Books I’ve Read – May 2013

The Language of Flowers – Vanessa Diffenbaugh

language of flowers

 

(*** of five)

This was perhaps one of the most frustrating books I have ever encountered. It was also one of the most eloquent. It’s beautifully written in a realistic way about a compelling character. It’s not exactly unfortunate that that character is so hard to understand. There were several times when I wanted to slap her across the face and yell ‘What’s wrong with you!?’ but of course I had to let Victoria learn her own lessons and make her own rash and terrible decisions. In the end I was satisfied and impressed that I was so involved in the story. But, because of my inability to understand the character it did take me a little while to really get into the story. However, it is worth it.

Victoria has never belonged to anyone. Having been passed from foster home to foster home for eighteen years she’s pleased and gratified to age out of the system. Placed in a halfway house while she finds a job Victoria fails to act and soon finds herself in a San Francisco park. Then she meets Renata, the owner of local flower shop, Bloom. While Victoria exhibits a general misanthropy she does love one thing; flowers and the Victorian meanings of them. Impressed with her abilities Renata gives her a job and soon Victoria’s life turns upside down. The secret she’s been harboring from her past with Elizabeth, the kind woman who taught Victoria about the flowers, comes back to haunt her and it’s more than clear that her life will never be the same again.

This was a first novel. Which is very hard to believe. This book was crafted extremely well. Weaving between past and present can be difficult to do and so often it is done jarringly and happenstance. It didn’t feel that way here. Victoria’s past was just as important as her present and it was clear the author intended it that way. Victoria herself, as mentioned, was a puzzling character. Mostly because her choices seemed nonsensical. But when I stopped to think about it these elements of her character weren’t just understandable, but essential. Victoria is a person is paralyzed by a mistake in her past, and that’s prevented her from connecting to anyone in the subsequent eight years. It was heartbreaking, as most of this book was.

I feel as if I am not expressing myself well on this review, and that’s perhaps telling of the kind of book it was. It was beautiful, sad, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding. It wasn’t the sort of book I could recommend to everyone because it is a little bit of work. But, like growing flowers, once that work it done you’re left with something beautiful that might just change the way you look at everything else.

Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

moon tiger

(**** of five)

This book was pretty incredible in a number of senses. Firstly, it was very well written. Not a single word was wasted, it was almost lyrical. But what was really impressive about this novel was that it was a complete story of a pretty extraordinary life, it managed to make you feel as if you were privy to it all, and it was only two hundred pages long. Now, don’t get me wrong, they were two hundred very dense pages, but they were only two hundred pages just the same.

‘Moon Tiger’ is the story of the world and the story of a life, or so says Claudia, our heroine, lying in bed dying. From there and through the people who visit her she weaves a story of the past. Her tempestuous ten year on again off again affair with Jasper, the father of her child. Lisa, that same child, cared for primarily by grandparents. Sylvia, her sister in law, married to Gordon, the brother Claudia considered a part of her soul. And memories of Tom Southern, the dashing soldier and love of Claudia’s life who died long ago while Claudia was a war corresponded in Egypt. Nothing is in order and nothing in concise.

Tom is clearly the focal point in Claudia’s life, the great regret and sorrow she carries with her. He certainly seems to be her one non-incestuous (a phenomenon she equates with narcissism) love interest. However, I’m not entirely sure he rang true to me. He was written well, but there just wasn’t enough of him or there wasn’t enough passion behind him for me. Perhaps I just found him relatively cliche. I couldn’t quite understand why he was so important to a woman who was so fiercely independent and who forged such an interesting story for herself. I can, however, still enjoy his presence as a road-not-taken or rather road interrupted sort of thing. Jasper, on the other hand, was very lively and I loved every line, though I’d never believe them in a grand romance. Out of all the other characters, though, I would have to say it was Gordon I enjoyed the best. Perhaps it makes sense as he is clearly the other side of Claudia’s coin. I enjoyed their constant show of bickering back and forth and how clear it was this was the way they communicated and existed together, more as a necessity than actual anger or even annoyance. There are good way and bad way to do things, this whole book was done right. It’s not surprise, honestly, that it won the Booker prize.

