Tell the Wolves I’m Home (CBR6 #19)

I normally do pretty spoiler free reviews, but I cannot think of how to talk about my reactions to this book without spoiling the heck out of it, so if that’s a thing you want to avoid then you probably need to click right along to another review.  Go ahead, I won’t judge. Promise.

Anyway, now that we have that done, let’s talk about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.  Our protagonist is June, age 14. She is telling us about the death of her Uncle Finn, her godfather and best friend. It is 1987 and the President of the United States won’t utter the word AIDS for a few more months but it’s the disease that took Finn from June and her family. June’s as up to date as it was possible to be 27 years ago, but the world at large isn’t. It’s a charged climate, and as much as that affects June, and how others react to her and Finn’s death, she’s busy processing the loss of the person she felt she knew entirely, and who knew her.  The problem is that through machinations between her mom and her uncle, there is much about Finn’s life that June does not know, and it all comes screaming into her life with the arrival of Finn’s boyfriend Toby at the funeral.

I wish the book had been told from Toby’s point of view. I want to read Toby’s story. I want to know about  his childhood in England, I want more information about how he and Finn fell in love because what we are told feels like being short changed, how Toby dealt with his  AIDS diagnosis when there was little to nothing to be done and AZT hadn’t been announced yet, what it felt like to get diagnosed with an illness that meant everyone would be terrified of  being in physical proximity to you, how he coped with the decisions to accept being banned from Finn’s family’s life and subsequently let them believe he was the reason Finn had AIDS and not the other way around,  and how he then attempts to survive losing the love of his life. But most importantly I want to know what it took from deep inside of him to attend Finn’s funeral and know that he would likely be turned away, at the very least, in an attempt to make a connection with the niece he was denied a relationship with and on whom his great love’s final wish rested.

After a few fits and starts, June and Toby begin a clandestine friendship. What evolves is the type of relationship which they should have been allowed to have since Toby had spent the last decade with Finn – living in the same apartment that June visited – but she had no idea he even existed. Not his name, not his stories, she didn’t even know his belongings were his. She thought it was all Finn. This is a great story – the story of Finn orchestrating that his two loves are able to help each other process their loss after his death, even if they had been forcibly kept from each other during his life. But that isn’t really the story we get, although it is by far the best part of the book.

What we do get is another coming of age story set against the backdrop of crisis. But it isn’t as good as others in the genre, such as The Age of Miracles. We spend a lot of (possibly wasted) time with June interacting with what death by AIDS means to the people who must now interact with the Elbus family following Finn’s death. And, how it relates to their individual interactions with the portrait.

And here’s a plot device that eluded me. I loved the early parts of the book where Finn is painting the portrait of his nieces. I enjoyed immensely reading about the work and detail that he put into it, including the wolf’s head between the two bodies in the all-important negative space.  But what happens after – the article in the New York Times, the displaying of the work in the living room, the removal to the safe deposit box, the additions made to the painting by the various members of the family, the fixing of said painting, the art professor – all of it, was simply too much. It was another example of the too much factor in this book. There are just too many storylines to be covered adequately. To name only a few I haven’t yet spoken about:

  • June has no friends and is generally a social recluse who prefers her imagination and pretending to be a girl in Medieval Europe
  • Finn was a renowned artist who left the art world and the portrait he paints of June and her sister Greta is his last and an image of it is ‘leaked’ to the press. We never find out from who or why
  • Greta is a 16 year old high school senior who is battling her demons about being pushed to grow up too fast, unreal expectations, the dissolution of her relationship with her sister, and feeling shunned from June’s relationship with Finn.
  • Greta has taken to getting drunk at parties and roping her sister into attending them so that she can ‘rescue’ her in her inebriated state without telling June why. (This one was particularly bothersome to me, because I kept expecting to find out that the Drama teacher was abusing Greta in some way).
  • Their mother, Danni, gave up her own dream of art after Finn left home to travel and study art on his own. Danni has an equivalent talent to her brother and seems to be holding on to a lot of anger about the life she could have had if Finn had stuck to ‘the plan’.
  • Their dad is an accountant, like Danni, and they are so busy with tax Season as to leave June and Greta without supervision for the entirety of the spring. He is often also in the position of apologizing for Danni’s behavior.

Brunt could have written a story about familial relationships and how they can disintegrate so easily without layering all these storylines over the plot.  With that said, yes, the writing is good, the word choice is evocative and emotions are inspired, the characters are well drawn, but they can often be difficult to care about and their motives are vague if present at all. But this book still gets three stars because what Brunt does well is the sincere and the heartfelt and this book is teeming with it. I just wanted more.

This book was read and reviewed as part of the charitable Cannonball Read.

