All He Ever Dreamed (CBR8 #6)

Over the past several years I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through the Kowalski Family books by Shannon Stacey. They cover the romantic lives of the Kowalski cousins in New England and the people in their lives. I started reading these because Ms. Stacey writes the kind of straightforward, serviceable romance novels that let the reader slow down, read about some characters who aren’t too far from yourself and people you know, but just far enough to be fiction, and have a little happily ever after and steamy times as well. Basically, she’s become my new Nora Roberts since Roberts has been slipping of late.

In All He Ever Dreamed Ms. Stacey aims to deliver a contemporary read with average 30-something characters. There’s also the bonus that neither of the leads are physically or mentally abusive and don’t cheat. But, it was just so-so for me. While All He Ever Dreamed was a cute, fun, light read, it was predictable. Ridiculously so. I have great affection for the friends to more storyline, but something didn’t work so much for me here, and that something was the characters’ emotions. When our protagonists get together it as perhaps the most emotion lacking, lifeless encounter I’ve read, possibly ever. It was definitely a disappointment from Ms. Stacey.

Besides the problems with emotion and a lack of steam, the depth–or lack thereof–of both Josh’s and Katie’s characters was frustrating. I wished we could’ve seen more of Josh besides his desire to leave (he got left holding the bag for his siblings in running their family’s lodge), his propensity to mope around, and then continuing to do nothing but thinking of leaving even after he made his initial choice to stay. In retrospect I also wish Katie had done more than sit around and wait for Josh to come back. I’ve read a lot of romances lately with female leads who display much more agency, and that left a bitter taste in my mouth with these two characters. I should have loved them, but they just didn’t DO anything to win my affection in this outing, which is a waste of the buildup in All He Ever Needed and All He Ever Desired.

Which brings me to perhaps my biggest complaint: there was really no story in the A plot. The B plot had a nice arc, but we’ll get there in a minute. The A plot is supposed to be Josh wanting to leave, getting to leave, and returning. Those things happen, but there’s nothing extra to it. Josh is 30, and it’s entirely typical for people in their twenties/early thirties to dream about going to a city, trying on a new career, learning new things, meeting new people, find out what they’re good at etc. In this book, when Josh gets a chance to get away, he does nothing like that. He goes on a six week road trip and wakes up to the reality that he did have what he wanted at home. But, how did he know? And Katie remained the same, which is part of her characterization as steadfast, but with his storyline being so one note, we really needed something more from Katie.

The B plot was better. Focused on Katie’s mom Rosie is the live-in housekeeper at the lodge. In previous books we’ve explored her role as mom to the Kowalski kids, her relationship with her deceased husband, and her coming around to forgive his best friend for actions 20 years ago and build a relationship with him. These characters had growth, development, and used their emotions. If only they were the A plot.

2.5 stars.

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

Advertisements

The Sense of an Ending (CBR7 #46)

I am so behind in reviews, it’s ridiculous (for me – I know some of you get WAY behind but I’m usually getting reviews up within 48 hours of completing a book. I finished this book two weeks ago). I blame life getting busy and choosing to not take my laptop on vacation. I finished a bunch of books, but had no way of writing and posting my reviews so they languished. But mostly I blame this book because I have a need to review in the order that I read and while I finished this book before I left for vacation I couldn’t quite figure out how to talk about giving a two star rating to the winner of the Man Booker Prize from 2011. So here goes, because I have other books I want to talk about.

I had been aware of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending from Cannonball Read reviews so when I embarked on Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge this year and one of the tasks called for reading A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade and I went through the lists and lo and behold there was The Sense of an Ending I thought great! Two birds, one stone. And while that is true, it really felt like I was carrying a very large boulder around while spending time with Tony Webster.

You see Tony is our protagonist and the story is told from his point of view. The style is meant to invoke a long conversation with Tony. The audiobook clocks in at four and a half hours. I have had phone conversations that have lasted almost that long so the conversational quality wasn’t what broke me. What broke me was the meandering.

