Tag Archives: book review

Stacy London’s truth… ladies, you can learn something here.

londonI occasionally go on a “What Not to Wear” jag, catching up via on demand with Stacy London and her dapper sidekick, Clinton Kelly, as they make over some unfortunate duckling who needs a $5000 NYC shopping spree, lessons on what to buy, a decent hair style and some make-up in order to emerge as a rapturous swan.  So I was pretty jazzed when I spotted her new book, The Truth About Style.   Yes, I read every word.  I didn’t just look at the pictures.  Although the photography is great!  And while none of the women featured are my clone (which would have been excellent), I did find useful information.  And I had a super good time on the couch with a steamy cup of coffee and the world’s tiniest cookie.   For the full effect, you need the stories, the photos, and the context, but here are some snippets to hold you over until your order comes from Amazon.

Stacy says:

  • Jackets must close across the chest.  That’s part of their job.  If they don’t close, they don’t fit.
  • Style has no price point.
  • Don’t waste a waist.
  • Dressing well doesn’t can following the pack.  It means knowing what does and doesn’t work on you.
  • Accessories must be proportional with your frame.
  • Get a professional bra fitting.  85% of women are wearing the wrong size.
  • Look for interesting details (like piping) on classic pieces (like a white shirt) to give them a twist and add some sophistication.
  • Denim is a great wardrobe chameleon.  You can wear it to work or dress it up for evenings or dress down with it on weekends.
  • Sweaters with bunnies on them are only cool if you’re twenty, wear big bug-eye glasses and live in Brooklyn, Portland or Madison.
  • You will be judged, whether you want to be or not.

Quinn Cummings, you rock!

Lately I have been seeking the funny.  Pinterest is fertile ground for this.  I have a CD of Garrison Keillor’s humor from Prairie Home Companion, called Pretty Good Jokes, which is excellent.  James Thurber can make me laugh from the grave (or wherever clever, funny people go).  And so when I saw that my boss gave the big thumbs up to a book titled Notes from the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Funny Life, I had to have it.  Plus the author’s name was kind of familiar:  Quinn Cummings.

Quinn is awkward.  And lovely.  And she used to be an actor.  A child actor.  In fact, she was the daughter in one of my favorite movies, The Good-bye Girl, starring Marsha Mason and a ridiculously youthful Richard Dreyfuss.

Now Quinn is a mom and also an author.  Her book is very, very funny.  Not in a joke-telling way, but in that kind of female humor way that reveals a lot about herself and her family.  For example, Quinn is evidently quite a dork.  She has a great vocabulary, she tells an awesome story, but she has a way of causing mayhem – to herself and others – wherever she goes.  Fortunately this just makes more fodder for the book.

Also pretty well-revealed is daughter Alice.  Alice is adorable.  She’s also a smelly soap-stealing terror, prone to repeating whatever she hears to the exact person she shouldn’t repeat it to.  Quinn’s beloved is just known as Consort.  I really like what I hear of Consort, and would like to see a photo.

At any rate, read the book.  USA Today said Quinn is “Erma Bombeck with an edge.”   That assumes A) you know Erma Bombeck (and I do) and B) you don’t think Erma had an edge (she definitely did).   Do you need to be a mom to read the book?  Nope.  But moms’ll love it.

A special gift for those who are trying to place Quinn and keep coming up with the wrong child actress.  Here you go.  Adorkable, right?

Quick Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Margot Livesey’s new book, the Flight of Gemma Hardy, is an imagining of Jane Eyre transplanted to Iceland and Scotland, with Gemma as Jane and Hugh Sinclair as Mr. Rochester.  Not surprisingly, the story feels familiar even if you don’t twig to the Bronte homage.

Gemma’s a good soul.  A plucky child from the start, she faces more adversity in her young life than any Dickens character:  her mother’s death, her father’s death, her removal from Iceland to Scotland, the hatred of her aunt and cousins,once held at bay by her loving uncle, unleashed after her uncle’s unfortunate death.  Off she goes to school, where as a scholarship student she is actually an unpaid drudge.  She makes a friend (sickly of course) who subsequently dies in her arms.  The school fails, she looks for a position and ends up as governess to Nell, niece of Mr. Sinclair.

Sinclair is dashing.  There are sparks.  A romance.  An almost-marriage.  Then, the tragic truth about Sinclair comes out –  and Gemma flees to Iceland, where she discovers the love of a new family.   Who is surprised when Mr. Sinclair arrives in the final pages to reclaim his true love?

I’ve given away a ton of the plot.  Sorry about that, you probably knew the deets anyway, if only from the movie.  (And sorry about the car ad!  Be patient.)

The negatives of this book are all from the original – primarily bothersome is the romance between the full-grown man and the barely out of puberty teen (especially notable since Gemma is small for her age).   Still, the story is engaging, the characters are likable, Mr. Sinclair’s secret is understandable, and the lessons go down pleasantly enough.  I’d recommend The Flight of Gemma Hardy highly to anyone wanting a good, old-fashioned read.

