Like my marrow could carry a bruise. “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward (CBR#10, 14)

singunburedsing

I couldn’t decide if this was a book that I needed to digest a little before I tried to review it. Ultimately, I decided to write about it immediately after finishing it, while it still clung to me. This is definitely a book that clings to you. It’s not an easy book to read and it shouldn’t be.

The bulk of the story is a somber road trip that takes place over a few days, trapped inside a hot car in the American south. When Michael is released from prison, Leonie is determined to be the one to bring him home.  Addicted to both drugs and her love for Michael, Leonie brings along their 13-year-old son, Jojo, who longs to be back at home with the grandparents  who have raised him; their 3-year-old daughter, Kayla,  who is sick with fever and clinging to her brother like he is a life raft; and Leonie’s friend and co-worker, Misty, who is visiting her boyfriend at the prison.

The language that Ward uses is almost musical. There has been a lot of criticism about the wording being too sophisticated for the characters that employ it. I found that even though the vocabulary was often elevated, the more lyrical prose was saved for the characters’ thoughts and not for their dialogue, which lent weight to the things that they were carrying; to the trauma that they had experienced and couldn’t articulate.

Many Cannonballers have read and reviewed Sing, Unburied, Sing, and  it’s not hard to find something to discuss here. It’s about family dynamics. It’s about growing up too fast and not growing up fast enough. It’s about racism and poverty. It’s about holding on and letting go.  It’s about impossible choices, being brave enough to make them, and living with the stains that they leave behind.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

 

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…so much more than that. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (CBR#10, 13)

thehateugiveThere were 13 reviews posted of this book in CBR9. There isn’t much more I can say about this book that hasn’t already been said by all of those wonderful reviewers here. While my life experience could not be farther from Starr Carter’s,  I’m thankful to Angie Thomas for giving me the opportunity to spend some time with her.

The basic premise of the story has been discussed at length here and just about everywhere, so I’ll just list some of the things that will stay with me long after I write this review.

  • Parents being torn between protecting their children and helping their community.
  • The strain of having to cultivate and maintain two personas: one that is a set of expected behaviors for your neighborhood and one that is expected outside of it
  • Hiding racism behind sarcasm and humor
  • Forgetting that a sixteen year old is a child
  • Having two best friends die in front of you before you are old enough to graduate from high school
  • How easily someone’s life and death can be appropriated
  • Fearing those who are supposed to be protecting you

The Hate U Give is about so many things. While it certainly wasn’t Thomas’ job to educate me, there was a lot for me to learn here. Or, maybe not to learn but to understand.  I need to work harder at reading more, thinking more, and understanding more outside of my own bubble.  I need to see someone other than myself more often in the books that I read.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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The rough poetry of life “The Summer Guest” by Alison Anderson (CBR#10, 12)

summerguestAs much as I wish I could enjoy Russian classics, I tend to get bogged down in the political and philosophical discussions that go on and on and on and on. Most of the characters come across as self-important and obstinate and everyone just sits around arguing and insulting one another. I know this is an oversimplification but I just don’t get the appeal. “The Summer Guest”, a contemprary novel and only Russian adjacent,  only reinforced that for me.

Three stories are  interwoven here: A husband and wife struggling to hang on to their publishing company, the woman that they hire to  translate the diary of a late 19th century Russian woman,  and the story within the diary itself.

Beginning in 1888, Chekov’s family rents a guest house for several summers on the grounds of Zinaida Lintvaryova’s family estate in the Ukrainian countryside. Zinaida, a young doctor who is recently blinded by a growing tumor, forms a friendship with Chekov, who is also a physician. A budding writer of short stories and plays, Chekov confides in Zinaida that he has an idea for a novel. As he begins to write the novel in secret, he entrusts her with the manuscript which she keeps hidden for him under the floor boards in her room next to the diary in which she faithfully records the events of those summers. There is a lot of discussion of what both families and village folk get up to over the summer: fishing, side trips to other towns, impromptu musical concerts, picnics etc. but the haunting image is of Zinaida.  She is an ambitious, educated  woman quickly losing her independence to illness. She becomes everyone’s confessor; a safe person to confide in when needed, but she is often left alone as they frolic about the countryside. Her blindness imposes solitude.

The two storylines in present day also offer two strong female characters who suffer with their own solitude. Blindsided by the age of electronic publishing, Katya and her husband struggle with the inevitable end of their publishing business in London.  He retreats to the office and drinks. She wanders around their home rehashing  the past and wondering about the forks in the road that she did not take. In France, Ana, a literary translator, lives a quiet life in a quiet village after her divorce. Her Paris friends and city life have faded into the background and she has become a creature of routine and isolation.

Zinaida’s diary provides a way out of the isolation for each of them.  Where is this novel that Chekov was writing? Is it complete? If they could find this novel, translate and publish it then a business and marriage could be saved; efforts and talent recognized and rewarded. It would be a new lease on life.

