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review 2017-11-04 14:06
Ascension of Larks by Rachel Linden
Ascension of Larks - Rachel Linden

When globetrotting photographer Magdalena Henry loses the only man she’s ever loved, she risks her stellar career to care for his widow and young children on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Free-spirited and fiercely independent, Maggie adores her life of travel and adventure. But she has a secret. She can’t let go of her first and only love, renowned architect Marco Firelli, now married to her best friend Lena.

When Marco drowns in a kayaking accident, Maggie rushes to the Firelli family’s summer home on San Juan Island. Once there she discovers that Marco was hiding something that could destroy his family. As fragile, perfectionistic Lena slowly falls apart, Maggie tries to provide stability for Marco and Lena’s three young children. When Maggie is offered a once-in-a-lifetime chance to compete in the world’s most prestigious photography competition, she thinks she’s found the answer to their problems. Then Lena makes a choice with unexpected and devastating consequences, forcing Maggie to grapple with an agonizing decision. Does she sacrifice the golden opportunity of her career or abandon the Firellis just when they need her the most? Gradually the island begins to work its magic. A century-old ritual to beckon loved ones home offers hope in the midst of sorrow. And a guilt-ridden yet compelling stranger hiding on the island may offer Maggie a second chance at love, but only if she can relinquish the past and move forward to find joy in unexpected places.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

For years, globetrotting photographer Magdalena "Maggie" Henry has been in love with her first love, architect Marco Firelli, whom she met in college. Problem is, Marco is married to Maggie's best friend (and college roommate) Lena. Or at least he was, that is...Maggie just got news that Marco has been killed in a kayaking accident. Now Maggie must rush to Lena's side to offer emotional support to the fragile widow as well as help with the Firelli children. 

 

While helping Lena through this difficult time, Maggie can't help but revisit old emotions she thought she had overcome. Memories of early days with Marco come swirling back, the possessiveness she felt over him, having known him first before introducing Lena to him. Lena had tearily confessed that she was struggling to make friends at school. Thinking she was doing a good friend a favor, Maggie introduces Lena to Marco, having no idea that the two would hit it off quite so well, quietly slipping under her radar and falling in love. Though she loves (in different ways) both of them, she can't help but feel a combination of jealousy and annoyance at the turn of events. 

 

So as you can guess, it was largely an unrequited love for Maggie. Marco expresses interest, even a love of sorts, but confesses being drawn to Lena because he and Maggie are too alike in their intense, all-consuming artistic temperaments while Lena was more level-headed and easy-going in nature, more suitable for building a life & family with him. Taking into account Maggie's behavior up to the moment of this confession of Marco's --- her desperately reading into every passing glance from the guy, speaking of them as "kindred spirits", "twin souls" etc --, she likely found this revealing speech quite romantic. To me, however, it came off more as "let her down easy" spin.

 

But rather than go the crazy "he's MINE!" route, Maggie bows out of the running with a fair amount of grace, serving as main witness at Lena & Marco's wedding and then promptly starting up her work as globetrotting picture-taker extraordinaire.  Over the years, the trio is able to put the college drama behind them and become the close-knit crew they were before. Maggie even becomes "Aunt Maggie" to the Firelli children as they grow up. Now, in the wake of tragedy, Maggie doesn't hesitate to be at Lena's side. But only too late does she realize the timing could not be worse. 

 

While staying with Lena and the kids, Maggie's agent calls to notify her that she has been offered an opportunity to submit some of her work to one of the most prestigious photography competitions in the world. But how is she to find the time to prepare a presentation for submission in the mix of everything else going on? Will she have to decide between helping a friend and need and jumping at the chance of a lifetime (professionally), or will the fates allow her to have a solution to both?

 

There is also the mystery of this Daniel guy who spends most of the book hanging out creeper-style in Lena's bushes, observing the family from afar, always hesitating to reveal himself. What is his connection to Marco's death and what does he feel so guilty about? 

 

One of my favorite aspects of Ascension of Larks was the exceptional environment building author Rachel Linden offers. Whether on location with Maggie in Nicaragua, moving through her memories to past international travels, or at the Firelli summer home in the Pacific Northwest (where the bulk of the novel is set), the reader is fantastically immersed in the textures of all the various landscapes. Just as an example, check out this little snippet where Maggie recalls a distinct memory of her Puerto Rican mother:

 

The kitchen was always warm, redolent with the smell of cilantro and oregano, and in the background, playing on the crackly cassette player on the fridge, was the music of her mother's youth -- folk singers like Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary, songs of peace and protest from the sixties. Ana had especially favored Joan Baez and Linda Ronstadt because of their Hispanic heritage. She would let Maggie rifle through the shoe box of cassettes and choose one tape after another. In those moments, in the tiny kitchen with a pot bubbling on the stove and the calls for peace and love ringing out with the strains of guitar and tambourine, it felt as though nothing could touch them, as though if they could stay there in the kitchen forever, nothing bad would ever happen.

