Books I’ve Read – February 2013

I seem to have dropped the ball a little on my book reviews. Half because I haven’t been writing them at such a swift pace on Goodreads and half because I just haven’t been blogging them. But, since they seem to be relatively popular (which I am sure would surprise my sister) I thought it was about time to rectify this. With no further ado:

***

A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty – Joshilyn Jackson

grown up kind of pretty

(**** of five)

This book started out very strangely for me. I really wasn’t into it. I couldn’t figure out why. It had all the elements; family secrets, strong female characters, a mystery to solve. But for some reason it just didn’t gel for me off the bat. But then, some books take a while to do so. By the time I hit the midpoint of this book I was completely invested. I was curious to discover the secrets of the past and to unlock the present. I liked all the characters and I found, in the end, that I had a hard time putting it down. So much for first impressions. But this book had been reviewed so well that I was sure there had to be something to it. I’m glad I stuck with it.

Every fifteen years catastrophe strikes the Slocumb women. Starting with Ginny ‘Big’ Slocumb, who fell pregnant at age fifteen and accepted hush money to live on her own with a baby, Liza. Then Liza herself found herself with child, again at age fifteen. Now in the fifteenth year of Liza’s baby, Mosey, the Slocumbs wait with baited breath. Terrified that Mosey will continue the tradition the two women, grandmother (at 45) and mother (30), who raised Mosey keep her in close reigns. But when Liza suffers a debilitating stroke that leaves her unable to communicate with the outside world and the remains of a baby are found under the old willow tree in the backyard it immediately becomes clear that the story of this family is nowhere near as straightforward as they thought. With Liza unable to tell the tale and Big and Mosey working two different angles it is soon clear that all anyone wants is the truth, even if it will ultimately change nothing.

The author does a remarkably job of creating the voice for all the characters. They are completely unique and age appropriate with Mosey taking the reigns in a very teenage vernacular and Big in the voice of a forty five year old, forced to grow up fast. Liza, also, has some chapters, thought they are mostly written in a third person that’s necessary to give us the story while maintaining Liza’s brain injury. None of these women are particularly educated, but it’s clear they have good heads on their shoulders and are will to face up past mistakes to make the best choices for those they love. In short, they are fairly realistic. Mosey’s choices are the impetuous choices of a fifteen year old, Big’s choices have an air of self sacrificing maturity. Liza, even, though she’s relatively known for her wild ways, seems to honestly do what she believes is best for her child, keeping her secrets to herself, locked away in a completely different life.

But it’s not just the three main women who were effective. The ancillary characters, as well, we well drawn. Particularly Mosey’s best friend Roger, a more privileged boy who’s picked on by his classmates and ensconces himself fully in Mosey’s mystery, and Patti Duckins, the dirt poor member of the Duckins clan, who humanizes those who are often not. Even Big’s former boyfriend, Lawrence, was convincing though he got little page time.

The story is revealed little by little, both by what is discovered by the characters and what is given to the reader through Liza’s segments because, let’s be clear here, the secrets in this story belong to Liza, having her in a place where she can not access them was a brilliant move in order to propel this story. Some was funny, some was heartbreaking, and some was joyous. The way good books should be.

Beautiful Darkness – Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

beautiful darkness(**** of five)

In my review of ‘Beautiful Creatures’ I mentioned that I didn’t feel any kind of inclination to run out and grab the second book in the series. That remained true for awhile. I did feel almost completely satisfied with the ending of the first book and thought the continuation would likely only draw out a story that didn’t need drawing out. But, this is a four book series and I really did like the first one, and then the movie was coming out and I kept seeing previews, and I just got an e-reader so I decided to give this second book a go. There was nothing groundbreaking about it and it wasn’t as good as the first, but it was very satisfying.

Ethan and Lena are trying to get over the events of Lena’s sixteenth birthday, the night she, as a Caster was to be claimed for the light or dark, made a terrible bargain that ended with her bridging the two sides and her beloved uncle Macon dead. Now Lena’s withdrawing from Ethan and he doesn’t understand why. Heaped in grief, she shirks school and begins seeking the companionship of her dark cousin, Ridley, and their new friend John Breed. As Lena spins out of control and disappears into the Caster world below and Ethan finds a new friend in Liv, a keeper in training, it becomes clear that there are darker forces at work than anyone could have bargained for. Lena’s dark mother, Seraphine, does not give up easily and may be pulling the strings for Lena to pick a side once and for all. But this is not a forgone conclusion, if Ethan has anything to say about it, and soon forces from both sides are rallying which sets the stage for the return of those long laid to rest.