The author, Alison Anderson, is also a translator and I found that the most interesting parts of the story were the discussions about translation. Particularly, the process of translating someone’s words and the difficulty of translating Russian into English.

“Was that something the translator could infuse into a text? They weren’t supposed to, but then perhaps it was the language. Just the tortured poetry of Russian names seemed to bleed onto the page for the English reader.”

In some way, this novel is about just that. How do you translate someone else’s words and thoughts? How do you get inside of their head so that you can really understand intent? What is the key to unlock meaning?

Maybe the translation of Russian classics, the awkwardness of the character’s names and nicknames is what makes them so stilted to me. I’m a big fan of entering a world and staying in it. I can handle darker material and uncomfortable situations and I  welcome robust prose. What I don’t enjoy is  being yanked out of the narrative by awkward sentences or  a monotony that causes me to drift off thinking about my grocery list as I read a particularly plodding passage.  It’s not a terrible book. Just not my cup of tea.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Put down the random similie generator and no one will get hurt. “Infinite Home” by Kathleen Alcott (CBR#10, 11)

infinitehomeI now know that it is possible to  love a book and be completely irritated by it in equal measure. This will most likely be the most negative review of a book that I am giving 5 stars.

Infinite Home is a beautiful word salad tossed with mixed results. I audibly groaned through the first two chapters. Alcott knows her way around the English language, but  she wields it like a butcher knife that has become dusty with disuse after the household converted to veganism. SERIOUSLY.  I made that one up, but the book is peppered with overreaching  similes which constantly pulled me out of a world that I desperately wanted to stay in, with characters that I was invested in.

The owner and tenants of a New York brownstone mostly keep to themselves. Embroiled in their own worlds, they retreat behind their apartment doors but find solace in the routine hum of one another’s presence.

“The thin structure of the building ensured that no sound was contained by the apartment that produced it: the three floors gave and received heavy-footed trips to the refrigerator and unsnoozed alarm clocks and the burst-and-whoosh of bath and faucets and late-night infomercials in a reliable cycle. Living with the proof of other people’s lone domestic movements had become a kind of comfort for the tenants, a telephone that didn’t require they speak into it, a letter that didn’t ask for a reply.”

When their landlord begins to show signs of dementia, each is forced to confront their demons as they attempt to hold on to their refuge. What will become of them if their fortress is destroyed?

Alcott’s prose, similes aside, is often breath-taking. The characters that inhabit her world are each incredibly unique: the elderly landlord whose dementia recalls the mistakes of her past, a stand up comic who cannot feel joy, a woman who builds a fortress out of old things, a boy who can never become a man and an artist whose body has betrayed him. Their struggles are palpable. Their private spaces both physical and emotional are vividly drawn.

Alcott’s rich language builds this incredible world but threatens to tear it down when it becomes showy and detached.  It is a wonderfully overwritten novel that both works and doesn’t work.  I absolutely recommend reading it. It is, in the end, worth the frustration.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Can you hear me now? “Crosstalk” by Connie Willis (CBR#10, 10)

crosstalkI like my alone time. I need my alone time. Accept for rare cases when I am totally immersed in a particular book, I can’t read when there is too much background noise: TV, music, conversations. I prefer silence so that trying to block out other sounds doesn’t constantly pull me out of my reading. I also often have a Pavlovian response to the various dings my cell phone makes. My body’s reaction to cell phone alerts is something like the nonverbal equivalent of Ugh!,  particularly when I am doing something else and don’t want to multi task at the moment. This book lives in the Ugh! It’s a never-ending loop of the “Can you hear me now” commercials.

Briddey Flannigan works at a company that is basically a competitor to Apple. Caught up in a romance with Trent, one of the big wig eligible bachelors at the company,  Briddey agrees to undergo a “minor” medical procedure with him to allow them to sense each other’s emotions.  In the procedure, an “EED” is placed IN THE BRAINS of each partner so that they can each feel how the other feels about them. No second guessing whether they love you–you’ve got a chip that will tell you! I have no idea why anyone would think that this is a good idea.

Shortly after the procedure, Briddey begins to discover that she may have gotten more than she bargained for. The flood of daily information, the constant interruption of her unbelievably invasive family (boundaries, people!!) and a heightened sensitivity to an already crowded world of stimulus and over communication tests her sanity. Perhaps the disheveled IT guy that lurks in the company’s basement can help?

Crosstalk is about all of the things that often drive me bonkers: background noise, the expectation of constant contact and availability and the digital grapevine of social media that can be both friend and foe. Reading it made me totally anxious which, in part, was the point. The relentless miscommunication and the frustration of the characters talking over each other and NEVER listening is part of what Willis is writing about here. The problem is that it also wants to be a love story but its difficult to root for a couple of people who can’t or won’t communicate with each other in a meaningful way.  You can’t feel the chemistry through loads and loads of paranoid internal dialogue.

