre, and although the characters are put to the test and have to confront some harsh truths about themselves and others, these are not extreme, brutal or too challenging, and I think the book would be suited to fairly young teens as well, although I’d recommend parents to check it out because there are mentions of drugs, mental health difficulties, a suspicious death, a suggestion of sexual harassment, as well as divorce and drinking.

I liked the way the story is told. It starts with a hook, as we follow Parker on the 5th of July when he makes a shocking discovery, and then we go back a few weeks, to learn more about the characters and how they came to this point. The story is told in the third person, but from the points of view of the three main protagonists, Zoe, Parker, and Ethan, and their emotions and thoughts feel suitable to their ages (Parker is only 11, and he behaves appropriately to his age) and to their circumstances. I also liked the way we get and insight into Ethan’s disturbing thoughts and the way he tries to deal with them. We don’t learn what happened to him until quite late in the story, but by that time we’ve got to know him as he is now, and we can empathise with him even more. The way he and Zoe behave with Parker, as if he were their younger brother, is heart-warming.

I liked Zoe, because she is strong and determined, and I liked the way Meredith can be annoying but also amusing and supportive, and she usually helps lighten up the atmosphere. Shirley is a great character, although like all the adult characters, she does not play as big a part in the story as the young people.

The element of mystery is well resolved and integrated into the story, and I particularly enjoyed the fact that this is not a story of amateur detectives that can find answers and clues the police have missed, pushing the suspension of disbelief, but one where the characters are involved in the story because this is a small community and people’s lives become easily entangled. I also enjoyed the red herrings, twists, and revelations, and the resolution of the plot is very satisfying and hopeful.

The writing is simple and straight forward, without unnecessarily lengthy descriptions, but the author still manages to create a good sense of place and, especially, of the feeling of friendship and affection between the protagonists.

I cannot highlight any major negatives for me. Readers who are looking for diverse characters might not find them here (there are major differences in social class, and this is something the book focuses on, and one of the characters suffers from mental health issues, but no issues of genre, or race are discussed), and although I enjoyed the ending, the fact that the author decides to share the same scene from the point of view of the three main characters in succession results in some minor unavoidable repetitions. This slows down the ending a bit, but it wasn’t something that bothered me in particular. Each chapter is told from a single point of view (apart from the final one), and it is clearly labelled, so that does not cause confusion. I also missed some more interaction between Ethan and his twin sister, who hardly makes an appearance during the book. Ethan thinks about her at times, but she does not have a presence, and she is the only one of the younger characters I didn’t feel I had got to know. Even Heather, one of the cabana girls working with Zoe, has a bigger part than her. Other than that, the book flows well and is fairly cohesive, although the action speeds up towards the end, as is usually the case with mysteries.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy YA fiction, especially, as the author says, ‘feel-good’ fiction, where some important subjects are discussed but in a sensitive rather than a challenging manner. It is an ode to friendship and hope, and it feels particularly suited to the times we’re living. And it will leave readers with a smile. 

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review 2020-06-14 00:38
Inheritances sellable and not
The Telling - Ursula K. Le Guin

I don't know what it is with Ursula Le Guin, but every one of her books, whatever the rate I end up giving the whole, have at least one instance where she emotionally wreaks me, and it's always exquisite. It's like looking at the page and feel like telling her "Damn, that's one beautiful dagger you are stabbing me with"*

I feel like pointing it out just because in this case, since it happens to clear my 3stars Le Guin base bar with ease to nestle by World is Forest, Forgiveness, and Left Hand. Maybe even like a caveat. Just so I can qualify that I'm biased and it's all emotionally stabbed city here.

And what stabs ME particularly, beyond the punctual sad, is the theme. While at first sight the theme seems to be religion and spirituality vs technologic advance or consumerism, what it's actually about is culture and all the infinite components that make it, and all the ways introducing an outsider element, even with the best intentions, can fuck it up enough for it to devour itself, or at least severely up-heave and endanger, what it's about is balance, and fanaticism, and dogmatic corruption. The Telling is the passing of cultural information. In it's basis, it's words, stories, oral and written, and funnily enough, when it comes down to it, science and religion are part of it, right along with dances, meals, music, rites, customs, history.

That is my interpretation for this book. As a person that loves books, and myths, and folklore, that seats to watch movies and series as a bonding activity with my family, that cleans while blasting music, that was taught religion formally even if never practiced, that learnt my regional dances from my grandmother and uncles, to cook from my grandfather, to love reading from my mother, and science from my father, this is like a love letter received, and like a verbalization of all that strange juggling or balancing act one does inside with all the pieces that make home/root/culture and seem incongruous, or even like they'd require alternate suspense of disbelief and double-though. Culture is a mess, and it's incongruous, and unfathomably vast, and it's made of big and little pieces that sometimes contradict, and it does never really make sense. But it's the ground you stand upon; to try to erase it is to loose your step. And its life-blood is the word.