 

That being said, the plot itself had its share of tiring moments for me. I enjoyed the secondary characters such as Daniel and the charming motorcycle riding Pastor Griffin (the way Linden writes his character reminded me a bit of John Corbin's portrayal of the DJ Chris on the 90s tv show Northern Exposure). But storyline-wise, it veered on the soapy, most noticeably when it came to Lena's accident. When Lena acts all weird at breakfast that day, I immediately guessed (correctly) where Linden was headed with the plot. And that is where a good chunk of my investment in the plot checked out! 

 

Still, this novel offers up another, unexpected but important side story that serves almost as a moral lesson to readers with children -- the importance of having your final wishes regarding dependents, godparents, etc all clearly outlined on paper! What Linden illustrates here, the power of the state to come in and completely tear up a home because they don't agree with the living arrangements (regardless of how happy and well-taken care of the children seem) is seriously terrifying! I don't even have kids and I was disturbed at the thought! So, people, get your final wishes on paper! 

 

The children's lives were suddenly being decided by people who understood the letter of the law but knew nothing about them, not who they were and certainly not what was truly in their best interest. They didn't know Gabby would fall asleep only if Bun Bun's head was tucked under her chin, or that you had to keep sweet snacks hidden behind the bins of beans and flour in the cupboard so Luca couldn't sneak them. And Jonah... she winced when she thought of Jonah, those dark, somber eyes and the downward slope of his young shoulders. He was a little boy carrying a misplaced guilt so heavy it was slowly crushing him. 

 

While maybe the plot fell short for me here, as I mentioned earlier I did quite enjoy Linden's writing style in general and would be interested to check out more of her work in the future. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2017-10-31 21:06
How to Fall in Love With Anyone by Mandy Len Catron
How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays - Mandy Len Catron

This is an enjoyable and thoughtful book: part memoir, part essay collection. The author reflects on love through the lens of her own experiences and those of her parents and grandparents, but also discusses the subject more broadly, referencing scientific research and analyzing books, movies, and fairy tales. She writes well and candidly, digging into the complexities of relationships rather than trying to prescribe one-size-fits-all advice or hand out easy answers. It is in some ways a very personal book, particularly as the author discusses the end of her 10-year relationship, but she keeps it classy. In discussing her relationships, she writes about how she felt and behaved, rather than dishing on her exes.

Rather than writing a traditional review, I’m going to list some of the ideas in the book that interested me:

- This book began with a Modern Love article, about a relationship that started with the author and an acquaintance asking each other a series of questions that made a couple fall in love in a lab experiment. But the title is misleading: the questions may not have been designed to create romance (they’ve apparently been used in decidedly non-romantic contexts, like increasing trust between police and communities). And the author and her boyfriend didn’t immediately start dating after that night. Instead the questions allowed them to get to know and trust each other quickly, setting the stage for a relationship if they wanted to pursue it, which they ultimately did.

- Some passages from the book suggest that Catron’s ultimate conclusion is that people ought to learn to love well rather than obsessing over finding the right person. But it isn’t so simple. She writes about a friend who, on the advice of a recently-married friend of his who champions choosing to commit for commitment’s sake, casts aside doubts about his relationship and proposes. But he backs out before the wedding, and the friend who gave the advice gets divorced a couple years later. The book never argues that if you just choose any decent person and treat each other well, the result will be lifelong marriage. It doesn’t give prescriptions about the ideal relationship, but rather things the author has observed along the way.

- There’s a word for the assumption that the true goal of all relationships is lifelong marriage: amatonormativity. Looking this up online led me to an interesting article from someone for whom romance isn’t a goal at all; Catron is more traditional, but she was able to enjoy romantic encounters more when she valued them for their own sake, rather than considering everything that didn’t end in marriage a failure.

- Historically speaking, our expectations for marriage have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At one time marriage was mostly about economic stability, while we now expect our relationships to meet our needs for self-esteem and personal fulfillment. No wonder we struggle to find “the right person” while our ancestors managed to stay with the first person they were attracted to or the person their family chose.

- There’s a lot in the book about love stories, and how they affect real relationships. Storytelling is humanity’s way of organizing information and making sense of interactions with others; we need to see patterns to recognize what’s going on. Many people acknowledge the more obvious discrepancies between love stories and the real world, like the idea that once the two of you decide to get together, everything else is “happily ever after” rather than requiring effort.

- But some of the subtler refrains in love stories go unnoticed. For instance, the idea that love is a moral reward given to the most “deserving” people. For women, this often means being passive and “good,” i.e., pleasing those in authority, and not pursuing love directly. The idea that love will come on its own as a reward for quiet virtue led the author to quietly play the chameleon for years as a teenager rather than pursue what she wanted.

