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review 2018-04-04 05:49
Anatomy of A Scandal -- NOT a detection club book
Anatomy of a Scandal: A Novel - Sarah Vaughan

So, I thought I was reading this for the Detection Club, because I'd shelved it that way, but I now have the book, and it's very clearly not included. I dunno why I labeled it that way, but I'm still glad I read it. (I think it could actually fit chapter 11, since the place they all met and most of the crimes take place at Oxford, albeit fake colleges at Oxford.)

 

I've heard only how awesome this book is. While it's not bad at all, perhaps because I've spent a large portion of my life sitting with men and women who are victims of interpersonal violence, I don't see these things as "current" or "of the moment" - I think they've been around since human beings have been around. Nonetheless, it's nice to read a book involving a rape that doesn't fall into the poor me montage or political diatribe schtick.

 

While not the best book I've read this year, it was excellent at keeping me involved because Sarah Vaughan knows how to build suspense. I started it last night before I went to bed, and it took a very firm talking to myself to get me to close it and go to sleep, then I greedily finished it today while ignoring phone calls and even sat it beside the sink while I brushed my teeth after dinner. (Sometimes the beauty of living alone is nobody to be upset when I read at the dinner table.)

 

I was able to divine early who had done what - the author makes it fairly clear, but that didn't stop the suspense, because I cared that the person get punished, and I wasn't sure that would happen. Even after I knew how the court case would turn out, I wanted to know what would happen to all of these (mostly unlikable) people. This is a perfect example of liking a book where the characters are less than sympathetic to me. I didn't like them, but I sure was interested in what happened to them and around them. It really is a book that kept me turning pages like a maniac.

 

It is an excellent example of privileged men. Toxically privileged. Not only are they male. They are upper class in the way that only Brits can be, or would notice. This gives them an air of "I can do whatever I please, so long as nobody sees me." While many might think that way, there is a degree of this that seems to be bred into the Oxbridge/public school tie set. An English friend once asked me why America has such racial divides, and I told him it was because we don't have their kind of class divide. (Then I offered to introduce him to some black Brits, because they think there's a racial divide there, but I'm off topic...)

 

Very sharp courtroom writing. It's amazing how vibrant straight-up court scenes were in this book, and though we got some information on the thoughts or feelings of the characters while in court, much of it was basically a trial transcript. That's compelling dialogue.

 

Sarah Vaughan managed to tell many people's stories through one court case (which is the reality, isn't it -- most court cases will involve or affect many people, though we only see a few of them in court.) All in all a perfectly good book, if not a great one, with excellent timing and also a great promo department (they have films about it and trailers and SO many blurb pictures, I gave up on picking one.) I'll look forward to more suspense from Ms. Vaughan.

 

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review 2018-04-02 20:33
The Alice Network -- a great spy story and an a poor romance book
The Alice Network - Kate Quinn

There are two books here really. While the author pulls them together, it didn't work for me. Charlie, a young pregnant American, spurs Eve - a former spy from the real life Alice Network - to go ahunting for someone she knew during WWI when she worked as a spy. Surely there was another way to get to the story of the fascinating women who made up The Alice Network in WWI.

 

Theirs is a fascinating story pulled from history, and I am going to try to find an actual historical nonfiction book about the Alice Network, because it's a worthy story about some very courageous and strong women. I have read so many books about the male spies of both World Wars, but never have I read much about female spies - unless they were peripheral to the male main character. This is different.

 

I only wish Kate Quinn had left Charlie out completely. She is half the book, and she took away rather than added to the story. Perhaps it was the strong contrast with Eve, but if the book had been her story alone, I would probably not have picked it up, and I certainly wouldn't have finished it. I found myself dreading her chapters. I also did not need a love story in the middle of a wonderful read about strong women who didn't need men to get through their daily life. Without Charlie, this book would have passed the Bechdel test and all the other feminist tests with flying colors. Because of Charlie, it doesn't pass any.

 

If the book had been purely about Eve and the Alice Network women, it would have rated much higher for me. Charlie's story and her character brought the entire thing down, with yet another woman who only finds herself in the eyes of some man. Love is wonderful, but it took up space and time in this book that would have been better devoted to the story that mattered.