The Orchid House – Lucinda Riley

orchid house

(** of five)

There are few things in this life I feel I have to authority to proclaim more than this: this book was not good. It seems to be a trend lately to write books that have two stories. One that takes place in the present, one that takes place in the past, and haunting secrets that resonate through generations. We can probably call it the Kate Morton Effect, as her historical novels are far more popular than they have any business being (don’t get me wrong, I love them). Many of them are good, connect well between storylines, and keep the reader entertained no matter which story is on the page. This was not one of them. Honestly, I’ve never a read a book that was so full of cliches. There were several moments where I had to pause and wonder if I should just put it down and stop wasting my time, but decided to persevere for the small amount of me that was curious to see if there would be some sort of interesting twist. There wasn’t. Every single thing that happened in this book was obviously from the start. It read like the author had glutted herself on Kate Morton, seasons of Downton Abbey, and then threw in some Madame Butterfly for good measure.

After the death of her husband and child, concert pianist Julia Forester fled her home in the south of France to her cottage on the Norfolk coast where she grew up. Christopher “Kit” Crawford has inherited Wharton Hall, his family’s manor house, and is getting ready to sell up when he and Julia, who’s grandfather was the gardener at Wharton, meet once again and there are immediate sparks. When a found journal from a Japanese prison camp during World War II is unearthed Julia visits her grandmother for answers and hears the tale of Harry Crawford, Kit’s second cousin, his quick marriage to debutante Olivia, and a secret love in the far east. As Kit and Julia fall into a relationship it soon seems as if history may be repeating itself. Spanning from England, to Thailand, and the Côte d’Azur ‘The Orchid House’ is a sweeping tale of familial secrets, betrayal, and starting anew.

The dialogue was, in a word, horrific. When I first started I had to quickly check the back to see if the author was American or some other nationality because her English phrases were so ridiculously cliche. And that’s not even taking the stilted conversation into account. This book was dialogue driven, which can work, if the dialogue is written well. This was not. There were so many strange endearances and immediate declarations that it made me roll my eyes far more than was probably healthy. My eyes could have stuck like that.

To be honest, I wondered if Riley had changed the time period from the time surrounding World War I with the time surrounding World War II. Her descriptions of Olivia’s season and the role of Elsie all screamed early twentieth century. By the forties I have never heard of a girl wearing a corset, for example. Elaborate hairdos were not everyday And, most importantly, most manor houses were either divided and sold or given to the National Trust. Now, that’s not to say there weren’t manor houses in operation in the forties, there certainly were, but they were in their last gasp and it seemed like a striking ommision not to mention this, especially when one of the characters must give up his life for his obligation to the place.

The whole story was over-dramatic, cliched, and lacked any sort of motivation. But that’s not to say everything was wrong with this book. It wasn’t good, to be sure, but I did find myself wondering about characters and what would happen to them. There was one, albeit groan inducing, twist in the third act which it book could have, and should have, done without. I was curious about Lidia and what had become of her, but her fate could have been explained in a paragraph. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend. I’ve read a lot of books like this one and can honestly say that this one is not up to snuff.

The Whole World – Emily Winslow

whole world

(** of five)

I honestly don’t know what to say about this book. It wasn’t bad, per se, it’s just that it wasn’t that great. Some parts felt well written and carried a decent plot, and other parts seemed to meander all over the place with no real sense of what the hell. The multiple narrator trick is one that’s used to death, and not particularly my favorite of narration tactics, but often gives the reader a full idea of an incident. I didn’t feel like that was the case here. Clearly we’re seeing what happened from various points of view but sometimes I had to wonder why. I felt like the policeman could have been omitted completely. It’s common to insert policemen into stories were police would traditionally be involved, but I often find them flat and/or overly stylized. That was definitely the case here. Liv’s section was clearly meant to give us insight into how everything connected, but felt bogged down my Liv’s “unique” voice. The action was rushed. Also, the epilogue had nothing to do with anything.

Polly and Olivia, two Americans studying at Cambridge University in England, become fast friends along with cute boy, Nick. Together the three assist blind professor, Gretchen Paul, daughter of sixities pulp author Linda Paul, to sort through her past, which might be far more mysterious than any of them realized. But when Nick disappears suddenly and the bodies start to pile up it’s clear that nothing is quite what it seems.

The narration starts out with Polly (terrible name, seriously, who names someone Polly in this day and age?), then moves on to Nick, Gretchen, the policeman in charge of Nick’s disappearance who’s name escapes me (which might show you how much I cared about him), and then finally Liv. Of these, Polly’s voice is probably the most coherent of the group. Her tale makes sense, though it’s not always told linearly. We don’t get all the information, because of course Polly doesn’t know all the information, but I couldn’t help thinking if she had slowly discovered the truth and the book had stayed in her point of view, it would have been better. Too many voices sometimes muddy the waters, and that’s definitely what happened here. There were some sections that lagged and seemed almost arbitrary and when it comes time to solve, not Nick’s disappearance, but the subsequent deaths, I found I honestly didn’t care that much. Which certainly says something. I can’t recommend this book, because there are much better ones out there, but it was nicely written at points and I didn’t really feel like it was a complete waste of time.

