Layden Robinson's The Boston Ranter: Slanted Vignettes from a Native New Englander are short stories, mostly flash fiction, written in a stream-of-consciousness humorous style about growing up and living in blue collar Massachusetts. There are a few detours into magical realism and science fiction, but the stories are mostly written as fiction or creative nonfiction. Sprinkled with swear words and drug references, often written with a nod to the Boston vernacular ("h"s instead of "r"s) it reads like the stories you'd hear sitting down at a bar to drink a pint with a friend.
I'm a big fan of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, so when I discovered Kyra Davis's Sophie Katz mystery novels, I was pretty pleased with the find. The main character, Sophie Katz, is a wise-cracking writer (a cliché, but it works out okay) who solves real-life murder mysteries, mainly because the people around her become the targets of serial killers. One thing I particularly love about this series is that it's set in San Francisco, which is a city close to where I grew up. I enjoy how Davis effortlessly works the Bay Area scenery into the background of the novel - it almost made me feel I was back home again.
Obsession, Deceit and Really Dark Chocolate is the third in the series. I might have tackled the series as a whole in this review, since I believe it's fun and worth reading, but there was a particular passage in this book that strongly resonated with me and that I would like to discuss.
First, a little background about the book: when a college mentor of Sophie's asks her for a favor, she is drawn into a series of murders that revolve around a neck-and-neck local political campaign. I don't think I'll mention more about the plot here, as there are a lot of twists and turns that are fun to read, and I don't want to include any spoilers. However, I should explain that the main character is mixed race, although her identity doesn't often factor into the books. But every once in a while, Sophie's background is mentioned, and there is one part where the author includes a message about the perception of race/difference that I agree with 100%.
Being familiar with San Francisco and the Bay Area, I want to say that not only is it a very diverse place, but it is a place which embraces diversity. Although as a mixed race person myself, I did experience some racism growing up, the events were few and far between. And when I encountered racism, I had a strong enough belief in myself as a person that I didn't let it define me.
So, having given the background of both the main character and myself, here is the quote in Davis's book that I would like to discuss. *Steps up on soapbox and clears throat.*
But as I gazed down at my light brown skin I thought about all the people I had met in my life who had never
suffered discrimination. A lot of them were under the bizarre impression that they were missing out. It was as
if they thought they'd be cooler if they had a glass ceiling hanging over their heads. Those were the people who
told minorities they barely knew that they understood their so-called struggle (336).
This paragraph really, really hits home a point with me because of what I've seen of modern events and the current obsession with victimhood.
Racism exists. Most people don't question that it exists. It was worse in the past, based on America's history of native genocide, slavery, World War II and the Japanese internment, etc. There are many, many examples in recent and distant American history about the life and death struggle to bring basic human rights to people who aren't white and male. Again, I think very few people would disagree. However, what I don't like is the recent likening of being considered a victim as something noble or worth emulating. This bothers me. Yes, there is discrimination today. Yes, people should be unafraid to talk about discrimination and their personal experiences. No one should have to hide their experiences. But proudly wearing the title of "victim?" Or putting themselves in situations where they can claim victimhood? I feel that that is carrying it too far.
Do our negative experiences shape us? I can't disagree with that. Hopefully, they shape us for the better - in learning what situations to avoid and how to value ourselves despite what others may say and do. I can't control what other people may say or do - but I can choose to be the person I am and want to be, regardless.
I don't think anyone should celebrate being a victim. Being a victim just means something horrible happened to you, and you are forever defined by that event. Being a survivor - that means you've overcome whatever horrible thing happened and remained true to yourself. That means that no matter what happened to you, you've persevered and only let it change you for the better. And I think that is worth a whole heck of a lot more, at least to me.
Although this rant has very little to do with the book itself, it's just one person's opinion. I'm sure others feel differently about it, as we are all shaped by our individual experiences in life.
*Steps down from soapbox.*
So... to get back to the writing, I'll repeat that it's a fun series of books worth reading, and that race really doesn't factor into the main character's decisions or actions. It shouldn't - it's just a part of the main character that sometimes comes up in the course of her living her life. But don't take my word for it - read the books and judge for yourself.
I have a number of poems published as well as short stories, and I never realized how biased my book reviews were until a friend of mine lent me a couple of collections of poetry by poet Mary Oliver. That's when I realized I've never reviewed any poetry on my website. So I figured I'd start with my friend's recommendations, which were fantastic.