This is not a long book. We are introduced to only a handful of characters and three major plot points. That’s it. This is a sparse work, and many who have praised it have praised it on those qualities. But, and perhaps this is because I am both the wrong generation and gender for this work, I found myself wondering again and again, “so what?” This might sound harsh to those of you who have read the book and know the plot points I’m speaking of (since this book works for some I am sticking spoiler free so you can enjoy it is you choose to) but while I know it is absolutely possible to make boneheaded terrible decisions in our twenties which have lasting ramifications (I at 32 know that I did and said things at 21-23 which have landed me exactly where I am) I also know that all we can do is move forward. This is perhaps why Tony in his 60s was a difficult man for me to identify with. He is seeing the end of the line while I am hopeful that I still have 30-40 years of life ahead of me.

There are things that are well done in this work. Language choice is beautiful, although occasionally repetitive. And Tony is well-drawn. My reactions to him as a character were the same to a friend sitting across the table. And even with a generation gap and a difference of gender there was much about the way Tony chose to live a safe life and what that has meant that I was able to understand and empathize with, which is evidence of Julian Barnes’ skill and craft. Overall this is a 2.5 star book for me, hopefully better luck for you.

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

Get in Trouble (CBR7 #17)

I have a feeling that this book is a case of its not you, it’s me. In addition to my goal for Cannonball (65 books this year) I’m working on the Read Harder Challenge put on by Book Riot. As part of that challenge there are 24 tasks and one of them is a short story collection. I haven’t really done much in the way of reading short story collections so this was one of the tasks that truly felt like a challenge. Late last year I read the collection My True Love Gave to Me and I had a typical experience: inevitably there are some which are too long, and some which are too short. And some that are just, well, terrible. Of the stories which I loved from that collection one was Kelly Link’s The Lady and the Fox. Once I decided to do the Read Harder Challenge I went back to the stories I loved from My True Love Gave to Me to hunt up collections and lo and behold Kelly Link had a new collection coming out in 2015. I immediately signed myself up for the waitlist at the library. Challenge solved!

And if only it were so easy. Her latest work, Get in Trouble, comes highly rated with lots of awesome pull quotes on the back cover. And I thought this was going to be a case of discovering a new delivery method of awesome stories. This was going to be another experience with audiobooks! But, no. Don’t get me wrong, the writing – when it’s good, it’s really good.  But it’s also inconsistent. Some stories feel overwritten, some feel underwritten, and I have BIG problems with some of the formatting that happens in the stories.

There are nine stories included in Get in Trouble, and of those I enjoyed five. This simple math is what I used to decide to rate this book three stars instead of only two. But those four stories which didn’t work for me, REALLY didn’t work for me. Here are some of the issues I ran into:

  • It took me far too long to “get into” the universe of each story. By the time I found my footing the story was generally over. Or I wanted it to be.
  • Often the best part of the ‘bad’ stories was the mystery of what the heck the setting/interpersonal dynamics were. The plots held much less interest.
  • The further I read the more confused with the narrative devices I became. Was it symbolic? Or just random and nonsensical? For some of the stories I still don’t know.
  • Time jumps, POV changes, and other mechanics of storytelling are not delineated in the text. They just happen. Give me a font change, use italics or really anything to help the reader understand.

The stories which I enjoyed, and which worked for me, tended to have both younger protagonists, and to be playing with only a single idea. “The Summer People” explores the burdens of the responsibilities we take on, and the cost of friendship.  The one I enjoyed the most was “Secret Identity” and works through the differences between being who we are and who we want to be. With superheroes and dentists thrown in. “The New Boyfriend,” deals with ferocious jealousy and what love is. The adult protagonist stories I enjoyed were “Light” which struck a chord both because it deals with fraught relationships and is set in South Florida (it also includes pocket universes and frozen iguana, what’s not to love). Finally, there’s “Two Houses” which almost feels like a cheat since I skimmed through the ‘horror’ parts of it, but the ending was so poignant that it won me over. To say too much would give it away.

My prognosis: your mileage will definitely vary, but when Kelly Link is on, she’s on.