This book really did do what great second books do; it continued in the vein we are used to but it broadened the story to much greater mythology. The expanding of the Caster world is what was focused on here. In ‘Beautiful Creatures’ Lena and Ethan descended into the Caster tunnels, but in this book we realize how far they didn’t go. The tunnels span whole states and encompass everything from nightclubs to lush forests. We also discover just how many people seem to know about this shadowy world, from Ethan’s ancient aunts, to a network of mortals and casters trying to protect everything they hold dear. There was clearly real danger here, some characters die and others have fates they consider equal, but in many ways it’s more of the same from the first book.

This is classic second book fare, but it was engaging, exciting, and well done. I will get around to the third and fourth book, soon I predict, but like the first book I feel satisfied with this one. Which is a nice feeling.

Dust and Shadow – Lyndsay Faye

dust and shadow

(**** of five)

I like a lot of things and luckily for me two of those things are Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. When I first saw this title at a library book sale I thought “Now that makes sense, why didn’t Holmes investigate the Ripper murders?” Of course, then I realized the reason was obvious, Holmes isn’t real. But in the capable hands of Lyndsay Faye you’d hardly know. A lot of people have tried to take on the great detective, continue his adventures long after Conan Doyle put down the mantle, and a lot of people have failed. Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell series has attempted to bring Holmes back to life, and succeeds in a myriad of ways. I have only read the first book, ‘The Beekeeper’s Apprentice’ and can not comment on the rest of the series but despite the heaps of praise King has received, I had some major problems with her characterizations of many of the characters.

At the end of the nineteenth century the area of Whitechapel, London is stalked by a murderer who’s heinous acts are throwing the community into upheaval. When consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes, is contacted by Scotland Yard to investigate Holmes doesn’t realize this might be his most deadly case yet. With the help of his constant companion, and biographer, John H. Watson and the employ of a Whitechapel prostitute who was friends with the first victim, Mary Ann Monk, Holmes is well off to solving the case. But things never quite go as planned, especially when story hungry tabloids are involved. Holmes might soon find himself accused of being the world’s most notorious serial killer.

This book must have required an incredible amount of research, not just on the murders and the Holmes pantheon, but also on the time and place where these events took place. I felt completely engaged with the setting. Yes, it’s a setting that I know fairly well, having seen countless versions of it, taken a tour, and read plenty too, but getting across that gritty, crowded area of London isn’t always easy and Faye carries it off with aplomb.

But where she really shines is in her characterizations of the characters we know and love. The addition of characters, particularly Mary Anne Monk, worked well. It was good for Faye to have some characters of her own, and they made much sense in their contexts. However, it was really with Holmes and Watson that I was particularly impressed. Sherlock Holmes is such an iconic character that it’s easy to go with his stereotypical deerstalker wearing, pipe smoking image making him a typical uptight Brit who thinks he’s above everyone else. It’s also easy to go the more modern route and make him a little bit too macho, play up his drug use, and Asperger him out. Faye did none of these things. Instead she managed to keep the line between all these and produced one of the most accurate Holmeses I’ve had the privilege of encountering. But perhaps more difficult, Faye also manages to get Watson correct. That hardly ever happens. People seem to forget that Watson is just as important to the Holmes stories as Holmes is. He is, after all, biographer and trusted assistant. Also, a ladies man, crack shot, and fully capable of deducing on his own (though of course not on Holmes’ level). So often he is regulated to either comic relief or foil. Here he was neither. And, as he took his natural role of narrator, we saw this story through his eyes. Just as Conan Doyle intended.

My one problem with this book was the lack of H Division. Everyone knows that these policeman, headed by Frederick Abberline, were the ones to investigate the Ripper murders. They were all but invisible here, with Holmes’ police contact, Lestrade, often taking the helm. I can understand the necessity of this, but it would have been easy to throw in mention, more than once of twice, of the police who were historically involved. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have needed everyone’s favorite consulting detective, or Lestrade. They didn’t, after all, catch the Ripper in real life.

It’s rare that someone can take up someone else’s characters and manage a good rendition of them. It’s even more rare when those characters are as iconic as these. But Faye manages brilliantly. I would definitely recommend this book if you like Holmes, the Ripper murders, or just books in general.