The two books he lent me were American Primitive and Owls and Other Fantasies. I haven't read any other poetry by Mary Oliver, so I have no idea whether these represent her best work or only one period of her writing, but I must say I was quite impressed. I could see why she has won multiple awards for her work. Her poetry revolves around nature, history and often how people and relationships figure into both of them. Although some of her poems struck me more vividly than others, all of her poetry has very concrete imagery that effortlessly brings to mind the slices of scenes she is trying to bring to life. Each poem is like a photograph, capturing a moment in time, usually with the theme summarized by the very simple, often one- or two-word titles. The only thing that sometimes put me off from her poetry was her high usage of exclamation marks, which to me seemed to try to intentionally create an unnatural emphasis for the reader. But, other than that, I really enjoyed her style, which is composed of short lines and short stanzas. Most of her poems are short also, very rarely more than a page.
In American Primitive, there are are a number of historical poems as well as nature poems. While the historical ones were interesting, they weren't what most captured my interest. Some of my favorites included "August" (about berry picking), "The Bobcat," "Tasting the Wild Grapes" (which, oddly enough, brought to mind "The Tyger" by William Blake), "Flying" (about being on a plane and seeing a compelling stranger), "Postcard from Flamingo" (about missing someone distant), "An Old Whorehouse," "The Fish"... well, the list goes on. I could probably fully name half the poems out of the collection.
In Owls and Other Fantasies, the poems are all about birds and nature; while I enjoyed them, this might be one problem I have with themed collections by the same author/poet (and one thing I've found myself in writing poetry) - it can be easy to get stuck on a motif or repeat phrases or imagery, especially with such similar inspiration. While I also enjoyed this collection, I much preferred American Primitive, as it had a wider scope and breadth of themes.
Ms. Oliver's turn of phrase creates a cornucopia of imagery, despite her sometimes sparse style. I would highly recommend her writing to anyone who enjoys poets such as Robert Frost or Margaret Atwood. Ms. Oliver has a number of books published, so I know I'll be picking up more work by her in the future.
I picked up The Wednesday Group by Sylvia True, interested to find a series of characters who were somewhat different and very easy to relate to. The story revolves around a group of women who start attending a support group because they are the wives of sex addicts. So, right off, this is a story about troubled relationships and women who have issues with their self-confidence because of them. But the story doesn't veer into the maudlin - it really tells the stories of these women, who are at times angry, often confused, and still hopeful that things can work out for the better.
It was very easy to get involved in this book and hard to put it down. While I don't know much about sex addiction, one statistic that keeps coming up in the book (although I don't know how accurate it is) is that only one in five people who are married to sex addicts are able to stay married. So out of five women in the group, this doesn't bode well for four of them, which adds extra tension for the reader - Who's going to make it? Who won't? Will they beat the odds?
The writing is straightforward and I would call this a mainstream novel, although there are parts of it that veer into literary style. However, there are one or two small parts that I thought detracted from the whole - they were small enough not to take away my overall enjoyment of the book, although I will mention them here.
First off, one of the women in the group decides in the middle of the novel to move out of the country. This might be fine, except that this seems to be the end of her role in the book. While the other characters might think about her idly afterwards, her presence in the book has little to no impact on the final story or on the other characters. I kept waiting for the other characters to stay in contact with her, perhaps by email, or at least think more about her, but she basically disappears and that's the end of her role. I feel that having an unfinished story line is okay - as long as the reason behind it makes the reader think more about the character/other characters. But just disappearing for no reason - that doesn't make me think about them at all. Instead, it bothered me as a reader.
The same with the ending of the book. While I don't want to give the ending away, the final story line feels somewhat unfinished to me. The book ends too soon. There WAS an ending beyond where the book actually ended, so the fact that the story concluded where it did felt a little off to me. Not everything needs to be wrapped up in a neat little package, but I really wanted more to the story, even if it was inconclusive. It was too abrupt for me, since the characters talk about planning future actions which are not then carried out in the action of the book. So the fact that we see them sitting around talking as the final scene of the book feels very inactive to me and somewhat anticlimactic.
