There was no choice, really. Is there ever between the darkness and the light? You walk toward the smile rather than the frown. “New Boy” by Tracy Chevalier

newboyThis book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I read Margaret Atwood’s book in the series, Hag-Seed, a year or so ago but wasn’t crazy about her play within a play retelling of the Tempest. I’m reading Edward St. Aubyn’s contribution to the series now, Dunbar, and not quite sure yet how I feel about his version of Lear. This re-imagined Othello set on the playground of my youth, however, is fantastic.  I was immediately drawn to the echoes of that time: monkey bars, playing jacks, jump rope rhymes and the luxury of an unstructured recess.  Admittedly, since this was in my wheelhouse, my emotional reaction to the authenticity of the time and place here makes me a little biased.

Chevalier’s Othello is Osei, the son of an African diplomat and the new boy at an all white suburban Washington DC elementary school in the 1970’s. The majority of the story takes place on the playground where the pecking order is exhibited in picking teams for kickball and finding the right seat in a crowded cafeteria. In an era when pubescence is littered with “will you go with me?” relationships that last a week,  the super popular Dee gravitates to this new, exotic boy at morning recess. Their mutual attraction catapults them through a single day in the 6th grade. A single day at that age can seem like a lifetime lived in a moment, and that is what Chevalier is so good at capturing here. Burgeoning sexuality, fears about moving to Junior High in the coming year, and dealing with the complexities of bullying are all brought to the surface when Osei’s arrival breaks the kids out of their standard routine.  When the class bully, Ian, sees Dee and Osei touch, it sparks an outrage in him. Unable to articulate his discomfort with anything other than a  “Don’t like that”,  Ian sets a series of actions into motion that will impact everyone at the school.

The juxtaposition of stereotypical school day activities with institutional racism and misogyny really illustrates where it can start and how it gets reinforced or rewarded.  The sizing up of social situations and jockeying for position within them starts here and Chevalier does an amazing job of exploring those ideas within the confines of  an elementary school  without dumbing it down or minimizing its significance. This is a chilling look at how our childhood can shape us and how we can allow what we experience to be shaped by others. The Shakespeare bent is just a bonus.

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

 

 

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A quick prayer in gratitude of pleasure. “Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal

eroticstoriesforpunjabiwidowsThis one hit my radar when it was put up for vote in my book club. It didn’t make the cut, but when I saw it at the library I snagged it and I’m glad that I did. This is one of the Reese Witherspoon books and the third that I have unwittingly read this year. I knew that she was behind bringing some women centered  books to screen,  but honestly had no idea that she had a book club going. I am surprised that we have similar tastes.

A young Londoner, Nikki,  is reluctantly posting a notice for her sister, who is seeking an arranged marriage,  when she sees a listing for a teaching job at a local Sikh temple.  Having dropped out of law school, Nikki is looking for something that might elevate her from her bartending job and applies.  She quickly learns that the teaching job is not creative writing, but an actual English writing class for widowed Punjabi women, many of whom are illiterate.  Out of her element and in an effort to keep the class afloat, Nikki agrees to allow the women to tell stories that one of the younger widows transcribes.  As a “modern” girl of immigrant parents, Nikki has struggled against the traditional tenets of the Sikh community and is surprised to discover what lies in the imaginations and longings of these multigenerational women.

As the widows and Nikki strive to keep the nature of the class secret from the woman responsible for setting up the class, the ties that bind several of the women in the community together unravel.  The death of a young woman the year before and several others over the years is a thread of mystery that weaves throughout the book. Earlier in my reading,  I mistakenly thought that the solution to the mystery was obviously laid out. This hiccup effected my reading of the book for a bit but once I got over myself and realized that everything wasn’t as it appeared, I really enjoyed it. The widows are smart, funny and endlessly entertaining.  Their ability to humble Nikki and her ability to encourage them is heart warming.

The book also explores a stifling conservatism within some of the community and the extremes some will go to police what they consider to be appropriate behaviors for the women inside it.  The class is not just a way for the women to express themselves. It is an awareness that they are not alone and that they are one voice of many.