Other books of by Margot Livesey that I’ve enjoyed include Eva Moves the Furniture and Banishing Verona.  I see there are several other novels I’ve missed; definitely will check them out when time permits!

Give me Mo, please.

I read a lot of books.  A LOT of books.  And I review quite a few.  But I don’t generally, go around saying things such as, “You must read this book.  It is so great!” and, to my writing friends, “I learned so much about craft just by reading this book!”  The book in question:  Gone by Mo Hayder.

Here’s the quickie plot synopsis – carjacker steals car from parking garage, and there’s an 11-year-old girl in the back seat.  Detective Jack Caffery expects she’ll turn up soon, as the jacker realizes she’s there and dumps her off.  The only question is how far away he’ll go before releasing her.  But it doesn’t happen, and with each passing hour, the likelihood of finding Martha alive diminishes.

Second plot line:  Cop/colleague Flea Marley is an underwater spelunker (cave explorer).  She’s a risk taker with a secret.  And the way Flea feels about her secret, and what Caffery thinks he knows about her secret and the actions he takes to keep it hidden, keeps them apart.  Even though the reader knows that sparks will fly if they ever get together.

The way the detective work is undertaken, how the clues come out and the larger picture comes into focus, and then the absolutely stunning plot twist is revealed… absolutely masterful.

For the police procedural fan, Gone is a cracking good read.  Start early in the day because you won’t be able to put it down.

For the writer, Gone is a lesson in how to do things right.  How to develop a plot. How to reveal backstory.  How to increase suspense.  How to ratchet up tension, How to build believable characters the reader cares about.  How to pull off a plot twist that turns on our view of a previously likable character in a way that makes the reader say “OMG,” not “What a cheat.”  And lastly, how to create a conclusion that is absolutely true and touching.

Mo Hayder, I salute you.  The good news is that there are other books in the series.  I’m there.

A slice of unusual life: Annabel

You are what you are, you may as well live it.

That’s my take-away from a compelling, interesting, but not always comfortable book by Kathleen Winter, Annabel.  I followed my husband’s lead and picked this book up for its cover.  A woman’s name for a title and an adrogynous young man on the cover, it called for further exploration.  Its prologue is interesting, and seems to indicate that Annabel dies, as does her father.  Hmmm.

Not till page 17 does the REAL Annabel – the one who will be our protagonist enter the picture.  Born in rural Canada in 1968, the baby has a little penis, one testicle and a vagina, and Thomasina, attending Jacinta’s labor and delivery, knows right away that something is wrong.  The baby is healthy, but intersexed.

Jacinta loves the baby immediately, is not sure how to think about its indeterminism, but acquiesces when Treadway, her husband, decrees the baby will be a boy.  They name him Wayne and begin the long process of making sure – by surgery, drugs, and never, ever admitting Wayne’s feminine character traits – that Wayne is a boy, through and through.

Only Thomasina – the mother of the original Annabel who did, alas, drown – offers a haven for the little one.  Wayne’s frequent caretaker, she will call him Annabel.   Over time, Jacinta comes to regret her decision as she sees how their family is squashing Wayne’s natural tendencies.  And Wayne?  Wayne is just one heck of a confused little boy – until puberty sets in and the sewn-shut vagina offers no release for the menstrual blood that fills his/her abdomen.  More surgery.  More drugs.

What I liked about this book was the measured, unhurried pace and the clear-eyed view of all the characters, who seem like real people with real motivation doing what comes naturally to them.  Definitely flawed, but still relatable.  As time passes, Treadway withdraws from the family, spending more and more time away, and it is interesting to see the arc of the marriage and how they come back together as a couple after Wayne leaves home.

Also of note is Wayne’s struggle with his own identity.  The reader empathizes… have we not all struggled?  Although not, perhaps, this much and for this much reason.  One disappointing factor for me was that when Wayne/Annabel decides to discontinue taking the medication that masculinizes, it is presented as a “win” for her true femaleness.

I can’t help but compare this book to Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, which also addresses a hermaphrodite’s journey, albeit in the opposite direction: from baby Calliope to teenage Cal.  Middlesex is a much bigger,  more sprawling novel, with a bigger, more compelling focus on its characters and allows its hero/heroine more opportunity to address the reader directly and more opportunity to embrace ambiguity and opportunity.

But it seems unfair to compare.  Annabel was an interesting, enjoyable read and you should not pass it up just because it is not as good as a Pulitzer Prize winner!

Quick review: The Silent Land

This slender volume was an emergency read… I was out of books and my husband had picked up two at the library.  He was the library-goer, so he got first pick, and I ended up with The Silent Land by Graham Joyce.

How often do I know absolutely nothing about a book I open?  Hardly ever.  Although I avoid reading the description on the inside of the book jacket, I usually know the author’s previous works, or have seen the blurbs on the cover, or even read an ad or review.  In this case, all I knew was that the jacket was hard to figure out and the book was on the smallish side.  Oh, and it was fiction.