The Uninvited Guests – Sadie Jones

uninvited guests

(*** of five)

This book… huh. I don’t know. What a weird book. Often times it felt certain that it had no idea what it wanted to be. Other times it felt like a straight comedy of errors. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone not to read it, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must read either. Mostly it was just…. weird.

The year is 1912 and Emerald Torrington is turning twenty years old. Her mother, Charlotte, has just remarried, not long after the death of Emerald’s father. Clovis, her brother, loafs about merrily. Smudge, or Imogen as her name really is, is intent upon this night to pursue her Great Undertaking. Florence Trieves, the housekeeper and cook, prepares a splendid celebration dinner. Patience and Ernest Sutton are on their way to Sterne, the Torrington home that might be lost to rising expenses. But when a train accident occurs close to Sterne and the railroad sends a group of survivors to the house for shelter the night’s plans are thrown wildly off course. Especially when well bred, but uncouth Charlie Traversham-Beechers practically invites himself to the celebration. Soon secrets have come out that are best left quiet and it seems clear that by the end of this night nothing will ever be the same at Sterne again.

There really weren’t any characters in this book that were likable. They tended towards the annoying at best and dastardly at worse. The situation they found themselves in was a strange one, to be sure, but the attitude of those living in the big house was pretty outrageous. Eventually they seemed to do the right thing, but it took them way too long to get there. Charlie Traversham-Beechers was the sort you might tolerate for about a half hour but then not know exactly how to get rid of him. His motivation seemed nonexistent until more was revealed later.

Several romances developed during this book, but neither seemed particularly realistic. They both happened far too fast and didn’t really make all that much sense in the end. Actually the whole action of this story, all of which happens quickly and for no apparent reason, might have worked much better as a play, where absurdities are accepted and readers never ask for too many reasons.

I hesitate to mention there’s a twist in this book because I feel as if, if you know there is one, it would be impossible not to guess. I didn’t know there was a twist and I guessed it anyway. I’m not sure if it matters.

Overall, I can’t recommend this book unless someone was interested in the first place. It’s weird, and sort of interesting. There’s the big house and the declining family who live it. This might appeal to the ‘Downton Abbey’ or Kate Morton fan, but perhaps not even because there were so many points that felt anachronistic and flat out strange. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. Overall I think what it might be, despite it’s bizarrity, is forgettable.

Z – Therese Anne Folwer

z

(**** of five)

Oh, Zelda. There’s hardly anyone I can think of who’s life is so romanticized, so tragic, and yet seen as so much fun. ‘Z’ is clearly a book that is trying hard to get under all the rumor and exaggeration and tap into the real life of a real person. How well it succeeds is dubious, but it was a whole lot of fun to read.

In 1918 beautiful Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets the young soldier Scott Fitzgerald and even though he is all wrong for her, not wealthy, not Southern, and not from a particularly good family, she falls in love. Insisting that he’ll earn fame and fortune with his writing Zelda agrees to marry him and after his first novel, the run-away success ‘This Side of Paradise’, is published she moves to New York City to be his bride. What follows is decades of traveling from one end of the globe to the other chasing one party after another. As the famous couple meet famous friends and have famous parties. But soon Zelda wants to settle down and make a name for herself besides the title “wife” while Scott has become a slave to drink. Their once happy, carefree lives are now pepper with lies, bitterness, and betrayal. Eventually their lifestyle takes its toll on both of them, but still they cling to each other as they have nothing else to cling to.

There were many parts of this book that felt very familiar. Mostly because I had already read them, in ‘The Great Gatsby’ somewhat, ‘Tender is the Night’, definitely, and even Zelda Fitzgerald’s own book, ‘Save me the Waltz’, which was much better than given credit for while still not being great. It was hard to know, at points, if the writer was borrowing from the books or if the books were borrowing that much from reality.

The problem with first person historical fiction, of course, is that at some point the reader inevitably forgets that that is what this is. It’s clear Fowler researched her subject well, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have a more than average affection for her subject. I don’t blame her, so do I, but that doesn’t always lead to a unbiased look at things. Needless to say, Scott does not come off looking very good in this book. He is petulant, jealous, and erratic, in large part due to his raging alcoholism. Sometimes the devoted husband, sometimes a tyrant belligerently blaming Zelda for everything that has gone wrong in his life. Zelda, naturally, comes off as blameless to the reader, if somewhat swept up in a fantastical life and lacking one thing to devote herself to. Zelda’s problem, in this book, is that she has an artists spirit, and wants to be active, but is better suited in the role of muse.

