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Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: 'Don't Call Me Baby'

Don't Call Me Baby
By Gwen Heasley
YA realistic fiction
April  2014
ISBN: 978-0062208521

Imogen has had it. She is 15, starting high school, and she would love to have a normal family life. Instead, every moment of her existence is photographed and chronicled by her mother, a famous mommy blogger.

Instead of living a normal private life, Imogen is Baby and she has been on display since before she was born. But she has her best friend, whose mother also is a well-known blogger, and they have an English class in which student blogs are assigned. It's time, Imogen decides, to get her life back.

Gwen Heasley's Don't Call Me Baby starts off as a humorous, breezy story in which daughters square off against moms. She's got the online persona down. She's got the reader right there with their daughters.

And then the author does something even better. She goes for higher stakes than the two teens getting their moms to pay attention to them.

Heasley also weaves into her story how a big blogging commitment affects a family, how a blog can be a hungry monster that must be continually fed and a brand consistently maintained if a blogger is to create an online presence. She shows both sides of what it means as young people come of age in a digital age during which their baby pictures and other embarrassing moments of their lives are stored forever on some server.

She also creates an engaging story of how moms and daughters try to talk to each other but miss each other's point, how family members keep trying to find their way to each other and how friends can be humanly fallible and yet remain totally awesome.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Sunday Sentence: 'The Goldfinch'

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further comment or context:

We don't get to choose our own hearts. We can't make ourselves want what's good for us or what's good for other people. We don't get to choose the people we are.

-- Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: 'The Here and Now'

The Here and Now
By Ann Brashares
YA science fiction
April 2014
Delacorte Press
ISBN: 978-0385736800

Preena really isn't like most of the other kids in school. Really. She is from the future.

Ethan has something that sets him apart as well. Four years ago, he saw Preena arrive.

She is one of a group of time travelers from the future. Plague has decimated humankind and climate change is ending life on the planet. The time travelers came back to our time because their families wanted them to be saved.

Preena and Ethan are the kind of couple destined -- normally -- to have a romantic comedy after meeting cute. They pair up well and Brashares conveys fresh, light-hearted like-into-love very well. But the pair are soon drawn into an attempt to set things on a different course in time, so the future Preena knows doesn't happen. A mysterious homeless man appears to know more than a crazy old street man should know about Preena and the others like her.

From there until the story's end, The Here and Now weaves together the personal and world conflicts in stunning fashion. The ups and downs that face Preena and Ethan as they race to prevent a cataclysmic event that set the future into motion may affect the possiblity that they have a future together, or not, as well as the future of humanity.

Before the heartfelt conclusion -- an "oh, wow!" ending if ever there was one -- Brashares adds another mindful layer to the novel. What is a solution to some characters is a tragic new problem to others. Even if a reader takes sides, it's still worthwhile to be able to see another perspective.

This is a tremendously thoughtful novel with engaging characters. The biggest fans of Brashares's popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and those coming to her writing for the first time will all be glad they have read The Here and Now.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Review: 'By Its Cover'

By Its Cover
By Donna Leon
Crime fiction
April  2014
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0802122643

Donna Leon's love of books and literature has shone in her Inspector Brunetti mysteries, especially through the character of Brunetti's wife, Paola.  In By Its Cover, books as objects are at the heart of the story's mystery.

Because this is a Brunetti story, in which differences matter, a distinction is made between books as art objects and the text contained on the pages of those objects. For rich collectors, the objects have more value. For the Brunettis, who live a book-strewn life in which volumes are left open and upside down, snuggled into cushions of furniture and perhaps even dog-eared, books are far more valuable for what they contain than for their appearance. And because this is a Brunetti story, perhaps this is a way to view people as well.

Brunetti is called to a Venetian scholarly library where old and revered volumes reside. Someone has been cutting out specific pages that are highly valued by collectors, while other rare and costly volumes are missing.

Suspicion immediately falls on a visiting American scholar, whose credentials soon prove to be false. Brunetti would like to speak with another man who spends many hours in the library -- a former priest who reads the works of older religious figures.

Adding to Brunetti's knowledge of this world are a library employee who helps retrieve books, the elegant library director and the woman whose generous donations form part of the damaged and stolen bounty. The benefactress is known to Paola's patrician parents, as is her wastrel stepson. But because she is not Venetian, she is not as valued by the small group that makes up the highest rung of Venetian society.

Donna Leon's compact story delves into the mystery of the underground market of rare books. But By Its Cover also touches on the idea of judging people by their covers, by their outside appearances and background. And because this novel is written by Donna Leon, that touch is light yet incisive.