 

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review 2018-04-01 18:31
SING, UNBURIED, SING -- a graceful trip through harrowing territory
Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

A realistic book where ride-hopping ghosts feel as natural as a toddler vomiting on a long trip is a feat of nature. It simply should not be possible, but Jesmyn Ward achieves it with ease in SING, UNBURIED, SING.

 

And can we just talk about that title? Everything about this book is pitch perfect. I rarely read anything that doesn't stop me at some point to notice that I'm reading. It's one of the horrors of growing up. I used to read everything by just diving in and living in that world for the length of the book. Nowadays, I notice far too often that this is a book. It's either overly clever or overly wordy or overly cute or overly bad or something along the way. That didn't happen here. I didn't notice anything but a story I got sucked into and read voraciously from the first page to the end.

 

There are plenty of great reviews by people who know better than me why this is a good book. I am not going to pretend to know. I just know this is a book I felt intensely and lived inside while I read it.

 

Every scene is impeccable like a well-preserved antique: not in a bright shiny way - just in a refined way, sort of soft and easy, no matter the subject matter. (Maybe this is what "lyrical" means.) Given the subject matter of parental drug use, a son who has taken the world on his shoulders, race relations, the worst prison in the country, family dynamics, poverty, cancer... Those things are not usually written with agility. They are often "important," but not usually graceful. SING, UNBURIED, SING is. There's a light but purposeful touch.

 

This is a book -- and they seem to come along only rarely -- that reminds me exactly why it is so vital, life-affirming and essential to read.

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review 2018-04-01 09:11
The Trauma Cleaner
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster - Sarah Krasnostein

[I received a copy of this book through Netgalley.]

Ohh, I’m torn about this one.

On the one hand, it tells the touching story of a woman whose life started on a completely wrong footing, who had to both lose and find herself throughout various trials in her life—a marriage that couldn’t last, realising that she couldn’t be herself if she stayed a man, sex work, bad health, and so on; a woman whose memory is badly altered, so much so that her biographer admits how difficult it was at times to piece together all those events. And yet, at the end, in her daily job of running her trauma cleaning business, a woman capable of empathy and compassion towards other, even though she may still not have that same compassion towards herself, having been forced to disconnect herself from relationships due to her own trauma.

There’s the trauma cleaning business, too, showing various situations of the kind Sandra and her crew have to deal with on a regular basis: hoarders’ houses, a flat where a woman died of an overdose, another where a sexual offender lived, the sofa where a man bled to death, a house turning out to be so bad even the walls have grown soft with mold inside… Gruesome situations, but never considered with condescension or bad feelins, and always with the aime of both cleaning and making those people feel at ease with the job, especially when the ‘hoarders’ were concerned (that desire to ‘check that one last bag just in case something good got mixed up with the trash’… I mean, who’s never spent more time than they thought cleaning their place because they were distracted by checking the contents of this or that forgotten box?).

Going back and forth between eight trauma cleaning jobs and various periods of Sandra’s life, in chronological order, the book, the book clearly points at how entwined these two narratives are, the first one mirroring Sandra’s own trauma and how she got through life in spite of it, ‘cleaning’ behind her by severing ties with people who had hurt her, or always moving from city to another.

On the other hand, it also felt that the book could never decide what its focus was: the cleaning, or Sandra herself? These can’t fully be taken separately, but I admit I didn’t see as much as Sandra’s own insights as I wanted, nor as much of the trauma cleaning as I wanted—not in a voyeuristic way, ‘oh look at those hoarders living in squalor’, but from a practical as well as from a relationships standpoint. The author treats us to her observations of Sandra and her crew on various jobs, yet this was always coloured by her views of Sandra, and… I don’t know, for that specific part, I would’ve preferred if she had been more ‘detached’, more matter-of-fact (because I was genuinely interested of knowing the details: about how Sandra handled her contacts in the police when there was a murder house to clean, for instance; or about the exact techniques used to restore an apparently unsalvageable home to a clean state). Perhaps, in fact, this would have deserved to be two books instead of one, with more careful research regarding Sandra herself? But then, it would’ve made it difficult to show the connection, to show how Sandra, not in spite of, but thanks to her own hard life, is able to connect with her clients. It’s a tricky fence, this one.

