“Love And Other Consolation Prizes” by Jamie Ford

 

Genre:         Historical FictionLove and Other Consolation Prizes

Publishers:  Random House

Pub.             Date: September 12, 20017

Mini Review

This sweeping historical novel revolves around two World’s Fairs that take place in Seattle, fifty years apart. The narrator goes back and forth in time from his life during the 1909 and the 1959 World’s Fair. We first meet our male protagonist in China at the age of five in the year 1902. He watches his mother burying his infant sister alive (horrible to read). The baby is already near death from starvation. His destitute mother, who is near death herself, has him shipped off to America to save his life. Aboard the ship he and other Chinese children, and some Japanese children, are kept captive in the cargo and treated like animals. However, they manage to remain children even in such horrendous conditions. They played, teased, had a bully and formed bonds with each other. This reminded me of stories about German Jewish children in concentration camps who managed to play together before they were worked to death. On the ship, he meets a beautiful Japanese girl a few years older than himself. During the journey, he survives a body of water known as Dead Man’s Bay. Here the ill children that cannot be sold are put into a sack and thrown overboard (I need to google this to learn if it is true, but I am afraid of what I will find).

In America, he ends up as a charity student in a boarding school in Seattle. Though it’s a lucky break, the boy is very lonely and makes no friends and has no family. (Think young Ebenezer Scrooge being left alone in his boarding school when all the other kids went home for Christmas). But our boy does not grow up to be a bitter man as Scrooge did for the strangest of reasons. As a healthy preteen, he is raffled off in the 1909 Seattle World’s Fair. (Hard to believe that was legal but it was). He is won by a famous Madam in Seattle’s Red Light District. This is not an ordinary brothel. It’s is a high-class establishment, where the grand dame owner is famous for educating and caring for her girls. Instead of living in another horrible place where people treat him terribly, here for the first time, he has a family. He has a job he enjoys, first as a houseboy and later as the house’s chauffeur. His occupation as a man will remain a chauffeur. He is lucky to learn a trade because one day the house will eventually close. This happens when the famous Madam will succumb to an occupational hazard. The sexual disease is never mentioned in the book. Saying without saying that this house would never use such vulgar language, but the writing makes it apparent. In the interim, he discovers the Japanese girl he befriended on the boat to America also works in this establishment. And to his delight, he meets the Madam’s pretty daughter who is his age. The three of them become great pals and our young house boy falls in love with both. Even though the three live in a brothel the author beautifully captures the sweetness of a first kiss.

I should have gobbled up this novel. It has all the elements of good historical fiction. It is interesting as well as educating. The reader will meet crooked police, suffragettes, and learn about the politics of the times. Reading about the brothel was a hoot, but with enough sadness to keep it real. I giggled when the adult chauffeur’s grown daughters were shocked to learn that their ordinary parents have some unordinary and rather scandalous secrets. My issue is that from the time the boy is still a boy until he becomes a young man, he could not choose between the Japanese girl or the Madam’s daughter. The premise of the plot, which is supposed to be inspired by a true story, is a good read. But the love-story triangle (which remained innocent) went on and on, dragging out the pages. I didn’t appreciate trying to guess which girl he would end up with, because the guessing became tiresome. I wanted to jump into the book, grab the young man, and sing to him the Loving Spoonful’s lyrics “You better go home, son, and make up your mind.” However, even with my issues, I have to recommend the novel. It is rich in history and I personally got a kick out of learning that political morals haven’t changed one bit.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Best Kind of People” by Zoe Whittall

Publication Date:   Sept., 19, 2017The Best Kind of People

Publishers          :   Random House

Genre:                :   General Adult Fiction

Mini Review

Zoe Whittall is a respected poet and novelist. She is considered one of the top Canadian writers, winner of the 2008 Dayne Ogilvie Prize. So why did I dislike this novel so much?

The novel asks the question, what would you do if you found out that your husband or father was not the beloved person you thought? In this story, the husband/father was charged with sexual misconduct against several teenage girls at the high school where he taught and annually won the best teacher award and where his daughter was an honors student. The author certainly took on an ambitious topic, and I have learned it took her six years to write this novel, but after the first few chapters, I was still waiting to find the meat on the bones.

The husband/father’s adult gay son was once bullied, as a student, at the same school, yet somehow it was never mentioned why this wonderful dad and teacher had not even a hint of an idea that this was happening to his son. The wife/mother had my pity at first, then her unhappiness was described over and over again until it became ad nauseam. I wanted to slap her, wake her up. The teenage daughter had some depth, simply because she was a teenager self-medicating away her pain and confusion. She went from being a popular girl to an outcast. The father she adored may or may not have been who she believed he was. We never really became acquainted with the accused, his character was never developed. I found this to be a flaw in the writing. And don’t even start me on the ending, which you will simply have to read for yourself to make your own judgments. I’m simply not sure what all the hype was about.