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

The Red House (CBR6 #41)

The best things I can say about The Red House by A.A. Milne are that it is a tongue in cheek locked room mystery with an affable amateur sleuth hero and an amusing sidekick. This book was much more of a why-and-howdunnit than a whodunnit (which was a draw back for me), the charm of the work is more in the wit and friendship of the two main characters and their clever allusions to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

The Sherlock and Watson stand-ins are Antony Gillingham and Bill Beverley. Antony is arriving at the titular Red House to visit his friend Bill, who is himself a guest of the owner Mark Ablett. What Antony doesn’t know is that he has stumbled upon a little country-house murder mystery. Mark’s ne’er-do-well brother is found dead in a locked office, with Mark also missing, and Antony decides to pick up the craft of sleuthing.

This novel is set just after World War I, and yet the war is never mentioned, which speaks greatly of its tone. Antony is described as the sort who never settles into any one profession for long, where Milne could have simply had him be a returning soldier to explain his lack of career. This is instead a little bit of escapist fantasy, Milne’s try at a genre that was immensely popular in the interwar period, providing an intellectual puzzle to distract the reader from the fact that their world was completely turned upside down.

While the narrative was entertaining enough, Milne did commit a few sins in my opinion. First, the murderer’s confession at the end of the book in the form of a letter left for Antony is a cop out of the first order. The second was in eliminating most of the possible suspects (including all the women, so that there wouldn’t be any love interests) by sending them away early in the story unnecessarily. This made for too few characters and possible villains to keep my attention over several chapters at a time. I picked up and put down this short novel (only 156 pages in my edition) at least a dozen times.

Had it not been for the way in which the mystery is resolved, I would have been tempted to give this ½ a star less. Sure, the culprit might be easy to discover but the how’s and why’s of the last 50 pages were much more pleasurable for me to read than the 100 pages which began the mystery. For those 100 pages I really had to push to finish. The characters were often flat, the pacing was slow and way too much of the book, in my opinion, consisted of lengthy conversations which droned on about the various theories of the crime as well as narrator asides highlighting that this was in fact, a book.

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

The Irish Bridget (CBR6 #6)

Image

Synopsis from Goodreads:

“Bridget” was the Irish immigrant service girl who worked in American homes from the second half of the nineteenth century into the early years of the twentieth. She is widely known as a pop culture cliché: the young girl who wreaks havoc in middle-class American homes. Now, in the first book-length treatment of the topic, Margaret Lynch-Brennan tells the real story of such Irish domestic servants, often in their own words, providing a richly detailed portrait of their lives and experiences.

Many of the socially marginalized Irish immigrant women of this era made their living in domestic service. In contrast to immigrant men, who might have lived in a community with their fellow Irish, these women lived and worked in close contact with American families. Lynch-Brennan reveals the essential role this unique relationship played in shaping the place of the Irish in America today. Such women were instrumental in making the Irish presence more acceptable to earlier established American groups. At the same time, it was through the experience of domestic service that many Irish were acculturated, as these women absorbed the middle-class values of their patrons and passed them on to their own children.

If you’ve been following along with my reviews so far this Cannonball, you’ll know that I’m researching Irish immigrant domestic servants at the moment, and have been going back and forth between reviewing a book for me and a book for work. Review Six brings us squarely back to work.

The Irish Bridget: Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 1840-1930 by Margaret Lynch-Brennan should have been perfect for me. It’s the right topic, the right time period, and is a scholarly work. In many ways this is exactly what I needed, because it breaks down various aspects of a typical woman’s experience and provides primary source documentation about what was being experienced from interviews, personal correspondence and other ephemera.

My problem is that this work, which in its synopsis is credited as being the first book-length treatment of the topic, does not analyze the information it presents. The most glaring example, to me, in explaining the relatively high English literacy rates amongst Irish women, the culture of education in Ireland, and the prevalence of correspondence across the Atlantic, Ms. Lynch-Brennan does not discuss that in large part the increase in English literacy at the cost of Irish language literacy was influenced by the refusal to teach the language in the National Schools while the country was under English rule.

It’s this lack of nuance which permeates the book and eventually had me skimming through the last fifty or so pages just to get some additional information and be done. It also didn’t help that many sections seemed to devolve to a list of quotes in paragraph form to substantiate the author’s point. There’s a way to do that where the writing flows naturally and is entertaining while also informative, and sometimes Ms. Lynch-Brennan nails it, but far more often she falls short. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you are looking for an introductory book on the topic it’s not bad. But it just annoyed me too much to get anything above 2 stars, because I’m picky.

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