The last problem I had was just something small I noticed, and I probably only noticed because I'm a writer myself. Since there are several different women who are main characters in the story, the chapters are labeled with the women's names when telling their stories - so, for example, the first chapter is labeled, "Lizzy," the second chapter is labeled, "Hannah," etc. The only difference is when all the women get together at the therapist's office, where the chapters are titled by how many sessions they've come together, for example, "Session Four." The only time this varies is the last chapter, where they get together for a session and instead of labeling the chapter "Session #," it is labeled with the name of one of the characters. Probably another reason that I felt that the story was unfinished - I felt that the continuity of the format was broken (most probably intentionally, but it still struck me as off). I would have also liked to have the story begin and end with the same character OR with none of them, but that's just a tiny personal nitpick and 100% my opinion.
I do feel that it is a wonderful debut novel for Ms. True, and I'd definitely recommend this book and read future work by her.
I've been hooked on thrillers lately, and what list of thrillers would be complete without Sandra Brown? I've read most of Sandra Brown's books, from her early romances to her later romantic thrillers, and I've enjoyed almost every single one. Her writing is very compelling and hard to put down.
Mean Streak is no exception. It starts out with Dr. Emory Charbonneau being attacked while on a marathon-training run through the woods. She is found by a stranger who takes her back to his cabin and refuses to let her go - or even tell her his name while he holds her prisoner. Meanwhile, her husband Jeff is being questioned by cops in her disappearance, and it appears he is hiding something. But what is he hiding, and does it really have anything to do with his wife's disappearance?
The tension starts out high and doesn't let down until the end. Ms. Brown's writing style is very straightforward and carries the reader right along from start to finish. I don't want to say more, for fear of spoilers, but the book is well worth the read.
I can't get enough of Emily St. John Mandel! Normally, I wouldn't repeat authors too often in my reviews, since I read so many books, but I feel that every single one of her books is well worth a review. Each of her stories focuses on a different aspect of humanity and how it can fall apart - Station Eleven is about community, The Lola Quartet about friendship/relationships, and The Singer's Gun is all about family in its many incarnations.
The main character, Anton, hails from Brooklyn, although his parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States. His family runs a furniture business that is on the wrong side of legal, and Anton grows up in close proximity with his cousin, Elena. Elena's mother is an illegal immigrant who is deported when Elena is young, and her father shortly follows her mother back to her home country, leaving Elena stranded with Anton's family.
Anton's cousin, like his parents, has no problem with illegal activities. However, Anton's conscience is troubled by his family's seemingly insouciant disregard for the law. While he starts out participating in his family's business, he can't wait to get on the straight and narrow path, which he finally does. But when he meets the woman he falls in love with, he is drawn into one last family activity - and it is this situation that changes everything.
I've been working my way backwards in time through Ms. Mandel's books, and it is interesting to see her style change in reverse. There are some common motifs in her writing and definitely similar composition in her stories - they flash backwards and forwards in time, revealing the story piece by piece to heighten the tension. But one thing that has stayed consistent with her writing, even from her first book, is the strength of her writing style. It is literary but immediate, with flawed characters that are easy to identify with, and it is the immediacy of her writing that keeps the reader turning the page. This is another book I would recommend for those interested in literary thrillers - a beautifully told story, and well worth the read.
The Lola Quartet is a complicated story that shows that seemingly innocuous events can have disastrous consequences. Or, to repeat a common cliché - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. All the main characters might mean well, but there is a point where their actions change from helping others to helping themselves, a point where they cross too far over the line to return to what they once were.
The main character, Gavin, is a newspaper reporter. However, his story begins when he reaches a crisis - he discovers that ten years earlier, his high school girlfriend might have had a daughter by him. After that, his world starts to fall apart as he tries to find out what happened to Anna and her daughter, Chloe. The pursuit will lead him back to where he grew up in Florida, where he finds out what happened to his friends who played in a quartet with him back in his high school days. What he discovers will change all of their lives, including his own.
Like other books I've read by Ms. Mandel, the story leapfrogs easily between the past and present, slowly revealing bit by bit the interwoven lies and crimes that lead the characters to an irrevocable and final decision. The prose is beautiful and effortless to read, and carried me right along from start to finish. It is a fascinating story, and well worth the read - I'd definitely recommend it to fans of literary thrillers.
I read a lot - depending on my writing schedule, I can usually read about a book a day. Some of the books are fantastic and I would love to recommend to everyone - some, not so much. Either way, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I'm reading at the moment.