I received this novel at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

 

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

 

Trophy Son” by Douglas Brunt

Publisher: St Martin’s PressTrophy Son

Published: May 30, 2017

Genre:      General Fiction Adult

This book came along to me at the perfect time.  I am recovering from a surgery and wanted to read something different than I usually do (historical fiction).  The author tells a story of a child tennis prodigy whose driven, narcissistic father pushes his son so hard that the boy knows nothing of life outside of brutal trainings and playing tournaments.   He is taken out of school so he can concentrate on nothing but tennis.  All through his childhood and teen years he has neither friends nor social skills.   “A tennis racket lurks in my earliest memories like a sick relative who had come to live with us.” The reader will hurt for this isolated boy who grows up to become the #1 ranked tennis player in the world.

This is a work of fiction, but back in 2009 I read “Open, an Autobiography” by tennis great Andre Agassi.  The similarities are strong.   Both have abusive fathers (think Pat Conroy’s novel “The Great Santini” if the father in Conroy’s book was on steroids) whom they couldn’t escape from until they became men.   Both have an elder brother (in real life Agassi has three) who couldn’t take the pressure or make the grade, leaving the child most gifted in the family  forced to live in their backyard  tennis prison, while their elder brother(s) have a normal life, playing tennis only for fun.  And, as an adult, both have a Hollywood celebrity girlfriend. This fictional work reads as an autobiographic coming of age story.

I actually know little about tennis.  It is one of the sports that I do not follow. However, you do not need to know about the game to enjoy this story.  My favorite part in the book is when our teenage tennis player slowly begins to attempt to get out from under his overbearing father’s thumb.  He begins to wonder if his success is in exchange for his happiness.  When steroids are pushed on him he struggles with the questions, is he ruining his health and endangering his career?  Unfortunately, sometimes the dialogue is wooden or so obvious I rolled my eyes. “I told him how winning never feels as good as losing feels bad.”  Still, this is a good book that allows the reader to get inside the mind of a professional athlete, especially an athlete who begins his career as a child and is marketed as a prodigy.

The novel left me wondering, are the makings of a champions this brutal for all sports child prodigies?  Do any grow up to be as mentally healthy as they are physically resilient?  Are there any athletes that are household names without ambitious parents who seek to control and live vicariously through their children?   I think the author misses an opportunity in exploring these questions.  No matter, I was rooting for our tennis player throughout the story and I recommend the book if you are, or are not, a tennis fan.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“This Is How It Always Is” by Laurie Frankel

 

First off, please excuse this review that was written in a New York minute.  I’m off to This is how it always isParis tomorrow and swamped with things to do.  Okay, the message in the blurb was what attracted me to this novel.  The story was about a brave and loving family that usually was in a hectic state from the responsibilities of raising five sons.    Besides all the challenges that come with a large family, they were also struggling with the difficulties of bringing up a transgender child.  The parents immediately noticed that their youngest son was different.  He was sweeter, calmer and more sensitive than his older brothers ever were.  He didn’t like to wrestle with them or blow things up, he would rather spend his time in a Cinderella coloring book.   At the age of three, he started to ask his parents if he could wear a dress.  They didn’t see any red flags because they thought, Don’t most children of both sexes want to wear their mom’s heels sometime in their early childhood?  By the time he was five, they let him wear a dress at home but not to kindergarten, but it was so clear that this little boy did not want to be a boy.

My heart broke for this child when he asked his parents, if when he grew up, would he finally be a girl.  He was so miserable being a boy that both parents knew something needed to be done.  With the help of the school’s social worker, his parents let him wear a dress, hair barrettes and all sorts of “girly” accessories to school. This was too confusing to all at the school and the poor kid had to use the nurse’s bathroom.   The family decided to move from Wisconsin to Seattle, which is a more gay-friendly state. However, even in Seattle (where their little boy is now passing as a little girl) they still kept their secret, because they simply didn’t know how to explain the situation.   Nevertheless their unhappy five-year-old son starts school as a very happy little girl.