The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (CBR5 #13)

This book holds in it the kernel of a really neat idea – what 101 fictional characters/myths/legends influence our lives and has affected history?  But by the end I wished it had been written by someone other than this team. There were plenty or entries which kept strictly to the facts, ma’am but the zany asides at least one of the three authors tried too hard and most of the snarky jokes simply fell flat. There is a difference between something that is funny with the proper inflection or when you know the writer and something that reads well across many audiences.

The list is given to the reader right away, the strict list of 101 in order. Then the narrative is broken up into chapters, and each chapter features a different category the 101 fall into – myths, folktales, propaganda, theatre, literature, etc. Each category has at least three example which fall into it, and each example is given its own description while the chapter is given its own introduction which attempt to make the argument for why these characters are influential. However, the arguments are not always well made and often selections weren’t actually influential, just favorites of the authors, which was clear from their entries.

From what I could piece together in the asides and prologue the writers are members of a writing group. While they weren’t personally bothersome to me, there were political asides in the entries which were out of place and distracting and typical of lesser experienced authors. While there were some technical issues and oddly placed humor I could have done without; there were some really interesting choices on the list and plenty of obscure background details. A particularly interesting tidbit for me was that I had completely misunderstood the concept of the Wandering Jew for my entire adult life. I’m sure there will be plenty of interest for you as well.

A side note: I used inter-library loan to get this book from my fantastic local library. And I found this sticker:                                    

Image

Why would you place it right in the middle of the author biography? There was plenty of space on the opposite page.

A Broken Vessel (CBR4 #40)

The Cannonball has given me many things this year (Ready Player One, The Fault in Our Stars, Dreamers of the Day) but I think introducing me to the character of Julian Kestrel and his mysteries is perhaps my favorite. I know that I haven’t rated the first book, Cut to the Quick, or this one, A Broken Vessel, with as many stars as the previous three but I simply adore the characters Kate Ross created in a way that I did not feel in the other Cannonball finds.   I love the characters of Julian, Dipper, and Dr. MacGregor enough that I can overlook my displeasure at spending so much time with Dipper’s sister, Sally.

Sally Stokes is a prostitute and thief who pickpockets her johns. We soon find out she is also Dipper’s younger sister who he has not seen in years. Much of A Broken Vessel is spent with Sally as the reader views the events through Sally’s eyes. Sally’s adventure starts in London’s Haymarket district, where she picks up three men in turn and nicknames them Bristles, Blue Eyes, and Blinkers. From each Sally steals a handkerchief – and from one she mistakenly steals a letter which contains an urgent plea for help.  It isn’t until she runs into her brother after being roughed up by Blinkers that Sally discovers the letter, and who better to help her unravel the mystery of the girl in need of help than one Julian Kestrel.

Julian, Dipper, and Sally (with an assist by Dr. MacGregor) come up with a plan to discover the identity of the girl in question and find out that she has died. Julian is convinced it was murder, and upon getting the backing of a magistrate, sets about to prove it. Enter Sally, who as a lady – and one of ill repute – she is particularly suited to investigate the circumstances of the girl’s death in a reform house. Julian and Dipper do their own sleuthing, turning up a human trafficking circuit and ultimately the person responsible for the murder.

This one was not perfect, mainly because while I acknowledge that Kate Ross gets the slang and other language right, it felt like it got in the way of the storytelling. Much of the language is dead to the American reader and at times it felt like I spent more times deducing what Sally was saying than what it meant for the story overall. Still a worthy read and I have Whom The Gods Love lined up to read in the next few weeks. I will be sad to end the Kestrel mysteries, and I know that I won’t be able to hold off finishing the fourth later this year.

City of Shadows (CBR4 #18)

Reviewing City of Shadows by Ariana Franklin is a tough one since I nearly gave up on the book entirely several different times within the first 150 pages, but at the end of the day I did end up liking the narrative quite a bit. The only reason at all that I refused to stop reading this book is that the list of books I have started and left unfinished is incredibly short, just Beloved by Toni Morrison and The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs by Irvine Welsh. I have pushed through everything else.

This book was passed off to me by a friend on vacation. The best part of telling people that I’m participating in the Cannonball is that they are likely to hand me books to read. I am totally fine with this.  This one arrived in my hand from a friend who said simply “I know you like history so this one should be great for you.” This is probably a fair judgment. The cover lists this as a novel of suspense but I’m rather sure I was not feeling the suspense the author had in mind.

