These days I often find myself appreciating classics more than contemporary fiction – but not all classics; there are still books whose quality doesn’t quite live up to their reputation. This is one of those.
Set in early 20th century England, this book follows the adventures of Margaret and her younger sister Helen; these two are certainly appealing characters to a modern audience, being intelligent, thoughtful, socially-conscious youngish women who inherited sufficient funds from their now-deceased parents to live independently and comfortably for life. So they travel and enjoy social and intellectual pursuits and worry about what they should be doing for those less fortunate than themselves. Their liberal guilt is dramatized through two families they encounter: the wealthy Wilcoxes, a sporty family whose focus on their own financial interests lives little room for even basic politeness to anyone else, and the lower-middle-class Leonard Bast, a clerk struggling on the edge of poverty, and his unfortunate wife.
It’s an interesting premise, and the issues of the role of money in people’s lives and of liberal guilt are fairly well-developed. It’s also a reasonably interesting portrayal of England before the First World War; the sisters’ father was German and the determination of both their German and English relatives that their own country is meant to rule the world is treated with gentle irony. Unfortunately, the first half of the book – after a strong opening – loses momentum fast and is almost entirely lacking in plot. Nothing much happens to these characters for a long time; Margaret, our protagonist, glides through the story without struggle; there’s nothing she needs or wants and doesn’t have. The true plot appears around the halfway point, but unfortunately so many character decisions lacked believability that I can’t say much for it in the end. Meanwhile, while some of the issues Margaret ponders remain interesting and relevant today, its philosophical maunderings often left me underwhelmed, and the ideas about the superiority of England haven’t aged well. The rest of my criticism contains a lot of SPOILERS, so beware.
The second half of the book rests on two big eyebrow-raising decisions, and the story finally wraps up with a third. Margaret receives a marriage proposal from Henry Wilcox, and the book never gives any particular reason that she should marry him, aside from the fact that he expresses a liking for her: he’s a smug, self-satisfied conservative old enough to be her father, who embraces self-serving platitudes on both gender and economic inequality and has a nasty tendency to use Margaret’s moments of weakness as evidence of the inferiority of all women. And in the single scene portraying their physical relationship, he leaves Margaret disappointed and confused. And then it turns out that his track record for fidelity is not great. Margaret doesn’t need Henry, yet she gives up her autonomy to be with him – why?
Helen’s encounter with Leonard is equally baffling: she’s presumably a virgin, living in a society where women who have premarital sex are shunned; he’s probably never slept with anyone other than his wife, who is asleep in the next room at the time; he’s in awe of her as his benefactor, and he’s probably none too clean or well-fed; at no point in the story does there appear to be any romantic or sexual attraction between the two. And yet they have sex?
All of which leads to the final confrontation, which is believable enough – and then Forster skips right to the aftermath, perhaps knowing that tracing out these events would strain credibility too much. Helen decides to stay in England even though she’d enjoy more social acceptance in Germany; Henry abruptly loses all concern about Helen’s wayward behavior; Margaret’s magical influence apparently convinces everyone to live together happily every after. Um, okay.
So I didn’t really buy this one. The writing is fine, and many of the issues it raises are important and remain timely. But Forster’s plotting and ability to get the characters to the places where he needs them to be in a believable way left something to be desired.
Six months ago the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and life changed for many people. Alex Moon, a California native with Korean Ancestry is encouraged by his father to join up immediately to fight the Japanese. But Alex has seen what the American people have done to the Japanese-American citizens and refuses his father's request. Because of this, Alex's father sends him on a train to his uncle in Washington, DC. Alex gets off on a train stop in the small town of River Bluff, Indiana only to be accosted and beaten up by locals who see the enemy in Alex's skin color. After being shipped to the police station, Reverend Hicks and his niece, Lonnie Hamilton come to check on Alex and offer him some kindness. Alex finds himself stuck in River Bluff and seeks out a friendship Lonnie. However, the rest of the town is determined to see Alex as one of the men that is fighting their sons overseas. Tensions mount in the small town as Alex and Lonnie's friendship grows into something more. Alex must face his identity as a Korean and American as well as his family's wishes for him.
