Book Review: “The Boston Girl” by Anita Diamant (4/5)

The Boston Girl by Anita DIamant (1)

Scribner, 2014, 336 pages [hardcover]

I got this book from the library after several recommendations from friends (and my mom, my faithful reading buddy). Anita Diamant is probably most well-known for writing The Red Tent which was adapted into a TV miniseries and which I actually have not read! I do have it now from the library though, and after my experience with The Boston Girl I think I will be reading it sooner rather than later.

The Boston Girl made me feel very nostalgic because my grandmother passed away three years ago, almost to the day, and this book takes the form of an 85-year-old grandmother (Addie Baum) narrating to her granddaughter (Ava), telling her all about her life beginning with her childhood in Boston in the early 1900s. My own grandmother was born just 17 years after Addie and had some similar experiences growing up in terms of being one of the first in her family to go to college and really work hard to make a name and future for herself. It made me miss her a lot and wish that I had spent more time with her finding out more about her past while she was here.

It took me a little while to get used to the second-person interjections that Addie’s character often made to Ava. I feel that second person is pretty uncommon especially in historical fiction, but in general I did think that it worked in this scenario, with an older woman basically recounting specific stories from her past in response to her granddaughter asking: “How did you get to be the woman who you are today?”

I found the greatest strength of this book to be in the characterization. Throughout changing times, cultural adjustments, family, financial, and personal struggles, Addie really remains true to herself which I respected. Other characters are also presented strongly such as Addie’s mother who really struggles with a life in America and finds it highly challenging to let go of the “old ways” of living. Although the plot was slower at times, this was definitely a solid 4-star read for me.

 

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Book Reviews: “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Fragile Things” by Neil Gaiman

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I wanted to review these two Neil Gaiman short story compilations together. I think that with the completion of both of these books, I have read just about all of Gaiman’s full-length published works for adults! Although to call these “short story” compilations isn’t exactly fair. Gaiman fills both of these with poems, essays, and other types of writing that go far beyond just stories, which makes his work such a pleasure for me to read.

Smoke and Mirrors is subtitled “Short Fictions and Illusions” while Fragile Things is subtitled “Short Fictions and Wonders.” I found Smoke and Mirrors to have a generally darker tone though both books experiment with the fantastic and supernatural. Smoke and Mirrors is an older book (first published 1998) and for me really carried a lot of the feeling of books like American Gods. My favorite story of anything that appeared between either of these two books was “October in the Chair” from Fragile Things. I adored this story, which described a meeting of the personified months of the year as they gather to hear a rather dark tale told by the character of October. There are also many retellings of myths, fairy tales, and references to other works by Gaiman and otherwise, but of course also much that is completely unique. I read these two collections one after the other and I think they sort of just blended together in my mind but if I was going to pick one I did prefer Fragile Things slightly more.

One problem that avid Gaiman fans might have with both of these is the fact that there is not much original material in either of them, but this wasn’t a problem for me personally and just about everything was new for me – just something to think about if you do follow a lot of the literary magazines and other sources where his work appears. For me I feel like no matter how much Neil Gaiman I read there is always something totally original and very out-there for me to find. I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any contemporary author and hope he continues to harness this to provide more books for me to read! I’m giving 4 stars to both Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things.

Book Review: “The Complete Stories” by Flannery O’Connor

“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” (from “The Displaced Person”)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1971. 579 pages.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1971. 579 pages.

I am still in the middle of my little short story reading surge. I have been working on *this* volume of short stories for almost as long as my blog has been in existence, but it has taken me quite a long time to get through. This isn’t just because it’s a much longer collection of stories than the other ones I’ve been exploring but also because the stories here are heavy and the writing is far more complex and literary than more contemporary works, so I read them slower in order to better analyze everything that’s here.

I first bought this book because of the cover on the edition I’ve pictured above. It’s so pretty and features a peacock since O’Connor raised them, which I thought was very interesting. I’ve always been interested in reading her works since I had to read her arguably most famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for school. This particular collection contains each story found in her previous short story volumes as well as twelve additional ones that had been published elsewhere during her short lifetime.