The Wentworths – Katie Arnoldi

the wentworths

(*** of five)

What is there to say about this book. It was quoted as being satirically funny. It’s… amusing. It actually reminded me a lot of the book ‘Club Rules’ by Andrew Trees. Though the Trees novel was a portrait of a community with a keen eye on a wealthy contingent, and ‘The Wentworths’ talks only about a family. A little bit like ‘The Darlings’ without the financial intrigue.

The Wentworths are a wealthy family from the right side of Los Angeles; patriarch Augustus, his wife Judith, eldest son Conrad, daughter Becky, her husband, Paul, and their children  Monica and Joey, and youngest son Norman. Almost every one of them is a despicable human being. Augustus blithely cheats on his wife with Honey, a young woman with a young daughter, fleeing her staunch Mormon upbringing and a failed love affair. Judith seems more concerned with the sugar tongs in a Viennese tea set than anything else in her life. Becky seems to be on some sort of pill regimen  Conrad is a straight narcissist and borderline psychopath who uses and discards people as if it were nothing. Joey’s a klepto, Monica hates her parents, Paul’s clueless, and Norman likes to wear women’s clothes and has vivid daydreams about cannibalizing his family. The storyline and action are dubious until an explosive ending that leaves the audience wondering if tragedy is relative.

Norman is the only really sort of likable character, and he is deeply flawed. His transvestism is one thing (who cares?), but it’s his complete malice towards his family that makes him the forerunner  He clearly hates his family, as he imagines cooking them over a spit and defecating them on the ground, but so does the reader so we can’t really blame him too much. Becky is also somewhat sympathetic. Clearly addicted to pills she doesn’t seem to relate to anything going on around her. She’s detached from her children and husband and spends way too much time with her shallow mother. However she is the only one who seems changed at the end, warming up to her family.

It can be hard to like terrible people as characters of books, I’m not sure that’s a problem here. I think the problem was more that not much happened. It was a quick read, to be sure, if it wasn’t I’m not sure I would have continued, but I’m not sure that supercedes the problems this book has. Things happen, but not quickly and not that entertainingly. An interesting portrait of some truly infuriating people but besides that there’s not much here.

The Jewel Box – Anna Davis

jewel box(*** of five)

This was one of those books that is very pleasant, entertaining and swift. I enjoyed reading it very much. But as I delayed in writing my reviews I found there were a great many things about this book I couldn’t recall. So, there you have it. It’s a good entertaining novel, but it’s not very memorable.

In the late twenties Londoner Grace writes a society column under the name Diamond Sharp. She glamorously moves from one chic club to the next, attracting the attention of men left and right, including two Americans trapped in a Wickham/Darcy situation. Dexter O’Connor is a rakish novelist who has a thing for adventure and John Cramer is a steady journalist who may or may not be involved with Grace’s sister Nancy. And this isn’t the first time the two sisters shared a love. Before the war the two inseparable sisters gadded about with two boys, brothers, and when it came down to choosing who went with who a few hearts were silently broken. But with a new chance and a new love will Grace risk it all this time or are things finally falling into place?

This was like… one step from chick lit. There was a lot to recommend this novel; setting and time period definitely among them, but it did fall into many of the same traps chick lit is famous for. The author spends a significant amount of time on clothes and makeup, for example, but it’s hard to mind the the outfits are built for flappers. The romance is, of course, overwrought and somewhat soppy at times. Grace makes a lot of terrible choices and her conclusions are often absurd given the evidence. Like all good female leads in chick lit, she doesn’t really talk about what happened or is happening.

Perhaps this is terrible, but I could have done without Nancy and her children. They really didn’t add much to the story for me and causes unnecessary drama that made the story a bit over the top. Plus I have learned that throwing children into the mix, unless they are necessary) does very little for stories in general. We could have just as easily learned the story from the past without Nancy being there.

If you want a light romp through Jazz Age London you can probably do better than this, but there is plenty to admire here. Particularly if you want to pick up something light just to be entertained.

The Distaff Side – Elizabeth Palmer

distaff side

(**** of five)

On the jacket cover someone described this book as ‘the manners of Jane Austen with the plot of Sherlock Holmes’. As winning as that combination sounds I really couldn’t disagree more. This book was nothing like Jane Austen (not taking place in the same century for one) and not really anything like Holmes either. It was, however, pretty excellent. Manners wise it reminded me much more fully of P.G. Wodehouse, but substitution the humor and antics for intrigue and politics.