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

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If Gaslight and Single White Female had a baby. “Tangerine: A Novel” by Christine Mangan

tangerineI admit to judging  books by their covers. Generally, that pans out for me. This one had a great cover  AND a promising teaser from Joyce Carol Oates:

As if Donna Tartt, Gillian Flynn, and Patricia Highsmith had collaborated on a screenplay to be filmed by Hitchcock-suspenseful and atmospheric.

Did you read the same book as me Joyce? In fairness, there is a bit of Tartt, Flynn and Hitchock in here, but only the worst parts. I can’t speak to Highsmith, but the navel gazing  society kids of Tartt, the crazy lady on steroids of Flynn and the fragile and malleable blonde bombshells of Hitchcock are all here in some form.

Alice and Lucy are college roommates during the 1950’s. Alice is glamorous, rich and British. Lucy is a local scholarship student who would like to be Alice.  They begin a friendship that borders on romantic and is full of  possessiveness,  gas lighting and single white female “I was just trying your clothes on, I don’t want to be you” weirdness.

After a tragic incident occurs at college, both women are separated for a time. Alice gets married and moves to Tangiers where her baseline anxiety is heightened by the foreigness of Morocco. Isolated in her apartment while her husband galavants around town, Alice is in self-imposed exile when Lucy shows up, out of the blue,  on her doorstep.  Bodies drop and craziness ensues.

While it was atmospheric and the suspense of “what the heck is going on?”  kept me reading, its hard to cheer for caricatures. Every character was a stereotype: the pretty, affluent and fragile leading lady, the underprivileged, whip smart but crazy college room-mate, the smarmy American husband wealthy in name only and the clueless Aunt who never sees it all coming.  Hard to get behind anyone in this book. Cover: 4 stars. Book: 2.

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

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To have strings, like everyone else. “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

themusicshopI thought that this book was going to be steeped in ’80’s music and culture which is totally in my wheelhouse. Some of the reviews that I had read indicated this. They were not accurate. I hate to use words like “okay” and “nice” but that sort of sums this one up. It really wasn’t what I was expecting, which is okay, but it circles around some pretty heavy themes in a way that is a bit too nice.

CDs are trumping vinyl in the late 80’s and music shop owner, Frank, is a vinyl purist. Raised by a mother that is ill-equipped to parent, Frank eats up the only healthy lesson that she seems to impart: a love of music. After stumbling around in the wake of her death, Frank buys a crumbling building and sets up a music shop. Having a psyche steeped in the emotional back story of music and musicians, Frank has developed a sort of sixth sense. He listens to his customers and neighbors and prescribes just the right albums to help them to “fix” their problems.

In the midst of a real estate developer buying up the buildings around them, Frank is the glue that holds together the band of misfit shop owners on his down trodden block: a rough tough cream puff tattoo parlor owner, a pair of creepy funeral director brothers, and a recovering alcoholic former priest who owns a religious store. The Music Shop is sort of the “Cheers” here, with Frank serving as the “bartender”.  This little tribe is upended when a strange woman in a green coat faints in front of the music shop. The “who is she” and “where did she come from” offers each character something to distract them from the changing neighborhood and the inevitable end of an era.

It’s not a terrible read, but part of it dragged a bit and I think that I just lost interest along the way. The characters are well drawn and interesting in their own quirky ways, but I just couldn’t really get behind them enough to care. There are a lot of psychological issues going on here and Frank has some seriously deep-rooted trauma that mostly gets glossed over. At the heart of it, I think the story is pretty dark, but the quirkiness of the characters adds too much lightness so it skims the surface until the end where Joyce rushes through to the conclusion. It felt like it was starting to drill down to what the story was about and then it was all wrapped up with a bow and ended.

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

 

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Put up a barrier, she thought, and people gather. “Offcomer” by Jo Baker

offcomerMy last review was of a book that everyone loved and I did not. This time around, I find myself  surprised by the abundance of 2 1/2 star reviews for a book I thought was awesome. As far as Google can tell, this has not yet been reviewed by any Cannonballers so I feel it is my duty to set the record straight and hope that some of you give this one a go.

I have read several Jo Baker novels, Longbourn being the favorite because it tugs at my Jane Austeny heartstrings, and I highly recommend her work.  Her stories tend to be melancholy and a bit depressing. Baker is not lighthearted, but the plight of her characters rings true. There is a raw and vulnerable quality to her writing that can be uncomfortable (and this may explain the 2 1/2 stars a bit) but the honesty in that makes for a rewarding read.