All of the stories in this book are written in O’Connor’s typical Southern Gothic style, a variety of American fiction that I always enjoy for some reason despite living in an area so far removed from the South. Recurring themes include the main character often having a very racist, gender-biased, and/or generally prejudicial worldview and having this come back to get them in the end, as well as examining the socioeconomic disparities between different groups of people in the mid-century South. O’Connor was also extremely religious and her Catholicism is also quite prevalent in terms of many characters having religious experiences and finding their faith growing stronger (but I would not call this Christian fiction by any means). O’Connor’s writing is extremely blunt and often very very violent. I had some trouble adjusting to the more dated and regional language use in earlier stories but for the most part I really liked the writing style, in that each story had a moral and that for the most part characters tended to get what was coming to them.

Some of my favorite stories of the 31 were “The Crop,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find these and many of the other stories online if you are interested! I am giving The Complete Stories 4 stars and I would also like to explore O’Connor’s two full length novels in the future.

Book Review: “The Shining” by Stephen King

“This inhuman place makes human monsters…”

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Mass market paperback (Anchor 2012); first published by Doubleday in 1977. 688 pages.

I’ve decided to slowly make my way through more of Stephen King’s work in addition to whatever other reading I take on. I mean, he is supremely prolific, very influential on countless other writers, AND loves corgis. I recently read 11/22/63 and now own the entire set of The Dark Tower books; I skimmed the first one the day after the bar exam but was just so happy to be looking at something that wasn’t law-related that I raced through it without retaining anything so I’m going to reread it and take on the rest.

But about The Shining. I don’t think that I need to describe the plot in much detail at all, since this is an older and very popular book with a very famous film adaptation. What’s important is that each member of the Torrance family, now veritably stranded at the Overlook Hotel for the Colorado winter as Jack cares for the place, is struggling with their own demons, even, and especially, 5-year-old Danny. But aside from the family’s personal issues the hotel itself has some very dark secrets that are unleashed upon them all.

I made the mistake of thinking that since I’d seen the movie I knew what the book would be like. This really isn’t true at all. Even though there are book ghosts and movie ghosts I feel like much of the supernatural was removed from the film and Jack Torrance’s unraveling in Kubrick’s adaptation was more internally motivated: here is a man who feels like a failure at his career; who struggles with alcoholism; who hates his family… it’s not hard to predict what might happen next. In the book, though, the events unfold more slowly and more horrifyingly because King gives us many, many glimpses into the reality that Jack doesn’t hate his family at all and is struggling within himself to keep the horrors of the hotel and of his true nature from taking over, because he loves them and ultimately does want to keep them safe. The endings also differ and I think the book’s ending is more fitting.

I am giving The Shining 4 stars. I think a lot of King’s strength in writing, from his works that I’ve experienced thus far, comes from character development, and it was possible to feel sympathy for the Torrances even when they probably did not deserve it. Some minor issues for me came from his treatment of Danny on occasion. It is understood that Danny is special and has “the shine,” a type of psychic gift, but I felt like some of his thoughts and the way he spoke were just far too mature to be believable for a 5-year-old. Also, maybe I am just getting desensitized but I felt that this book was more eerie and creepy than outright horrific; the scenes that were violent did not really faze me too much and for me it was the buildup that was truly terrifying. I want to watch the movie again now and also plan to soon read the long-awaited sequel, Doctor Sleep.

Book Review: “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson

” ‘Sweet sixteen,’ Hugh said, kissing her affectionately. ‘Happy birthday, little bear. Your future’s all ahead of you.’ Ursula still harbored the feeling that some of her future was also behind her but she had learned not to voice such things.”

Hardcover edition; Reagan Arthur, 2013. 544 pages.

Hardcover edition; Reagan Arthur, 2013.
544 pages.