In the end-notes, we learn that the author has a transgender daughter, but she makes it clear that this is not her story.  She does a wonderful job of raising awareness on gender dysphoria.  But for me, the story read unrealistically.   All the complications that would arise in such a family were too easily solved.    All of her brothers were 100% supportive without any questions asked.    At the age of ten, this child was “outed.”  Of course the transgirl was devastated.  So the mother, who is a doctor, takes her youngest child to Thailand on an excursion to work at a clinic there.  Here the child is exposed to Buddah and discovers that Buddah could be a man or a woman.  In Thailand, she meets many people who are genderless.  The country is very accepting of all gender identities and she gets a big boost of encouragement and decides that it was time to go home and try school again.  This is wonderful for the character, but let’s be realistic.   Most moms wouldn’t be able to just pick up and go to a foreign country.  Plus, the ending was so tidy, it should have been wrapped up in a bow.  Back in the States, at her school (where now all know what is under her pants), she is completely accepted.  At her first dance, she is asked to dance by a boy she has a crush on.  It is doubtful to me that such acceptance would come so easily to children. How I wish this was true, and maybe one day soon, it will be.  But in the year of 2017 it was hard to buy.  I hope I’m wrong about this.

This was a sweet story about a loving and wonderful family who would move mountains if that was what it took to raise a happy child.  The story was more about how to be a loving parent to a transgender child, so I guess the book needed to be written.  But, I found that the tale often went flat.  (I actually started to skip the father’s fairytales created to help his daughter cope).  For me, I much preferred the novels “Trans-Sister Radio” by Chris Bohjalian and “Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides that were also on the subject of being transgender.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

 

 

 

“Small Hours” by Jennifer Kitses

Genre:  General Fiction (Adult)                  

Pub Date:  13 Jun 2017

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing  

I chose to read and review this book since it is being pegged as the writing is in a Richard Russo and Tom Perrotta style.  I beg to differ.   These are two of my favorite authors and I just did not see it.  The only similarities I could find are that “Small Hours” written by Jenifer Kitses, evokes a sense of place, and money, or lack of it, in the blue collar world of upstate New York.  The protagonists are in their early forties with twin three-year-old daughters.  Like many city couples, they buy a home in the suburbs that they really cannot afford.  Unfortunately for them, they bought the house at the height of the market. When they realize that their new neighborhood has a seedy side, obviously little research went into the buying, it is now too late to sell for it would be at a loss. So the wife, who works from home, is surrounded by those she would rather not have to interact with, her own neighbors.

The story is told in a span of one day, hour by hour, minute by minute using a James Joyce Ulysses format.  If you think you ever had a bad 24 hours read this story and it will no longer seem so bad.  The narration alternates between the husband’s and the wife’s point of view.  Neither knows that the other is on the verge of getting fired.  They both have been severely distracted and not at their best work wise (actually anywise).  The tale almost reads like a suspense story with the tick, tick, ticking of how many more work related, phone calls, emails, and deadlines they are each avoiding.   Both are stalling with their answers to their perspective employers.  But, Kitses plays this sort of suspense hand one too many times for her readers.  Three-quarters through, I was hoping that the damn clock would just break already and get it over with.  Both are also hiding a secret from the other (besides their soon-to-be-unemployed status).   I think the author was going for more of a “Desperate Hours” theme rather than a “Small Hours” one, either way, she lost me.   Having a book’s plot take place in a 24-hour period is not unheard of there are quite a few out there.  The classic novel “Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf is one of them.  Or a more contemporary example is Everything Happens Today” by Jesse Browner, these were thought provoking novels with fascinating characters.  I am afraid that Kitses’s perpetually frenzied married couple simply were not.

Find all my reviews at https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

 

“Isadora” by Amelia Gray

Pub. Date:  May 23, 2017

Publisher:  Farrar, Straus and GirouxIsadora

In this unusual historical fiction, we meet Isadora Duncan (1878-1927).  She was a controversial and successful American dancer who performed throughout Europe.  Breaking with conventional ballet, she spearheaded a cutting-edge technique that accentuated a natural and free-flowing style over traditional inflexible ballet. Today she is known as the “Mother of Modern Dance.”   The author, Amelia Gray, lets us know that in both Duncan’s professional and private lives, she disregarded convention.   Her children were born out of wedlock by different men.  On stage, she was barefoot wearing scarves inspired by Greek imagery that peeked at her breasts, which sometimes resulted in banned performances.  She was the epitome of a bohemian.  (Think of the artists Frida Kahlo).   I was hoping Gray would focus her novel on the notorious dancer who lived and loved without boundaries.  However, Gray did not.  The novel only concentrates on the aftermath of her children’s death.  In 1913 Paris, her children and their Nanny drowned when their runaway car went into the Seine.