Bertie Langham and Mai Binnington are engaged to be married by fact that they’re old childhood friends, of the same social standing, and their parents think its high time they were married. That is until Augusta Langham, Bertie’s overbearing mother, discovers Mai’s suffragist activities. Soon the engagement is dissolved, paving the way for a faux Russian princess and an lepidopterist with a violent temper. We then follow both couples, and those that surround them, through many children, several affairs, one divorce, and more than one murder. This is a world, after all, of privilege, deception, and unhappiness where hardly anyone is who they seem, both literally and figuratively.

One thing that I thought was really interesting about this novel was it’s scores of Russians flooding into England, as well as the rest of Europe. While this book takes place mostly in the twenties, it’s earliest bits take place just after the Russian Revolution when many escaped their homeland and the Bolshevik regime. The most clear example of this is Zhenia, our fake princesses who will go to any extremes to keep her true identity a secret, but also with Nicolai, Mai’s eventual lover, and Tatiana, the faithful and woefully wronged servant of the deceased Countess Olga Carstairs. All have a terrible feeling of displacement, whether it has ended up well for them or not. Tatiana has had a comfortable life in serving the Countess, despite the less than stellar ending, but she still longs for her homeland. Nicolai was driven out and longs to return. It shows how that sort of political upheaval is felt the whole world over, and not just at the epicenter. It’s rare that we come across this in novels.

This book also wasn’t afraid to be inflammatory  Not very many of the characters are sympathetic. Zhenia, clearly, is a heinous bitch. As is Mai’s husband Ned Fielding. Bertie is spineless, which makes him difficult to admire. With at least two murders and a depressing suicide the author is clearly not afraid of going to extremes. Divorce was not common at the time, of course, and infidelity is relatively rampant here, though sometimes it’s hard to assign blame for it.

This isn’t a pleasant tale, not at all, but it is well written, well researched, feels completely ingrained in it’s time and place, and brings up a lot of interesting questions and elements from it’s time period. I would definitely recommend, especially since there don’t seem to be that many reviews on Goodreads.

The Red Leather Diary – Lily Koppel

the red leather diary(**** of five)

I loved this book. Love love loved. I didn’t know what to expect and really only bought it because of its time period. But this was a wonderful mix of memoir and fiction about the honest life of a young girl going up in 1930s New York City.

When the basement of Lily Koppel’s apartment building on Riverside Drive is cleaned out to make room for a bicycle room there are heaps of old steamer trunks left on the curb. Soon bodies are crawling over the debris looking for lost treasures. Lily is the ring leader and it’s in this pile that she comes across the broken spine and dusting leather diary of Florence Wolfson. Covering the five year period between Florence’s fourteenth and nineteenth birthdays she faithfully recorded each day. Entranced by the diary Koppel hired a private investigator to search out Wolfson, perhaps even still alive. Koppel wrote an article for the New York Times on the incident but expanded the idea into this book. Koppel flushes out Wolfson’s days following her through everyday life, vacations in the Catskills, an extraordinary journey to Europe, and school. Florence is clearly an exceptional young lady, precocious and mature, and her experiences echo that. But not every day or every year is exceptional. Sometimes there’s entertainment enough in everyday life.

There’s something sort of terrifying about reading someone’s diary. I wasn’t looking forward to it, even though I was sure it would be interesting. But then I realized something incredible. The diary was written in sentences, quick updates everyday for five years. Koppel filled in the rest, creating a coherent narrative. This was brilliant, as far as I’m concerned, because it allows for both straight fact and a little license. It’s clear that Koppel cares deeply for this endeavor and her enthusiasm is infectious.

I read a lot of people complain that nothing really happens in this book. I disagree. There’s nothing huge, cataclysmal important that happens in this book, but plenty happens. Florence falls in and out of love, learns the ways of women and men, flirts her way through Europe. Goes to school, learns, sees plays, hero worships, rides horses and gives us a portrait of not only a young girl growing up but also New York City at this time. To me, that’s plenty.

I loved this book so much I immediately gave it to my mother. She had a more difficult time getting through it (I sped through), but agreed that it was very interesting. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys nostalgia or holds a curiosity about the past.

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About Lindsay

I have a C'est Moi page, you should probably just read that.
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