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Book Review: Superior Women by Alice Adams (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image of a white woman's back with a mirror off to one side.Summary:
When Californian Megan Greene runs has a steamy affair in the summer of 1943 with a Harvard student visiting the west coast for the summer, she decides to follow him back to the east coast and attend Radcliffe.  There she meets four other women, three of whom it might be more accurate to call frenemies than friends.  Their lives and destinies repeatedly intertwine throughout the tumultuous changes of mid-20th century America.

Review:
I kept my eye out for this book when it was named as a read-a-like to my 2011 5 star read The Group (review) by Mary McCarthy.  So when I saw it on a Better World Books sale list, I ordered a copy.  I can see why this was named as a read-a-like.  Both books view a historical time period through a group of women who attended a women’s college together.  What McCarthy wrote stunningly and with subtlety, though, Adams wrote in a barely above-average fashion.

The book covers 1940s to 1980s America, yet as the decades move on, less and less is said.  The 1940s are expressed clearly with exquisite detail, and I was excited to see what would happen with the 1950s and the 1960s.  But the 1950s slowed down, the 1960s were barely touched upon, the 1970s were jumped over almost entirely, and the 1980s were the final chapter of the book.  The pacing was all off.  I wanted to know these women in as much detail in the latter decades as in the first.  Instead of feeling like I knew them more and more intimately, they increasingly became strangers to me.

One thing that I think really works against the book is it is neither an ensemble nor a one character piece.  Most of the book is told about Megan, but not all of it.  We get snippets of the other characters, meaning perspectives that Megan is not privy to, but not enough to ever truly know them.  Since most of the book is about Megan, these bits away from her feel sort of like the story is robbing us of more time with the main character we are interested in.  Similarly, reading the blurb and the title, I thought this was going to be an ensemble book, which is not what we get either.  I wanted to know much more about two of the characters in particular, Peg, who comes out as a lesbian at some point in the 1960s, and Cathy, who has an affair with a priest.  These two stories are wonderfully intriguing, particularly Peg’s since her love of her life is met on a mission to register black voters in the American south, and her love interest is a Latina woman.  There is so much meat to that storyline, and yet it is barely touched upon while we instead listen to Megan hem and haw about her job, and Lavinia try to figure out how best to cheat on her husband.  The balance of telling this ensemble piece was just entirely off.

Similarly, while big issues and events of mid-20th century America were briefly touched upon, the book never really presented a truly personal look at any of them.  For instance, Megan has a friend who is bashed in a drive-by gay bashing but we never get to see Megan emotionally deal with this stark reality.  She hears about it, calls him, and moves on.  Similarly, as previously mentioned, Peg comes out as a lesbian, and we see a snippet of her depression caused by living the lie of being straight, but we never get to understand the emotions or impetus behind her bravely coming out and living in a visible, inter-racial lesbian relationship in the south.  It is disappointing because we get a taste of really encountering these historical issues, but we never actually get to.

In spite of all these problems, I still enjoyed reading the book well enough.  The plot, while frustrating, does progress forward in an interesting fashion.  The characters, although frequently two-dimensional, are bright and vivid.  I came away with the perspective I always have with historical fiction about women’s history.  That I am grateful I was born in a different time, because we women have much more opportunities available to us now.  So I appreciated my visit to that time period but it was a bit disappointing.

Overall, if you are a huge fan of historical fiction about women’s issues, this is an interesting book to add to your repertoire.  It is a good comparison to others that did it differently or better, and it is still fun to visit those time periods.  If this type of literature is not generally your cup of tea, though, I would suggest you instead read stronger competitors in that genre, such as The Group.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Finding Bluefield by Elan Barnehama

September 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Picture of two women together with a brown border.Summary:
It’s the 1960s, and Barbara thinks she has enough on her hands handling medical residency as a woman.  She doesn’t need the complications of dating women on top of that…or the risk to her profession of rumors that she’s a lesbian.  But when she meets local cook, Nicky, all these cautions go out the window.  Soon they’re a couple, and Nicky is determined to have a baby for them to raise together.

Review:
I read this book because my previous read from this indie publisher (Bold Strokes Books) was such a unique, well-written piece of GLBTQ lit, and I was excited to get more.  Unfortunately, the quality of this book does not come close to that of Lemon Reef.  Admittedly, Lemon Reef is by an entirely different author, but one does expect similar quality levels from the same publisher.  That was, unfortunately, not the case this time.