The War Between Us is a wartime romance that will sweep you off your feet. This is a sweet and clean romance that develops into something much more as the prejudices of an entire town are brought to light. Alex and Lonnie's characters are what brought me into the story and kept me interested. On the surface, this is a simple love story. However, both Lonnie and Alex are complex characters with intriguing stories. From Alex I learned about the feelings and prejudices that Korean and Chinese Americans went through after the Pearl Harbor as well as the complexity of emotions he faced when dealing with people who despised him for what they believed him to be. I did enjoy learning about some Korean customs and food as Alex introduced his culture to Lonnie. Lonnie was also an amazing character who faced a different adversity of not living up to what others had planned for her. Lonnie's grows a lot during the story as her mind shifts and realizes that you can not choose who you love.
This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
Whew. This is a tough one to review, because of the subject matter itself and because it’s difficult to discuss without giving spoilers. The first half of this book is very dark. Although there are important peripheral characters, the main characters are sixteen-year-old Kiera, her mom Moira, and her recently-deceased older sister Hannah. Kiera’s part of the story is told in the first person and Moira’s in third-person limited point of view; Hannah’s story is told through diary entries. As such, the reader is really placed into the mind of each character, and let me reiterate: it’s very dark, especially for the first half of this novel. On the one hand, this really makes the experience realistic and enables the characters to come alive and evoke sympathy, but…maybe it’s a bit too much for too long.
The target audience for “Gone Too Soon” is young adult, and as an adult reading this, I would categorize it as mature young adult or even adult. I loved that this became a story about redemption and coming to terms with grief, with all of the baggage that involves: shame, guilt, anger, depression, etc. However, I feel the need to add a major caveat here. A large percentage of this book is not a feel-good story, and it’s not meant to be. This is about a family truly coming apart at the seams, and it is anything but pretty. It is raw and real, and the first two-thirds or so of the story could be included in a manual about how not to deal with grief. There are plenty of unhealthy coping mechanisms, and for this reason I would issue a trigger warning for suicide, rape, and drug and alcohol abuse. There are no graphic details, but the mindset of the characters are described thoroughly. Given this, I would only recommend this book to those who are looking to help people who are dealing with grief and/or those who are looking for a heartfelt read but who are approaching it from a stable mental health perspective. The later part of this book, about the resolution of the plot, could be helpful as a Christian approach to grief. My main bone of contention with the book as a whole is that while I found it to be an absolutely compelling read and loved that it dealt with real-life issues and brought in a Christian perspective in a realistic, non-preachy manner, I feel that the darkness was too heavy without any whispers of hope for too long before any relief entered the narrative.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. A positive review was not required.
Well, let's just say that none of these three ladies is anywhere near Donna Andrews's league when it comes to cozy mysteries, plotting, character creation, dialogue, and a writer's craft in general. And if I thought Joanna Fluke's entry was disappointing (mediocre plotting and dialogue, character responses that felt forced / didn't make sense, and one of my no-go TSTL behavior tropes as the "big reveal" cue (though I have to hand it to Fluke, the setting and overall scene of the final confrontation with the murderer was inspired)), I'm sorry to have to say that Leslie Meier's contribution did even less for me -- you could scratch off the Hallmark sugar coating with a shovel, virtually NONE of the characters' actions and responses bore even the slightest semblance of realism, and she managed to make 1980s rural Maine come across as more backward than it probably was even in the 1940s and 1950s (while also looking more dripping-with-saccharine-style-homely than any Norman Rockwell picture -- and for the record, I like Norman Rockwell. Or at least I like his Christmas pictures.)
Laura Levine's entry fared a bit better (I'd call it the book's highlight if such a term were appropriate for a muted glow in the midst of two seriously dulled lights); at least she took me right back to L.A. inside my head and the plotting was halfway decent. But her story seriously suffered from an overabundance of quirky characters, not-very-subtle hints at the MC's padded waistline and her resolutions to do something about it (in which she predictably fails on every single occasion -- and yes, I know this actually is an L.A. thing; been there and would have bought the T-shirt, too, if I'd found it funny then, but the last thing I want is to have this sort of fad jammed up my nose with a sledgehammer in a book) -- and an equal overabundance of wannabe hipster slang and coloquialisms ... everything from repeated exclamations like "ugh!", "oh golly!" and "drat!" to "bet my bottom cupcake" (and yes, even there she goes again with the calorie stuff). Oh, and the MC's conversations with her cat and said cat's female-Garfield act got old pretty soon as well.
Oh well. If nothing else, this has made me appreciate the consistently high quality of Donna Andrews's writing even more -- I'll happily be returning to her for my cozy contemporary Christmas mysteries (I just hope she'll reliably continue to produce them for the foreseeable future).
I may try some of the recipes included in this book eventually, though.
Since the audiobook I listened to has a green cover, I'll be using this as my book for the Mawlid square.