So, so many things about this book were frustrating. Some of it intentional and the nature of the story. Some of it….not so much (Magically delicious level Irish stereotypes and a character that talked like a leprechaun). It would have worked better as a satire for me if it hadn’t tried so hard to be a romantic comedy as well.  This is really a 2 1/2 for me, but rounding up to 3 because Willis’ Doomsday Book rocked and I can’t be too much of a hater.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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A lepidopterist and a taxidermist walk into a mystery. “A Treacherous Curse” by Deanna Raybourn (CBR#10, 9)

atreacherouscurseAnother Victorian murder mystery rife with witty banter, palpable sexual tension, and painfully tender interludes. This is the third book in the Veronica Speedwell Mystery series by Deanna Raybourn. If you have read the other two books, you need no encouragement. If you haven’t, read them NOW.  They are completely addicting. If you need further encouragement, this is the FIRST sentence of Treacherous Curse:

“I assure you, I am perfectly capable of identifying a phallus when I see one,” Stoker informed me, clipping the words sharply. “And that is no such thing.

Yes. The entire book is like that and it’s AWESOME.

In the first book of the series, A Curious Beginning, Veronica Speedwell, a renowned lepidopterist, meets the Honourable Revelstoke Templeton-Vane, also known as Stoker,  when she is unceremoniously deposited at his residence after someone attempts to abduct her. Charged with her protection, the reluctant Stoker, an adventurer and taxidermist of dubious reputation, quickly finds himself involved in assorted mysterious shenanigans with Veronica.

In this installment, said shenanigans are a cursed archaeological dig, a missing/ stolen ancient diadem, and a missing/murdered man from Stoker’s past. Unraveling this one, puts Stoker in the hot seat.  Various bits of his back story are fleshed out here adding even more depth to his character.  Veronica is still dealing with the discovery of the identity of her father. Both are reluctant to share their burdens which often gets in the way of solving the mystery. They are flanked by a colorful array of supporting characters: a sullen 19th century Daria, a sullen 19th century man boy, various moneyed folk dabbling in Egyptology, and a handful of extremely interesting dogs.

Obviously pained by the need to confront his past in order to solve the mystery,  Stoker struggles to gain perspective. Veronica doesn’t always approach his issues  with sensitivity but their fierce loyalty to one another never wavers. Their obvious attraction to one another is super steamy and the “will they, won’t they” becomes  even more of a “they will, but when” in this third book. Somehow Raybourn keeps us on the edge without it getting too frustrating. Yet.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Did she say yes to the dress? “My Real Children” -by Jo Walton (CBR#10, 8)

myrealchildrenThis is the first Jo Walton book that I have read and only heard about her through  reading Cannonball Read reviews (thanks, guys!).  Although this isn’t the Walton title that I was looking for at the library (Among Others),   it sounded interesting and landed in my TBR pile. I was truly captivated by the first 2/3. The last 1/3? Not so much.

A woman suffering from dementia, and now confined to a nursing home, reflects on her life. Pretty straight forward, BUT, she “remembers” two separate lives with different partners,  children and world history.  Everything hinges on one moment where she must decide to accept a marriage proposal or not. Alternating chapters lay out her life based on whether she accepts or rejects that proposal.

The first 2/3 of the book was riveting. Following Pat/Trish (her name is different in each timeline) as she navigates both a life as Mark’s wife and the life she has after declining his proposal,  the narrative moves rapidly through chunks of time in each scenario. Each story is told in a very straightforward and detached way. This works when relating the events in her lives and helps to delineate the two but quickly loads multiple characters into the mix with family friends, children etc. who are mostly unique to one thread. It gets confusing and the detached summarization bleeds into the  dialogue between the characters. The conversations are stilted and awkward and often cringe worthy. My sympathy with or connection to the characters broke down a little at that point. The alternate history aspect of each story became aggravating as well.  In one thread, humans begin to live and study on the moon. In the other thread, everyone fears that the moon will be used as a nuclear missile launch site. Both are fine, but each point was mentioned relentlessly in a way that didn’t further the plot.

As I was struggling with a jumping point to write my review, I skimmed through reviews of this book to see if others felt the same way that I did about it.  Most of the issues with it boiled down to arguments for and against it being considered a science fiction novel. Many were unsatisfied with an ending that did not explain how the woman could have lived two distinct  lives/timelines. I wasn’t particularly bothered by the lack of explanation. I don’t think the how, why or if it really happened (or was just part of her dementia) was important. In the end, I think the book was more about how short life is, the frailty and the strength of human beings and the relationships that we have throughout our lives and at the end of them.

This would be a 4 star for me if the last part of the novel hadn’t let me down. I didn’t need the story to be overly sentimental. In fact, the detachment worked to make it more powerful for me. The robotic dialogue at the end just pulled me out of the story too much.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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