The titular City of Shadows is Berlin starting in the 1920s. Our main protagonist is Esther Solomonova, an exiled Russian Jew who works as a personal secretary to ‘Prince’ Nick, nightclub impresario. ‘Prince’ Nick is not a prince of a guy, working every backhanded trick in the book to keep his three clubs up and running. However, Nick hatches a plan that will fill his bank account and make him a household name.  He’s going to train an asylum patient to play the part of Anastasia, heir to the Romanov throne. He cannot do this along and needs Esther to train her to be a lady and Natalya to teach her about the monarchy. There is a big problem – there is a man hunting this Anna Anderson and every six weeks someone dies.

The problem I had early on with this work is that no character jumped off the page and made me care. Esther is so downtrodden that she doesn’t even care what happens to her, so why should I? She cares about the characters that kick the bucket but I haven’t known them long enough or well enough to mourn them. It wasn’t until the introduction of Inspector Schmidt, police detective that I started to care about the meat of the story and its characters. I think Franklin is trying to base the suspense of the novel around the ‘is she or isn’t she’ question of Anna/Anastasia while the only suspense for me was would Esther escape Germany before Hitler and the S.S. take over in 1932.

Part Two of the book, the last 170 out of 420 pages is a much tighter crisper narrative than is achieved in the seemingly routine killings of the first 200 pages of the book. We meet a character, six weeks passes, and they are killed. The second half of the book works to unravel the puzzle of who Anna/Anastasia is and who is trying to kill her and has been killing these other people all along.

My recommendation is to read this book if the time period or the Anastasia lore interest you but be prepared to push through until the second half when things pick up.

Savor the Moment (CBR4 #16)

There’s something about the Bride Quartet books (of which this is the third) that both irritates and entertains. I admittedly gave several hours of my time to reading each book, quite enjoyed them as I sped through them but the moment I closed them after reading the happy ending I was just a little ‘bleh’. I think part of the problem is the titles. The four titles are: Vision in White, Bed of Roses, Savor the Moment, and Happy Ever After. Yep, those are definitely a part of my disappointment.

On face value these books do have an interesting setting. The quartet of friends, Mackensie, Emmaline, Laurel, and Parker, has known each other from childhood. There was a terrible car crash and Parker lost her parents and inherited their massive estate. She convinced her friends to pursue their individual dreams jointly and create a full service wedding venue on said family estate. They do, and the three remaining members of the quartet, one photographer, one florist, and one pastry chef move onto the estate and pursue this new shared dream.

Savor the Moment is about the pastry chef, Laurel. Laurel is perhaps the closest to Parker both emotionally and physically. They each live in a separate wing of the Brown estate’s main house. They have been friends since their youngest years and in many cases Parker’s parents and Mrs. Grady, the housekeeper and resident mother hen, served the function of parent for Laurel when her own parents did not do the job. All of this works to make Laurel’s relationship with Parker’s brother Delaney very complicated.

Delaney has always viewed Laurel, as well as Emma and Mac, as his sisters. The problem is that no matter how hard Laurel tries to keep herself in the sister box, she is in love with Del. In the first two books there are hints of this, but now in book three we are receiving the story from Laurel’s point of view and it is very clear, very early on, that she can no longer live under the pretense and proceeds to change the status quo for herself and Del.

Perhaps I struggle with enjoying this one because I too chose to date someone whose relationship to my family was similar to the one Laurel and the Browns have and in my case it turned out to be a giant failure. But, in this one it isn’t (I refuse to think of that as a spoiler, it’s a romance novel for goodness sake). Perhaps my favorite scene in this book was when the quartet and appropriate male counterparts spend a rainy day at Parker and Del’s new beach house having a games tournament. (Pinball!) I’d say it’s worth a read, but my favorite books in this series are two and four.

A not so funny thing happened on the way through the exhibit…

This past weekend, my friend was incredibly magnanimous and offered to accompany me to a visit of the American Museum of Natural History for my birthday. This friend is not a museum person, in that her mind was not necessarily built for what an Art museum has to offer, but through an extended friendship with me she has developed a love of natural history museums. Like any seven-year old you might know, she’s really just here for the dinosaurs and life dioramas.

I am totally cool with this arrangement.  In the past three years I have been inside plenty of museums of various types, shapes, and prestige levels as part of pursuing my degree. This being the case, I am happy to have a bit of company on any of my excursions. Since I know my audience, when we arrived at the museum we immediately had a snack, and headed up to the fourth floor to the dinosaurs. Now, being ourselves we got off the elevator and made a series of turns to avoid the stroller set which brought us into what designed as the end of the exhibition.  We would find this out later.