By Its Cover is a shining example of how an author can keep a long-running crime fiction series fresh, relevant and highly entertaining.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Review: 'The Infatuations'

By Javier Marias
Literary Fiction
August 2013
ISBN: 978-0307960726

What is the point of a novel? Of any fiction? For many readers, the story is the point. It's a universal desire -- tell me a story! -- that first occurs to us when we are very young and which carries through our entire lives, to the tales told to a dying person to provide what little comfort they may impart.

Joan Didion says it very well: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." To make sense of our world, to put an overlay of narrative on the chaos of life, to give it a semblance of order. We crave stories, we need them.
But not according to Javier Marías in his novel, The Infatuations, which was translated from Spanish into English last year. The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner has produced a work of art that is more about conclusions and feelings than the actual plot.

The story part of the novel is slight but is the kind that is most often seen in fast-paced thrillers, in noir tales, in dark, psychological whydunits. A young woman notices a happily married couple who have breakfast at the same restaurant where she eats every morning. Their delight in each other's company is the bright spot in Maria's daily routine.

The husband is slain one day, the victim of a homeless man who hears voices. He is stabbed out on the street in the middle of the day, on his birthday, and leaves the widow with two children.

A chance encounter leads the narrator to finally speak with the widow. Maria visits Luisa's apartment, listens to her and is present when family friend Javier and an acquaintance, a pompous professor, stop by.

Another chance encounter later, Maria runs into Javier at a museum. They begin a shallow affair in which she is basically on call whenever he decides he wants some company. Her feelings are a bit deeper, but she knows they are not as deep as his feelings for the widow.

And, one night, she wakes up in his apartment after a tryst to hear him talk to a stranger in the living room.
What she hears could have sent the story in so many directions, and most of us have read and seen those directions in books and movies. But that's not the way Marías goes. Just as earlier, he tests the most ardent and open of readers by pages and pages of disgressive conversations that are little more than long soliloquies by their participants, he drops any pretense at narrative being propelled forward by events. He does this on purpose.

Because what happens is not the point of his novel:

What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention.

The importance of "possibilities and ideas" are reinforced within the narrative by Javier recounting to Maria Balzac's tale of Colonel Chabert, who comes back from the dead to reclaim his remarried wife, and Milady de Winter, that evil woman in The Three Musketeers who comes back from the dead to torment Athos and his colleagues.

Maria can't quite agree with Javier's premise about plot:

That isn't true, or, rather, it's sometimes true, but one doesn't always forget what happened, not in a novel that almost everyone knew or knows, even those who have never read it, nor in reality when what happens is actually happening to us and is going to be our story, which could end one way or another with no novelist to decide" what happens.

Marías demonstrates in The Infatuations that what happens is not as important as how we feel about what happens and how we carry on after something happens. Every character in his novel is true to this point he makes about "what happened is the least of it" -- and in an audacious work about a killing, to be true to this point is quite an accomplishment.

The Infatuations is a brilliant work but not an enjoyable one to read if narrative pull matters. The short chapters made it easier to set the book down and take a breath, important in a work with long, convoluted sentences. The novel is more nearly a chapbook of philosophical asides, even though the asides are consistent with each other, than it is a story.

If, on some occasion down the road, you find a Tumblr account of quotes from The Infatuations, it's likely I've made it. The ideas are beautifully written and gorgeously translated (by Margaret Jull Costa) and worthy of consideration. To large measure, those ideas are about how we feel about the people we love, especially when they have died. How long do we mourn them, how do we keep their memory alive, how do we honor them in our continuing to live? Or do we allow them to go, do we let go of them and carry on with new loves? What do we wish for those we love who we leave behind when we die? when confronted with the knowledge that someone is not who he seems to be, what should one do? What chances should anyone take when reaching out to others?

These are the things that will linger for me about The Infatuations, not the plot.

©2014 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Sunday Sentence: Goat Mountain

As inspired by Fobbit author David Abrams at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I read this week, presented without further context or commentary:

The darkness a great muscle tightning, filled with blood, a living thing already before god came to do his work. No first breath but an earlier animation and pulse and pressure. I lay in that darkness waiting, and I did not sleep, and the stars meant  nothing but only the dark spaces between them.

-- David Vann, Goat Mountain

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sunday Sentence: David Vann

As inspired by David Abrams, Fobbit author, at The Quivering Pen, the best sentence(s) I've read this week, presented without further context or comment:

My father etched and luminous even in shadow, a thing set off from the rest of the earth, overly present.

-- David Vann, Goat Mountain