*(and if you get internet in heaven, I hope you get this... from my catholic raised, agnostic leaning towards atheism ass... which is a bad joke that only makes sense in theme)

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review 2020-05-17 01:46
BL Metamorphosis (manga, vol. 1) by Kaori Tsurutani, translated by Jocelyne Allen
BL Metamorphosis, Vol. 1 - Kaori Tsurutani,Jocelyne Allen

Note: I've seen a few places online tag this as "boys' love." While it includes characters that read that genre, as well as a few panels and pages of the works they read, this is absolutely not a "boys' love" series, in case the cover doesn't make that clear.

Ichinoi is in her 70s and lives a quiet life. Her husband died a while ago and her daughter lives in another country, so most of the people she sees on a regular basis are the children and elderly people who come to her for calligraphy lessons. This changes when she goes to a bookstore for the first time in a while and buys a manga volume because it has beautiful artwork. She figures it will be like the manga she read when she was younger, but it turns out to be a romantic "boys' love" (BL, m/m) series. She ends up hooked and goes back to the bookstore for more volumes, attracting the attention of one of the store's employees, Urara, a high school student and huge BL fan.

Right Stuf has started including more reviews on their blog, and it was one of those reviews that prompted me to buy this. The artwork wasn't the style I'm normally attracted to, but the premise, a budding cross-generational friendship prompted by a shared love of BL manga, made me want to read it immediately.

This was a wonderful first volume. Urara desperately wanted friends with whom she could talk to about the things she loved, but she was too shy, and possibly too worried about how others would react to the things she wanted to gush about. Ichinoi was less shy, and she was the one to take the first steps in her and Urara's friendship, inviting Urara out for tea.

I loved how friendly, positive, and open-minded Ichinoi was. I also loved watching Urara try to navigate the potential hazards in this new friendship. When Ichinoi asked for manga recommendations, it was like the floodgates had opened up for Urara. She could think of lots of titles to recommend but was afraid of making a misstep and ruining things. Ichinoi had already defied Urara's expectations by enjoying a manga featuring a sweet gay romance, but would manga with on-page sex scandalize her?

This volume also touches a bit on Urara's school life - the one person her own age that she talks to is her childhood friend, a guy who's dating someone else and who I think she might have a bit of a crush on.

My biggest issue with this first volume was that it was very short. Also, it's setting off various alarm bells that make me wonder whether I should wait until a few more volumes have come out and I can hunt for spoilers before continuing on. Unlike A Man and His Cat, another series I recently started reading featuring an older protagonist, this one screams "will end with the death of the older character, after the younger character has learned to be more assertive." I like Ichinoi so far, and that would wreck me. I'm also not sure how I feel about the hints that Urara might have an unrequited crush on her childhood friend. It depends on how it gets handled, I suppose.

Extras:

A full-color illustration and a 2-page afterword manga featuring Ichinoi making and eating milk jelly.

 

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

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review 2020-05-01 22:53
Hives, colonization, and what makes one rebel
Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

This was a ride and a half and I did not expect it to be this good or turn out this serious.

 

You know everything HAD to have gone to pot for the ship to end in one body, sure. I was ready for an action/adventure sci-fi romp, and in a way, it is that. What surprised me was how hard it goes into the social issues inherent in colonization, how it explores the notion of identity and how it can be more than one thing, going double for entities that work more like a hive. "I'm at war with myself" is a very psychological statement that seems to be a theme for many characters, and ultimately gets very literal in this sci-fi set up.

 

There is also the constant coming back to the duality system of belief, the idea that fate is as it's tossed, and so you might as well choose your step, one after the other (sounds a lot like Taoist beliefs to me, plus the idea of hitzusen). What I found interesting is how it delves into thoughts and intentions vs actions, and obliquely (or at least, what I took from the whole sample of characters) how in the moment of truth you don't know who will be that will make the selfless choice (because when it comes right down to it, sometimes people don't even realize it was the moment of truth till it passed), but also, that past choices define next ones, but not in the way one would suspect (because sometimes, the feel that you chose wrong might make you very, very set and vigilant to choose differently afterwards)...

 

Aaaand, yeah, I got right down philosophical. I think it was all that loooong interrupted chat between Toren and Anaander Mianaai. It made me go "oh, shit" in so may directions. Very interesting.

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review 2020-05-01 15:28
Recommended to lovers of Southern literature and beautiful writing
Little Tea - Claire Fullerton

I received an ARC copy of this novel, pre-release, from the author, which I freely chose to review. This has in no way affected my opinion.