When I was in the middle of reading this, I kept thinking of a quote from the Disney movie Brave: “If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?” Of course you cannot think about this quote without thinking of it in Merida’s Scottish accent. But anyway, in Life After Life, Ursula Todd does have the chance to change her fate. Many times. And not just her own fate. Her “gift” of being born, again and again, every single time that she dies, has the power to affect her own life, those of her family and friends, and perhaps a much, much larger group of people than that. Every time that the “darkness” comes over Ursula and she is reborn, she grows up retaining a bit of what she learned and experienced in her past lives so that in effect she can eventually predict certain events and starts to realize why she might have been given this very unique gift/curse/condition, however you might want to see it.

This book came so highly recommended by one of my best friends so I wanted to love it when I grabbed the audiobook from the library. However, after listening to the first of 12 discs I had this feeling that it wasn’t for me at all and I wouldn’t be able to get into it. I really wanted to give it a chance, though, so I decided to abandon the audio version and get it on my Kindle instead. That was a much better reading experience and I found that the pages flew by so quickly. Atkinson has created a very, very special story here that transcends what we’d normally think of as historical fiction. There are many books dealing with the topic of reincarnation in various ways, and many of those tend to get a bit too spiritual or philosophical, but in Life After Life, I think that the subject is handled in a straightforward and precise manner that draws you in and makes you honestly believe that Ursula’s life (well, her lives) could actually happen.

I am giving Life After Life 4 stars. I loved reading about Ursula’s situation and the self-realization that she develops over time (and time again). Some of the supporting characters were kind of like caricatures reflecting very typical mindsets and habits of the time and place, but in a way that actually worked well towards the story because as Ursula changed in different ways during different lives, they stayed the same. As several of my blogger friends have noted the middle did drag somewhat. I tended to get a little bit lost with just how many times Ursula died and came back; with how many separate story lines during the war I had to keep track of. I honestly was also reading it so, so fast to see how it was all going to be wrapped up, that the sheer speed could have also contributed to my slight confusion, so that’s my fault rather than Ms. Atkinson’s. I am absolutely going to read A God in Ruins which continues the story of Ursula’s brother Teddy. In Life After Life, everyone (except Maurice) loves Teddy, but I actually felt like he wasn’t characterized much beyond the adored younger brother so I am very curious to learn more about what makes him so great.

Book Review: “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes

“I closed my eyes and lay my head against the headrest, and we sat there together for a while longer, two people lost in remembered music, half hidden in the shadow of a castle on a moonlit hill.

Hardcover edition; Pamela Dorman, 2012. 384 pages.

Hardcover edition; Pamela Dorman, 2012.
384 pages.

I found Me Before You to be a surprisingly deep and beautiful book that dealt with far more serious issues than one might imagine judging by the cover alone. The basic premise involves Louisa Clark, who is 26 and lives a “small life” that is turned around when she loses her steady job. Because she’s the main breadwinner in her family she is desperate to resume work and ends up taking a position as a caregiver for Will Traynor, a 35-year-old former business executive who became a quadriplegic after being hit by a motorcycle two years prior. Lou is reluctant to begin this job with zero experience as a caregiver, but she basically has no choice (it’s this, or stripping, or working in a chicken packaging plant), and Will is really obnoxious and rude to her at the start, as he is pretty miserable with his existence since his accident. The longer Lou is employed by Will and the Traynors, the more we learn about how important her job really is and the consequences that it might have on them both.

I am giving Me Before You 4 stars. I adored this story and felt that many of the characters’ actions and decisions were incredibly realistic in an extremely difficult situation. Lou was such a relatable character, especially being the same age as me and going through the typical mid-20s career struggles and relationship issues that my friends and I have all grappled with from time to time. Also, I’m definitely a little bit in love with Will (don’t tell Anthony)… Listening to this has absolutely changed the way I think about many things, I think for the better. For example, I’ve started to always look for ramps and other handicapped access in all of the public places that I’ve been over the past few weeks, because that was such a struggle for Lou and Will. At the same time, I did end up successfully predicting how the book was going to end fairly early on and because of this I wasn’t really as emotionally moved by the story as I could have been (as in, me, the queen of tears, did not cry at all during my reading). I am very glad that I read this and hope that it has improved me as a person, but just wish that I was able to feel as much as many other readers did.