The plot is moderately common in lesbian fiction.  Girl meets girl. Couple wants a baby. Girl gets pregnant. Can they raise the baby and keep the relationship going.  With the added backdrop of prejudice and changing rights from the 1960s through the 1980s, it had the potential to be more unique and add an interesting twist, particularly since Nicky is supposed to be involved in the Civil Rights movement.  Unfortunately, none of this really pans out.  There are tantalizing teases of something more or something unique such as when Nicky gives a ride to a black man trying to escape from mob “justice” in the small town or when Barbara cheats on Nicky in New York City, but none of these ideas are brought to fruition.  In fact, the whole book feels more like a moderately fleshed-out plot outline for a future book.  Like, here are the key points, and I’ll flesh them out later.  Only this is the finished book.  There will be no more fleshing out of the plot.  It’s frustrating to read because just when you think something is about to happen, the idea gets dropped and you skip ahead a few years.

Similarly, the characters are never fully realized.  They are extremely two-dimensional, even the two main characters.  I actually found myself mixing Barbara and Nicky up repeatedly, which is intensely problematic.  They are two separate people, and their relationship is the focus of the novel, yet even after the entire book they are mostly unclear to me, except that Nicky has green eyes.  They simply don’t feel like real people to the reader at all, which is a problem in general but even more so when the book is trying to both be character-driven and address rights issues.

A book needs at least a compelling plot or engaging characters to be readable and both to be great.  This book has neither.  I can see potential in the plot and sentence structures for good writing, but the author needs to work on both expanding into greater plot detail as well as on improving characterization.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M. Auel (Series, #6)

Woman standing in cave looking out at scenery.Summary:
All of Ayla’s unique life situations–from being adopted by the Clan to living in a valley by herself to her long Journey with Jondalar–have been combining to make her into a great, powerful woman.  In this final entry in the Earth’s Children series we witness her transformation from Ayla to Zelandoni shaman of the Zelandonii.

Review:
As a fan of the Earth’s Children series since the age of 15, there is just no way I can review this epically disappointing, long-awaited finale to the series without spoilers.  So, be warned, this whole post is going to contain spoilers, because there is just no way I can possibly not talk about  everything that went horribly awry here.

First there is the incredibly huge issue of plot.  The book is divided into three sections.  The first section is entirely Ayla wandering around looking at caves with Zelandoni.  Which would be fine.  If the caves had anything particularly unique about them or anything exciting happened in the caves or if we weren’t told repeatedly “here’s a horse painting, here’s a cave lion painting, here are dots that mean something to the Zelandoni but I won’t ever tell you what they mean because where would the fun in that be?”  Oh sure, there are hints that something more exciting might happen, but nothing ever does.  It’s like Auel thought about putting action in, but then decided it’d be way easier to talk more about the badly painted and scratched in horses in these caves that for some reason the Zelandonii think are so incredibly sacred.  Oh yeah.  I remember why.  Because they’re supposedly the vagina of the Earth Mother.  Think about that for a second.  These people are worshiping in sacred vaginas.

Then we have the second section which mysteriously jumps forward four years in Ayla’s acolyte training because for some reason we couldn’t possibly be interested in that, oh no, there’s nothing interesting about ceremonies or studies.  Instead, we get to jump ahead four years and go on Ayla’s Donier tour.  Do you know what Ayla’s Donier tour is?  Going around Zelandonii territory to look at MORE CAVES.  This traveling could possibly be interesting.  We have foreshadowing multiple times that something bad is going to happen to Ayla, particularly that a band of evil bad rapist men are going to kidnap her and drag her off.  But no.  They grab her and Jondalar somehow miraculously goes from in front of the evil band of rapist men to behind them, breaks the leather-thong assisted choke-hold the dude has on Ayla, and saves her from them.  Then the Zelandoni beat them to death in an instance of mob justice.  Well.  At least something sort of happened?