I have never read any of the author’s previous books, but I’ve read many positive reviews, and I couldn’t let the opportunity of reading this novel pass me by, especially because of the setting of the story in the American South, as I’m a fan of Southern literature.

The story centres on Celia Wakefield from old Southern Mississippi stock whose family has a cotton farm (no longer called cotton plantations) although now they spend most of their time in the city, Memphis. She is the narrator of the story (in the first person), and a phone call from one of her best friends (Renny, Ava and her became friends in college and have remained in touch through the years, even though now they all live far away and don’t see each other as much as they’d like) sets the action in motion. The three friends reunite to help Ava, who is facing a family crisis. At Renny’s lake house, in Arkansas, they renew their friendship, talk about life, and can’t help but remember the past. As a consequence, the chapters alternate, some set in the present and others in the 1980s when Celia was a young girl. We learn about Little Tea, Celia’s friend, the daughter of an African-American family who’d always lived in the Wakefield’s farm and worked there. She is determined, a great runner, and one of Celia’s brothers becomes her trainer and encourages her to explore her opportunities. But this is the Deep South, and old social rules and mores still apply, especially when it comes to race. The story builds up slowly, and the present struggles Ava is going through in her relationship highlight not only the different approaches and personalities of the three women, but also how the past influences our decisions and our take on life.

The novel deals with many themes: friendship (and the relationship between the three women feels genuine. There are the shared jokes, the strong bonds, the understanding without saying a word, and also the willingness to leave everything and do an intervention to help a friend in need, even if the other women might not agree with her behaviour), first love, family relationships, memory and the past (can we truly run away from it?), identity and family tradition (how much should we sacrifice to keep the family’s reputation intact? Can we choose who we are and break complete free from our family roots?), race relations, tragedy and mourning among others. Although we see all of this through Celia’s eyes and reflections, the separate timelines and her own hindsight allows us to read between the lines and to perceive things than young Celia wasn’t aware of (or tried not to see). This is achieved in very subtle ways, and although the sphere of the story feels quite intimate and domestic, some the themes it discusses are neither lightweight not easy.

Fullerton creates a varied palette of characters, and I think most readers are likely to identify with one of the three friends (personally, I think I’d get on with Renny best of all, the determined and practical one), who fit in well together because they are quite different but compatible. Little Tea and her family (to a lesser extent) are wonderful characters, and Celia’s family is made up of a variety of personalities and individuals, some likeable and some not, some larger than life, and others quite nasty, but they all are fully achieved and, like them or not, come to life in the story. There are others (Tate, Mark, and some of the other young men in the story, relatives…), and although we learn less about them, we still get to see them from Celia’s perspective, and they play their part, both in the past and in the present. I kept thinking about Tennessee Williams and some of his more memorable characters as I read this novel. His mastery at depicting Southern family life and stripping it back to the bone in his plays is something Fullerton also excels at, although her approach is a more understated.

I know some readers don’t appreciate stories written in the first-person, and I seem to be reading plenty of these at the moment, but the writing is beautiful, lyrical, and it makes readers experience everything, from the heat to the excitement of the first love, and from the smell of the food to the disappointment and pain when life takes an unexpected and cruel turn. The story is preciously observed and told, and it will not suit impatient readers who prefer matter-of-fact writing, with only the most basic descriptions strictly necessary to help move the story forward and short sentences that rarely meander along. There are also plenty of airy and fun moments, especially when the friends are joking and having fun, and those allow readers to have a bit of a break from the most intense and soul-searching parts of the story. The author also uses Southern expressions and vernacular to good effect and this adds to the atmosphere of the novel. I have highlighted plenty of the text, and it’s difficult to choose a sample, but I’ll try (remember that I had access to an ARC copy and the final text might have undergone some minor changes):

Nostalgia has selective memory; it softens the heart and strips the details to leave you with what should have been instead of what was.

Combined, we were a girl complete. Separately, we were inchoate and in need of each other, like solitary pieces of a clock that were useless until assembled, but once assembled, kept perfect time.

Happiness seemed to me to be little more than intermittent highlights that faded to memory like the light of a burned-out star. And what’s more, in the times I thought I had happiness by the handle, I discovered that, all along, there were subterranean forces plotting to tell the rest of the story.

I don’t want to discuss the ending in detail, because I want to avoid spoilers, although there is a big twist at the end. I saw it coming, and I wasn’t particularly convinced by it (in my opinion it would have worked fine for a short story but not so much here), but many readers have liked it and it does not detract from the rest of the novel.

In summary, this is a novel beautifully written and observed, and I’d recommend it to readers who are looking for stories with complex female characters, especially those who love stories set in the South, and to fans of Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, although Fullerton has a lightness of touch that is all her own. A great author to follow, and one I hope to read again in the future.

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