However, since the level of design on the fourth floor is quite divine, we felt no ill effects of our choice. The floor was completely reinstalled between 1994 and 1996, and 14 years later it still holds up with more contemporary installations around town. The fossil halls of the fourth floor are continuous loop telling the story of vertebrate evolution. The exhibits are not arranged in chronological order such as you find in other museums, but instead the fossil halls display the specimens according to evolutionary relationships. This serves to dramatically illustrate the complex branches of the tree of life, in which animals are grouped according to their shared physical characteristics.  This organization schema is fantastic for the walk-and-gasp crowd which I was traveling with. We were able to work through the various halls and make the connections for ourselves, and turn to the texts to support our conclusions. There were also audio-visual booths at the end of certain branches of the exhibition which would further explain the group of animals you had just seen with video clips from the appropriate curators and scientists, also very handy for the type of museum visitor who does not wish to stop to read, but doesn’t mind being told a story. This was the very essence of informal learning.

As we did the floor backwards we ended at the Orientation Center. There is a fantastic video narrated by Meryl Streep which explains the way in which the floor is laid out, including AMNH’s involvement in pioneering a method of scientific analysis called cladistics, which is grouping by shared characteristics and ancestors.  It was also a nice place to sit for a few minutes and rest our feet before we headed downstairs.

Downstairs is unfortunately where things went a bit awry. We spent time working through the Primates Hall, through Eastern Woodlands Indians and Plains Indians Halls which dead-end in the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples. While all of these Halls could use an update, the walkway between the Plains Indians Hall and the Hall of Pacific Peoples perhaps irritated me the most. On the walls are various photographs from the area and Mead’s travels and they have been nearly destroyed by the hands of time and children. The majority of the labels have peeled off and there is no way to know exactly what you are looking at. This was my moment of crankiness, I was astonished at the lack of care this area of the museum was enduring beyond the normal amount of care I would expect as a museum professional, given that it is also home to the statue from Easter Island which since the movie A Night at the Museum is a photo opportunity for families and is therefore a sought out location.

After a trip though the Akeley Hall of African Mammals we continued downstairs to the second floor and the Halls of African Peoples and the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples. This is where my friend had her moment of anger. She and I attended the same high school many moons ago and received the same history and culture education. It was a step above the norm for public schools in our area, but it still left much to be desired in its covering of African and Asian peoples so we were looking forward to these Halls and had agreed to spend the time to see them even though our feet were very tired and we had another forty blocks of walking ahead of us before the end of our day.

While there is much that is fantastic in the Stout Hall (hello wedding dress from Azerbaijan) there seems to also be a hold over from a more closed off time in cultural understanding. The museum is rightly proud of the recreation of a healing ceremony performed by an Eastern Siberia Yakut shaman but around a few corners is something of which they should be quite ashamed. In a tableau which appears to be depicting the history of Isfahan in the 17th century there is a man on a flying carpet in the corner. I admit that in keeping up with a fuming mad friend I was not able to stop and read the entire label attached to this scene, but the only part of the label which could have explained this piece of the rather Aladdin-esque puzzle was that the area was known for acts of magic and romance.

Why did they do it? Why is it still there? I do not know. But, I think this in concert with the poor care shown in areas surrounding the Margaret Mead Hall of Asian Peoples we see an endemic problem in the museum community. We are not sufficiently aware that the level of care and the manner in which we keep areas up to date demonstrates to the public the respect we have for the cultures on display. As a visitor I felt that these areas were being deemed unimportant due to stereotyping in one and lack of care in the other. This is not what I want, or have other visitors, experience in a marquee name in the museum field.

Because if they do, why would they then seek out smaller museums with smaller budgets and expect different?

Heartless (CBR4 #7)

When I started the Cannonball Read last month I was so surprised to see how many people had trouble with the review; that reviews were the thing that kept people from making their goal, not the actual reading. I do now understand how that may happen. I finished reading Heartless by Gail Carriger almost a week ago and have been carrying it around in my purse as a reminder to write the review, the problem is I just don’t have much to say about the book.

Did I enjoy it? Absolutely. There were certain points in the story where I absolutely did not want to put it down and made excuses to keep reading. Was it earth shattering? Absolutely not. Nothing new happened here and no views about the world or writing were changed. Would I recommend it to a friend? Yep, and already have. Does it leave me wanting more? No, not really. That’s a bit of a copout. It did leave me wanting more, because Carriger has a habit of squashing the best action in the Parasol Protectorate books into the last 70 pages or so, but this could have been the end of the series given about 10 more pages dedicated to tying up loose ends.

Will I be reading Timeless when it comes out next month? Certainly. Will I be ravenously awaiting its arrival? No, I’ll be pleasantly surprised when the book gets passed down from my friend who’s reading them before me. I do look forward to more time with Professor Lyall (particularly after the revelations of his love life), Biffy, Ivy, and to a lesser extent Mme LeFoux and Channing. But I wonder after a rampaging octomaton, a political reshuffling, and the birth of the baby what could possibly be left to talk about?