At its core, this is a story about a young woman’s search for self.  Generally adrift, Claire clings to people who she can hide behind: the vivacious childhood friend, Jenny, the boorish college boyfriend Alan.  She paddles along in their wake.   After graduating from Oxford, Claire follows her boyfriend Alan, back to his home town of Belfast.  It takes place in the 90’s during Ireland’s “Troubles” which isn’t addressed often but does lend to her feeling of disconnectedness. She is a an offcomer; an outsider to everyone else’s shared history. She takes a job at a pub owned and frequented by Alan’s friends but always hovers around the edges of their lives.  Trapped in a terrible relationship with Alan, she sees herself only as she thinks others see her. Afraid to return home to her parents where her mother is caring for her bedridden father and unable to extricate herself from Alan, Claire can see no welcome mat for her anywhere.

I realize, as I am writing this review, that I may not be doing a good job of selling this either. The plot is obviously nothing new. It’s a coming of age/what the hell do I do now that I have graduated from college kind of book, but the writing is the thing here. Baker elevates what could be a slog into a brutally honest and descriptive telling of what can happen after leaving the shelter of academic life for the “real” world beyond. It’s not something everyone experiences, but that point in time where you realize that you have to carve something for yourself and stand on your own is something most people can relate to.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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Just don’t get it. “Every Heart a Doorway” – Seanan McGuire

everyheartadoorwayThe premise of this book, and the great reviews of a lot of  Cannonballers,  placed this one on my TBR pile. A boarding school for “problematic children” that is really a refuge for kids that have found portals into alternate worlds.  Having flourished in these different worlds, returning is painful for them.   They don’t belong here anymore and long for the place where they can be themselves again.

Unfortunately, the back story of each of the characters and the structure of these portal worlds into lands of Nonsense and Logic is wrapped around a clunky murder mystery that just muddies the waters here. It’s partly an allegory for young adults trying to figure out who they are, part murder mystery and part  alternate worlds fantasy.  Each part was interesting but the end result was kind of a mess.

I read many super positive reviews by you fine folks on this one, but guys, I just don’t get it. The voice was all over the place and the dialogue was painful. I appreciate that McGuire had diverse characters (asexual, transgender) and approached topics that aren’t typical of YA (or is this really not a YA book?), but I couldn’t get over the writing. It read like fan fiction to me. There are several books, and series of books, that I have read over the years where I can over look  bad or mediocre writing because the stories are so good, but I can’t even classify this one as a guilty pleasure. I’m not very excited to write a bad review about a book that was so well received here, but if it hadn’t been so short, I think I would have thrown in the towel on this one.

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

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“Thank you.” I smiled sweetly at him. “Your trousers are on fire.” The Dark Enquiry – Deanna Raybourn

darkenquiryOh well. Now I don’t have to feel bad about finishing up Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey series. This one was kind of a bust.  I’m a big fan of Raybourn and had more love for the Lady Julia books than the majority of her fans, but this final (?) book in the series was a huge disappointment.

A lot of Cannonballers have read and reviewed her books. I reviewed two of them this year, here , so I’m not going to get into too much detail about the background. The series is set in Victorian England. Lady Julia Gray discovers that her husband’s death was actually murder which puts her in the path of detective Nicholas Brisbane. The two exchange witty repartee peppered with innuendo as they solve usually interesting and fairly uncommon crimes.

In this installment, Brisbane and Julia are finally settling in and establishing a household a year after their nuptials. Of course, this domesticity is interrupted by Mystery!  as Julia’s brother hires Brisbane to secure some compromising  letters. Undaunted by Brisbane’s attempts to lure Julia AWAY from this project, Lady Julia embarks on her own investigation. The story pretty much unravels as the other books did and they eventually come together to solve the mystery.

In each book in the series, there is a clear shtick: Brisbane is the gruff detective who doesn’t want any input from Lady Julia and she consistently meddles in the investigations and proposes wild theories that sometimes pan out. Their back and forth is generally hilarious, and sexy and that entertained me through 4 of these books. It wasn’t enough to sustain this fifth one.  I do recommend books 1-4 in this series, but will add that Raybourn’s new Veronica Speedwell books are fantastic and the characters’ shtick is a little fresher.

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

 

 

 

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