When I began this book I wasn’t aware that the author’s formatting was different than any other historical fiction that I have read.  Each chapter starts off with a concise heading that clarifies what we are about to read. Then after the heading, each chapter reads like a disturbing stream of consciousness narration.  I confess I was often confused.  Gray’s writing made me feel as if I were having a particularly intense bad dream.   And I believe that was her goal.  I have never read Gray’s short story, “Museum of the Weird” but I have the feeling that “weird” may be her style.   Yet for myself, while reading “Isadora,” I often I felt as though I was perusing a poem that I couldn’t quite grasp.  It left me feeling disappointed because the words sounded splendid, possibly brilliant, although I just didn’t get most of it.  (Because of this, I now intend to watch the film “The Loves of Isadora” with Vanessa Redgrave playing Isadora).  However,  Gray did a great job in helping me understand that Duncan grieved as she lived, full of melodrama and spinning out of control (like the car that took her children’s lives), bordering on the edge of insanity.  I will not tell you what she did with her children’s ashes.

In this story, there were narrators other than the protagonist.  There were also observers written in the third person.  (I think Junot Díaz is the master of this kind of hybrid style of writing).  You will need to be on your toes to follow the quick changes.  Still, Gray does manage to pull it off.  One voice was her sister Elizabeth who had a leg limp not allowing her to dance.   Instead, she ran the dancing schools her sister founded.  Elizabeth was totally reliant on Isadora and loathed her for that reality.  She appeared to be the level-headed sister until you catch on that her supposedly great loves were merely her friends, and the romances were actually all in her imagination.  We also get a good glimpse on Duncan’s grief-induced turmoil in her letters to the father of one of her children.   In these letters, Isadora’s sentences fringe on insanity.  Paris Singer, the heir to the Singer sewing machine empire, was the father of her other child.   Duncan was living with him at the time of the car accident.  To hear it from Singer, he was the brains and she was the temperamental artist.  Duncan would have disagreed, but it may have been true as he was influential in her many triumphs.   These different viewpoints enhance the story of a dazzling self-destructive dancer who found fame on the brink of World War I.  Shades of the coming war were only hinted at in this tale.  The focus was all on Duncan’s anguish.  Personally, I would have enjoyed reading about the historical moments that took place during her lifetime.  As I mentioned, I honestly only comprehended sections of the book due to the dysphoria-like writing style, which I always have trouble understanding.    But if you enjoy that genre, and you can handle absurdism in a historical fiction then this book is for you.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/4793025-martie-nees-record?shelf=read

“The Witchfinder’s Sister” by Beth Underdown

Pub. Date:  April 25, 2017The witchfinder's sister

Publisher:   Penguin Books

In this historical fiction the character of the sister is fictional, but her brother, Matthew Hopkins, was a real person, and a real witchfinder.  He even had the title of “Witchfinder General” during the English Civil war (1642-1646).  (I had to google this to believe such a title existed).  I was hoping to learn a bit more about the war between the Royalists, supporters of King Charles I and the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights of Parliament, but the author decided to just educate the reader on how the fear of witches was pronounced by the general fear in England at this time.

The story is narrated by the sister who is widowed and forced to move back home with her brother.  She quickly learns that home is no longer a safe place and that her brother has grown into an evil man who longs for power.  He insists that she be a part of his witch investigations.  The tale reads like a psychological horror story, but is all the more terrifying knowing that such events in history did indeed happen.  Hopkins was a frightening monster. “My brother, Matthew set himself to killing women…but without once breaking the law.”Matthew-Hopkins

The inhuman methods that Hopkins used in his investigations are difficult to read.  Women were tied to a stool and not allowed to sleep for hours, which often led to sleep-deprived confessions.  Females accused were pricked with special needles in their vaginas and if an animal licked the blood they were considered witches.   Another example where death was the only outcome was when suspects were tied to a chair and thrown into water: all those who “swam” (floated) were considered to be witches and were then hung.  Of course, when the innocent didn’t float they died a watery grave rather than by the gallows.  I believe we are all familiar with the days of the witch hunts, still, I didn’t expect to gasp in horror, as I did when reading exactly what went on during the so-called investigations.

The author, Beth Underdown, does an impressive job in taking the reader back into this ghastly time in history.  (Think of the Arthur Miller play and the 1996 movie version of the play “The Crucible”). I could feel the uncertainty and fear in the villages caused by a righteous lunatic.  Who would be next?  One daughter gave false evidence against a group of women who lived in her village with the promise that her mother might be spared.  I will leave you to guess if mother and daughter lived.

Underdown makes it easy to read between the lines, that the Hopkins’ witch trials had more to do with politics than potions, not to mention gender issues.  Now here we are in the year of 2017 and despite all that we know, we still can breed the hysteria that can create a monster.  I can’t help but wonder if humankind will ever learn.