Another historical character that is shown no mercy by Fowler is that of Ernest Hemingway. Zelda and he famously did not see eye to eye; he believed her to be a time waster for Scott and she believed he encouraged bad behaviors in her husband. Both are probably a little bit true. In her earlier days Zelda could certainly keep the party going, but Hemingway’s gag worthy need to be macho and superiority complex probably didn’t do Scott any favors. What seems clear to me is that the Fitzgerald’s marriage wasn’t something that made sense to Hemingway, with his constant revolution of obedient wives (with the exception, perhaps, of Martha Gelhorn). To be fair, I’m not sure the Fitzgerald marriage has made complete sense to anyone, anywhere, at any time; though this book puts in a very valiant effort.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the way Fowler presented Zelda’s mental illness. Actually, one of the things I was particularly looking forward to in this book was seeing her decent into what people called madness. Diagnosed a schizophrenic (though that’s practically refuted these days) Zelda spend a good portion of her marriage in sanitariums throughout Europe and the United States and eventually died in one in the late forties. But when it came time to deal with this Fowler gave her one sort of vision and breakdown in a movie house which sent her directly to a home where she lived in bitter resentment. As the tale went on I believe she did a good job with this part of Zelda’s life, the frustration she must have felt and the constant battle between wanting to make something of herself on her own and being a good wife and mother. By modern sensibilities this isn’t a tall order, but in the twenties and thirties it was.

I could probably argue points of this tale for a very long time, so I suppose I should curb it here. This book was good. It was entertaining and felt natural to me. Whether it will feel that way to everyone is questionable. The problem with this subject is that it’s one that many people feel very strongly about. They have their preconceived idea of how it should be and they will not veer or accept anything less. That’s fine, but it doesn’t lead to very objective reading. I feel like I have used this argument several times lately in reference to the latest film version of Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, which I suppose is appropriate. The characters of Gatsby, much like the characters of Scott and Zelda, are beloved. All that can be done is to to show your ideas and hope that other people agree. For me, this was a good view of the Fitzgerald marriage from Zelda’s point of view.

Red Dragon – Thomas Harris

red dragon

(**** of five)

I don’t like it that they have subtitled this “Hannibal Lecter #1” on Goodreads. Hannibal does play a role, but it’s a small one. He’s prevalent in mood throughout the book, but he only has two short scenes and very little dialogue. And I hate false advertising. No, if you want Hannibal read ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ or, more obviously, ‘Hannibal’ (it’s weird but still pretty decent unlike, cough, ‘Hannibal Rising’ which was practically written at gunpoint). But ‘Red Dragon’, ‘Red Dragon’ is good.

Special Agent Will Graham has been in retirement ever since he was nearly disemboweled while catching the notorious cannibalistic serial killer Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Since then he’s made a nice little life for himself in Florida as a mechanic, husband, and stepfather. But when a new killer, known as the Tooth Fairy, begins brutally murdering entire families Graham’s old boss, Jack Crawford, comes to ask Graham for help. Being the best at what he does, Graham reluctantly comes out of retirement. Haunted by the past and tortured by the present Graham follows the clues left by the very damaged Francis Dolarhyde, a seemingly strange, but ordinary man with very dark secrets. But never far is the specter of Graham’s last catch, the manipulative Lecter haunts nearly everything Graham does until he realize he might need him for something else, he might need his help.

I first read this book in college. Around the time I first saw ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and was pretty much blown away by how incredibly awesome it is. I read them all, one after the other, and then put them away in my head hardly to be accessed for a further twelve years. Then ‘Hannibal’ the television show came out (I can recommend it fully) and I decided it was about time to refresh my memory. And there was plenty I didn’t remember.

Now, no one is saying that Thomas Harris is the most eloquent writer of all time. The writing is decent and every so often there is a turn of phrase that’s pretty good. But that’s hardly the point of a Thomas Harris book. You don’t read them to get heavy locutive passages you read them because it can come but with one hell of a plot! Francis Dolarhyde is a truly horrifying individual and Harris doesn’t shy away from getting into his psyche. This is a cops and robbers type story, of course, but it’s far from a whodunnit. Instead we watch both sides as Dolarhyde commits his atrocities and leads his life, and as the FBI investigates and plans to trap the killer.

Be forewarned, though, this is not a pleasant story. In times it’s downright gross. But it is an intense thriller that relies both on the psychological and the physical.

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About Lindsay

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