Conclusion: 3 stars, it was enjoyable and compelling to a certain extent, but it left me feeling that something was missing nonetheless, that it wasn’t going in-depth enough.

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review 2018-03-30 04:20
Tangerine by Christine Mangan - shades of so many great movies
Tangerine - Christine Mangan

Ingredients:

 

3 heaping tablespoons of Gaslight (1944)

1 healthy teaspoon of Stolen Identity (1953)

dash of Single White Female (1992)

sprinkle liberally with Casablanca (1942)

 

Mix well and you get Tangerine.

 

Seriously, I couldn't get Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall out of my head while reading this brand new novel. This was interesting given I've recently been rereading Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels (with plans to read the ones I missed earlier) and I was quickly able to rid my head of Humphrey Bogart even though I've seen those films many times. Why, then, does a book that hasn't been made into a movie force me to imagine films that are supposedly unrelated? I'm going to try to figure that out:

 

Set in 1956 Tangier, on the precipice of freedom and reunification with the rest of the country, we meet two young women who were fast friends in college a year before. They've not seen each other since a mysterious unexplained incident at Bennington college that both hint at, but neither discusses with readers or each other. Now the American, Lucy, has decided to remedy that by surprising her friend Alice - a newlywed Brit - showing up completely unannounced and unexpectedly on her doorstep in Tangier! 

 

We only know that Alice and her husband are experiencing some marital tension. She's afraid to leave the house, and to be honest, Alice doesn't seem like the most reliable narrator. The chapters skip between the two women, and Lucy seems much more "normal" though she does seem completely oblivious to the most basic of manners.

 

Lucy doesn't trust Alice's new husband. Alice herself admits to us that her husband is spending her trust fund, though she doesn't really care. She bucks up and plays hostess when Lucy appears. Alice seems hesitant with Lucy, but that may simply be her discomfort with displaying her marital discomfort and her own distress. Alice may be mentally ill, I thought.

 

Lucy is a modern woman for 1956, even wearing capris in public. They smoke, drink and Alice gets herself together enough to leave the apartment. Maybe Lucy is all Alice needed, despite her despicable manners?

 

And so it goes. The two women tell us the story of Lucy's visit in Tangier. But things get twisted. Lucy meets a man but is terrifically jealous of Alice's husband. We learn through flashbacks of Lucy stealing Alice's clothes and jewelry in college. We slowly learn that Alice doesn't trust Lucy, she feels unmoored when Alice is around. She's not sure what is real and what isn't, and I had no idea, until suddenly the proverbial sh*t hit the fan.

 

Alice's husband goes missing right after Alice demands Lucy leave her home. When Alice wakes up after a troubling night of worrying about her husband, there's Lucy -- still there! Alice is terrified, rightfully so!

 

We know what happened. We slowly realize that perhaps our narrators are each unreliable in her own way, but poor Alice is not as mixed up as she first seemed. Sadly, our reading of Alice's fragility, lack of confidence and possible mental stability are shared by all the other characters too.

 

Tangerine is based on some excellent, if overused, psychological tactics and themes. We've read them and they've been portrayed in timeless classics. Mangan sets herself up to be compared to these classics, though, and her book falls short.

 

Once the action starts moving, there are things that simply don't fit. I was willing to believe that Lucy had duped me, but each piece of action added up to more unrealistic plot I needed to swallow. Once I'd caught up on Lucy's shenanigans, I still couldn't find a way for all of these brilliant plot twists to have actually occurred. When I finished it, I was frustrated for poor Alice, but in the days since, I've been more frustrated by my own experience. In order for it all to happen, I somehow have to believe that Lucy is the most amazing criminal mind ever, as well as a mind-reader and bender of time.

 

Um, I don't.

 

So while it's a fun read and a great example of building psychological suspense, it doesn't really hang together once the whole picture is painted.

 

Though the cover is great.

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