So it was with a sense of some wonder that I began the book.  Each sentence was lyrical, but no longer than necessary.  The pace was unhurried.  A married couple (Zoe and Jake) are on their 10th wedding anniversary ski trip.  They head out in the quiet early morning to ski the pristine slopes.   Their joy and comfort with each other and with the day is shattered by an avalanche.  We stay with Zoe, frozen upside down, unable to see, as she moves her fingers infinitesimally slowly.   She finally frees herself.  By some miracle, Jake is also alive.

But when the couple make it back to the lodge, it is empty, devoid of life.  Not surprisingly, they believe it has been evacuated.  When they venture out, the lack of tracks in the snow makes it clear that there is no one else moving about.  They can leave the lodge, but their world is very circumscribed.  Because no matter what or how they try to leave, they keep circling back, returning to the same hotel as if caught on a Mobius strip.

And soon other strange things become apparent.  The raw meat and uncooked vegetables left out on the  kitchen counter are still fresh and glistening, days later.  Lit candles do not seem to burn down, nor does the fireplace need replenishing.

Even more unusual is that Zoe and Jake seem to need to focus, to remember, to even describe a memory, in order to experience the present.  Wine has no taste until they describe the taste of previously-enjoyed wine.  There’s no need to eat, or pee, or wear clothes… unless they remind themselves of hunger, of elimination, of cold.

Have they fallen, somehow, out of time?  And why does Zoe see and hear things that Jake does not?  Why does her phone ring?  And how is it that Jake’s dog Sadie – whom he buried, with tears, many years ago – is here with them?  While Zoe and Jake begin to suspect that they were killed in the avalanche and that this is some bizarre kind of limbo, Zoe holds a secret she cannot bear to give up, even as it seems she is losing Jake.

I won’t spoil the book for you – I’ve already said too much already – but Joyce certainly kept me turning the pages.  A very literary fantasy, the story is slight but compellingly told and engaging.  The end, while not shocking, is in keeping with the rest of the book: somewhat mysterious and sad, but ultimately optimistic and heart-warming.

Post The Silent Land, a Google search reveals that Graham Joyce has written other books for adults and children, and is a winner of the O. Henry Award.  I’ll definitely be seeking out more of his work.

Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie matures

“They were written from a young man’s perspective. I left Patrick when I was 33 and he was 33. I’ve tried, but his voice won’t come,” said Dennis Lehane in the USA Today interview just two short years ago, explaining why he didn’t anticipate writing another PI novel featuring Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.

People change.  Characters evolve.  Lucky for us that Lehane found a way to bring a new sensibility to his former series.  Some things haven’t changed.  Patrick and Angie are still very much in love.  They still hang out with Bubba Rogowski. Patrick’s still too honest, and not smooth enough, to ease through life by taking advantage of the offers that come his way.  And he’s still headstrong.

But it’s been 12 years since Gone, Baby, Gone was published and 12 years have gone by in the fictional Boston that Gennaro and Kenzie inhabit.  They’re married now, and have a four-year-old daughter.  From a financial perspective, they’re hanging on by the skin of their teeth.  Angie went back to school.  Patrick’s freelancing as an investigator, but has the promise of a permanent position… if he can only keep from calling the high-society clients “morons” and “assholes.”

And the young girl he recovered and returned to her mother in Gone, Baby, Gone, has grown up to be a hardened, smart, and too-wise for her years 16-year-old with big problems.   Did he do the right thing?  Yes, he’s sure of it.  Still, now that she’s disappeared again, perhaps he should let it go.  But that’s not his way. Angie, who remains convinced that Patrick did the wrong thing, sees it as his chance to make good.  So they’re on the same page.

A fast-paced read with well-developed and human, likable, and flawed characters, Moonlight Mile‘s maturity comes in large part from its focus on the nature of parenting.  What makes a good parent?   Amanda McCready’s kidnappers did time – and lots of it – for trying to keep her safe.  And the months she spent with them were the best months of Amanda’s young life.   Amanda has a meth-head mom and a felon stepdad, but are they as bad as her friend Sophie’s father, who kicked her out of the family home for not losing ten pounds in 40 days?  And what about the former doctor-turned-social worker who is running a baby mill for the Russian mob?  He only has to procure 525 babies for illegal adoptions and his debt is cancelled.   And what about Angie and Pat?  Is it enough to keep Gabriella safe by sending her off to Nona’s with Uncle Bubba?

Kenzie learns several valuable lessons in Moonlight Mile. One is that family comes first.

The second is that friendship can be found in unsuspected places. (Kenzie’s relationship with a Russian mobster could be the start of a pairing like Matt Scudder and Mick Ballou in Lawrence Block’s hard-boiled series.)

Third is that Patrick is clearly not the smartest person in the room.

And finally?  That if it’s hard, and it’s confusing, you’re not enjoying yourself, and you’re pretty sure that what you’re doing isn’t helping anybody, maybe you should stop doing it.