The third section jumps ahead two more years (skipping almost all the rest of Ayla’s acolyte training) to yet another summer meeting, which Ayla has to come to part-way through because she had to stay back to complete her final assignment of training.  Ayla has a vision in a cave (oh, we’ll get to that in a minute) and then goes to the summer meeting where she walks in on Jondalar getting naked sexy head from the one woman in the Ninth Cave of the Zelandonii immune to liking Ayla.  No, I am not joking.  Jondalar, the oh I am Ayla’s soulmate and we will be together forever and I love her so much has totally been cheating on her for almost the entire last two years of her acolyte training.  Because she was busy.  Because a man has needs.  Because the ho offered herself to him and why on earth would Jondalar say no?  I am not joking, that is the tone of the book in the whole revelation of cheating thing.  PLUS, the whole cave knew about it and hid it from Ayla to protect her feelings.  Ayla, naturally, knows jealousy is taboo in Zelandonii society, so instead of confronting the cheating bastard she first has sex at a Mother Ceremony (ahem, orgy) with the dude Jondalar hates most in the Ninth Cave, and then she decides life isn’t worth living and tries to kill herself with the Clan root.  This from a woman who has three horses, a wolf, and a freaking 6 year old daughter to look after.  The only thing that saves her, naturally, is Jondalar’s undying love.  It took all of my self-control not to throw my kindle across the room.  Well, and also my intense love for my kindle.

So for two-thirds of the book nothing really happens, and then in the last third our two heroes both turn into loathsome people.  Good. Times.

Ok, so, the plot takes a complete nose-dive off Niagara Falls without a barrel while holding your beloved kitten.  What about the supposedly key element of the book and series?  What world-changing thing does this special woman, this powerful shaman, bring about?  Allow me to quote the new verse of the Earth Mother’s Song that is revealed to Ayla at the climax:

Her last Gift, the Knowledge that man has his part.
His need must be spent before new life can start.
It honors the Mother when the couple is paired,
Because woman conceives when Pleasures are shared.
Earth’s Children were blessed.
The Mother could rest. (page 540)

Yes. That is right, people.  The reason for this woman existing is to reveal to these dim-wits that sex, not the Earth Mother mixing spirits, causes babies.  Allow me to repeat that.  Ayla’s big contribution to pre-historic society is to teach these people the birds and the bees.

I wish I could say it gets better from there, but it doesn’t.  First Ayla has to convince the other shamans (Zelandoni) that this is true.  They, naturally, don’t want to believe it.  The lead Zelandoni convinces them that they must tell the people in a huge ceremony, because this will be life-changing.  Then we have, quite possibly, the most eyeball-widening, face-palming, head:desk inducing passage I have ever read.  The ceremony, meetings, and Mother’s Celebration that go along with it.  I won’t put you through the pain of all of it, but allow me to show you a good sample.  The passage in which the lead Zelandoni explains what to call the men who are also parents:

He is a far-mother, a fa-ther. It was also chosen to indicate that while women are the Blessed of Doni, men may now think of themselves as the Favored of Doni. It is similar to ‘mother,’ but the fa sound was chosen to make it clear that it is a name for a man, just as ‘fa’lodge’ is the name for the men’s place. (page 676-7)

I just…..there are no words for the inanity of it all.

Then, of course, all the men overnight turn into possessive, abusive, over-aggressive douchebags since now they know that their sperm has magical powers.  The book ends with the very heavy-handed suggestion that this revelation is what caused the move from matriarchy to patriarchy.

Oh, but it gets better.  To put one final touch of absurdity on the whole thing, we also finally get to find out what happened to the Neanderthals (Clan).  Ayla still has the black stone that contains a piece of every Clan member’s spirit in it from when she was a medicine woman for them.  A vision reveals to her that when Broud cast her out with the death curse, she forgot to leave the stone behind and thus caused the death of the entire Clan.  Yeah. Really. That’s what happens.  All of this build-up, and we find out that Ayla reveals the birds and the bees, kills matriarchy, and kills the Neanderthals.  What. The. Fuck.

As if the meandering plot and completely inane and horrifying huge reveals weren’t bad enough, something happened to Auel’s writing style.  I like to call it “let me give everything really long names and repeat myself a lot”  Just one example of the plethora of overly long names is “Zelandoni Who Was First Among Those Who Served The Great Earth Mother.”  That would be less painful, maybe, if Auel didn’t also repeat herself all the time.  Almost every time the lead Zelandoni shows up, we are reminded that she is a very large woman.  Almost every time Ayla speaks, someone notices her foreign accent.  Almost every time someone sees Jonayla (kill me now with that name), someone notices that she has Jondalar’s eyes.  Enough already!  We know! Stop telling us!