Book Review: “The Enchanted” by Rene Denfeld

“The walls that might make others feel like they are suffocating have become my lungs.”

Hardcover edition; Harper 2014. 237 pages.

Hardcover edition; Harper 2014.
237 pages.

This book was a staff pick from my hometown library and was a short, quick read that I finished in just a few hours. You wouldn’t normally expect a book called The Enchanted to take place in prison, specifically on death row in a dirty, crumbling, incredibly corrupt men’s prison, but in this case, it works. Our narrator brings us into the narrow universe of these inmates, the prison staff, and an unnamed “lady” who is actually a mitigation specialist, working in her own way to save the inmates from their sentences. The world revealed to us, both inside and outside of the prison’s stone walls, is dark, starving, bloody, and so painful, but can also be a tiny bit magical, and is written and explored in a beautiful, intense way that even squeamish readers could likely appreciate. I have never read a story quite like this before and, while I wouldn’t exactly call the ending a happy one, it was a satisfying conclusion. I don’t want to give too much away about this particular book; it’s definitely better if you go in not knowing much, but given the short length and effortless language, it is not a grand time investment if you are at all interested.

I am giving this book 4 stars. It was a great novel especially considering that it is the author’s first; she previously only wrote non-fiction including work as a death penalty investigator so I guess it is not really a surprise that her fiction on the topic was so good. I do not want to reveal much on this blog about my particular views on the death penalty, but I believe that the insights that Denfeld has provided will allow readers on either side of the spectrum to appreciate the book – it’s not at all political. What kept it from a 5-star book for me was purely the fact that when you consider the narrator’s scope and position (again, I don’t want to say much), you realize that it is not entirely possible for the narration to be altogether truthful and it makes the structure of the book come apart a bit, but I just tried not to think about it and instead took it at face value and appreciated the prose. It felt like nearly every page had something beautifully quotable. I will definitely return to the staff picks binder at the library if the other selections continue to be as good as this book was.

Book Review: “11/22/63” by Stephen King

“We never know which lives we influence, or when, or why. Not until the future eats the present, anyway. We know when it’s too late.”

11-22-63

Hardcover edition; Scribner 2011. 849 pages.

Sometimes, it takes me months to get through a book as long as this one. Other times, though, I read the entire length of the book in one day and then feel a massive migraine beginning to develop just from reading so much.

Today was one of the latter days. I simply could not stop.

11/22/63 is a massive tome that chronicles what happens to English teacher Jake Epping as he travels back in time to a fixed point 53 years in the past, via a “rabbit hole” in his friend’s worn-down diner that is connected to one September day in 1958. His friend is dying of cancer and cannot make it through the five years in the past that would allow him to prevent Kennedy’s assassination, so Jake takes on the mission. However, in the beginning, for Jake, he is not as focused on stopping the assassination, but is extremely motivated to figure out a way to prevent a horrific family tragedy in the life of one of his adult GED students from ever happening. The story that follows once Jake makes his trip down the rabbit hole is like a mix of ’50s and ’60s historical fiction, some gruesome moments (but nothing like King’s typical work), a political thriller, and a decent amount of romance thrown in for good measure. Somehow, this works well and it’s like no other book I have ever read, and especially not like any other Stephen King book (though, the references to several of his other novels did not go unnoticed).

I gave this book 4 stars. I enjoyed the story and the writing but I was expecting just a little more out of this book, based on enthusiastic recommendations from friends, many Goodreads reviewers, and my mom, whose opinion is obviously the most important in this case. I think that some of the earlier exposition could have been eliminated before the bigger events. Besides that, though, this was an interesting, entertaining read, which I think would appeal to a wide variety of readers who generally would not consider venturing into King’s work. If you are like me and sometimes think that you were “born in the wrong generation,” this book might definitely make you think twice about that!