- All this makes me wonder about the current crop of love stories for teens, which often portray abusive or controlling relationships as romantic. Perhaps we can neutralize the messages of these stories by talking about the issue, so kids don’t use assume that’s the way love works. But no matter how much we talk about it, some readers are sure to miss the conversation and drink in those assumptions. This isn’t addressed in the book – fortunately for her, the author doesn’t seem to have had any truly awful relationships.

- People are very invested in their own love stories. A good “how we met” story can build social support for a relationship, which is healthy. But a meet-cute doesn’t predict the quality of the relationship, and some people get into bad relationships because their beginnings make great stories.

- Relationship advice is often geared to justifying the advisor’s decisions. Listening to a lot of advice can be destabilizing, if it suggests all sorts of deficiencies in you or your relationships (who cares if your significant other doesn’t bring you flowers, if this isn’t important to you). Advice is also usually geared toward keeping people together – see amatonormativity above – and at avoiding ambiguity; if a seemingly great relationship breaks down, we want an explanation as to why. But in reality, falling out of love may be as mysterious as falling in love.

In the end, though she’s in a happy relationship, it doesn’t seem like the author has it all figured out (probably nobody does), so this is definitely a personal reflection rather than an advice book. It didn’t knock my socks off, and the last chapter seemed off-base and elegiac despite containing nothing that needed an elegy. But it was enjoyable and interesting, smart and well-written. It’ll make you think a bit and won’t make you feel hopeless or inadequate, which seems like a good measure for a book about love. 

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review 2017-10-25 13:42
Lasting Echoes: An Oral History of Native American People - Joseph Bruchac,Paul Morin

Lasting echoes, an oral history of Native American people by Joseph Bruchac
Loved learning about the customs of the Indians and what 13 marks on turtle stood for.
Familiar with Lake George and it's fascinating to learn more about the Indians there.
All tribes are discussed as the stories are from their side and how the white people intervened into their world.
Enjoyed hearing about all the harm done by the white people as I've read just a bit about that in other books.
Like the references and sources listed at the end.
Received this book from National Library Service for my BARD (Braille Audio Reading Device).

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review 2017-10-12 17:34
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me: A Memoir - Sherman Alexie

This is an unusual book and not what I expected, so my rating may not predict yours (as readers so far have loved it wildly, it probably doesn’t). I hadn’t read anything by Alexie before and chose this over Part-Time Indian because I enjoy memoirs but not YA. But this is far from a typical memoir, which tells the story of the author’s life – usually focusing on a particular aspect or theme – in chronological chapters. The first chapter, which has 19 pages and focuses – despite various digressions – on a crucial event from the author’s childhood, fits into that pattern and had me enthralled. But this is in no way representative of the book as a whole. It consists of 156 chapters, ranging from short to extremely short (though the page count may appear long for a memoir, I’d guess the word count is in line with that of your typical 250- to 300-page book). Half of the chapters are poems. The prose chapters are sometimes only a paragraph long, more commonly 2-4 pages.

These brief essays and poems don’t exactly tell the story of Alexie’s life. He wrote the book while grieving for his mother, and much of it revolves around her, but much of it (especially the poetry) is about grief itself. Another big topic is a brain surgery he had a few months after his mother’s death. So much of the book comes across as the author reflecting on his life as it is now rather than telling the story of where he’s been. To the extent it’s about where he’s been, information about his childhood is scattered throughout the book, while everything after that is even more partial and fragmented. Or maybe it’s just that the information about his adult life didn’t answer the questions I had: he mentions only in passing that he struggled with alcoholism as a young adult, causing him to change colleges, but writes an entire chapter about how the laundry room in his current home was extremely cold until he finally bought some curtains for the basement.

Meanwhile, I have little appreciation for poetry, particularly free verse, which much of Alexie’s poetry is. If there’s something to be said for free verse, it’s that it is a recognized format in which to briefly encapsulate a moment, a thought or a feeling. But this is a large book; I didn’t want brief. And I didn’t want fragments. This book is made up of fragments, which is a deliberate and valid artistic choice: Alexie writes about how much of his history – personal, familial, and cultural – has been lost, and leaving holes is his way of representing that. For me though, the effect was to leave me disconnected from the work, which lessened the impact of the artistic choices.

All that said, this is in no way a bad book. It is well-written and engaging. It is raw and personal and feels emotionally honest. I zoomed through it in a few sittings, not only because bite-sized chapters are addictive but because it is so personal and emotionally intense. It certainly provides some cultural education for the non-native reader: the author grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation, where much of his family still lives, and writes about his Native American identity. Although it left me somewhat dissatisfied, I am glad I read this book and wouldn’t discourage others from reading it, particularly those who enjoy poetry.

(As an aside, a brief mention in this book alerted me to the danger of indoor radon, so who knows, Sherman Alexie may have saved my life.)

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