Between the meandering plot, completely what the fuck ending, and simply bad writing, I can’t recommend this book to anyone.  My best advice to fans of the series, or those interested in it, is to pretend that it ends with The Mammoth Hunters and Jondalar riding off into the sunset with Ayla.  Just pretend it stops there.  Ignore his people.  Ignore Ayla’s calling.  Ignore the Journey.  Just ignore the whole thing.  Take the characters and world back from Auel who completely mistreated them and let them exist in your mind the way they were at the end of The Mammoth Hunters.  Do not waste your time or hurt your brain reading this book. Just…..don’t.

1 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Previous Books in Series:
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Valley of the Horses
The Mammoth Hunters
The Plains of Passage
The Shelters of Stone 

Librarian Guest Book Review: The Works of Jeff Shaara

Welcome to the second entry in the librarian guest reviews series I’m hosting.  Please give your warmest attention to my fellow librarian, Jim Peterson!

Meet the Librarian:
My name is Jim Peterson, and I’m the Technology Coordinator for the Goodnight Memorial Library in Franklin, KY. I wear two big hats here – both Technical Services Librarian & IT department. I manage the library’s website, fix, build, break (sometimes) and maintain all the computers, servers & network devices. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen most days. In my down time, I like to do vegetable gardening, landscaping, camp, hunt, fish – you know, all those good ole boy activities – as well as do customization work on my vehicles.

Battle scene on a book cover.Summary:
The works of Jeff Shaara are of historical fiction. What is unique about his books is that they are a chronological account of important periods in American history, as seen through the eyes of those who lived them. Characters are developed from much research, using personal letters, letters from loved ones, diary entries and written records from the periods. The Shaara works give you a true sense of what this country’s forefathers were thinking and feeling, absorbing you into the story as though you were standing right beside them. You hear the cracks of the rifles, the blasts of the canons, and the fiery, passionate rhetoric.

Review:
I am going to write about the works of Jeff Shaara, son of Michael Shaara. I feel that I can’t do the author justice without giving a little background on his father, who only published one book that was widely recognized. Michael’s book, The Killer Angels, was rejected by the first 15 publishers who saw the manuscript. It was eventually published in 1973 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1975. Michael suffered a fatal heart attack in 1988 and never saw the legacy of his work come full circle. Some 19 years after it was published, the film Gettysburg (1993) was based on Killer Angels, and propelled the book to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List. Son Jeff rediscovered the manuscript of a baseball story, For Love of the Game, which was released in 1999 as a major motion picture starring Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston.

Jeff Shaara picked up the mantle of his father, Michael Shaara, in turning out great historical fiction after his father passed away in 1988. Jeff continued the story of the Civil War in writing Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, both of which were well-received with Gods and Generals winning the 1996 ALA William Young Boyd Award and being used as the basis for the motion picture Gods and Generals.

Jeff has also gone back in time, starting with the American Revolution and chronicling the travels and events surrounding Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, John Hancock, and all the founding fathers of our country. In Rise to Rebellion and The Glorious Cause, you feel the suffering of the men at Valley Forge, and the frustration of George Washington as he tries to assemble and lead an army. You learn that Benjamin Franklin was quite eccentric, even by today’s standards. You feel the arrogance of the British through the eyes of Generals Gage and Cornwallis, as well as the weight of the defeats on both sides.

Jeff Shaara has also remembered to re-educate us on the wars that our own history books touch on only slightly. In Gone for Soldiers, we learn of the dominance of Winfield Scott and the rise of soldiers Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson. We feel the Mexican heat as the soldiers battle it out against the best that the dictator Santa Anna has.

In all, Jeff Shaara has written nine New York Times Bestsellers. He has written To The Last Man, a novel of the First World war centering around John Pershing, the Red Baron and the Lafayette Escadrille, the wing of American fighter pilots who rebel against the President’s order to stay out of the war and help France fight off the Germans. This was another ALA Boyd Award winner as well.

So far, Shaara has written three novels on the Second World War, following Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, Erwin Rommel, Omar Bradley and several others. They are just as detailed, just as engrossing, and just as not-put-down-able as the first one, and I can’t wait to see what comes next!

If you love historical fiction and American history, these books should definitely be on your must-read list.

5 out of 5 stars, every one!

Source:
Jeff Shaara’s website and The Goodnight Memorial Library

Check out
Jim on Twitter, Facebook, and his blog!

Thanks to Jim for participating!  If you’re a librarian and would like to take part, please send me an email at opinionsofawolf (at) gmail (dot) com.