Thursday, April 28, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: End of the World House by Adrienne Celt

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

End of the World House by Adrienne Celt is a quirky novel set in the near future, partly in Paris and partly on the U.S. West Coast. It is billed as reminiscent of Groundhog Day, using the structure of repeating or reliving a day with slight variations. Presumably, the character would eventually get something right that had been wrong in their life, and thus break from the loop. But it’s not clear that happens here.

Bertie is the protagonist. A late twenties or early thirties woman, her career as a graphic novelist has stalled. She works for a large tech firm as a sort of graphic designer. She doesn’t know what the company actually does, but she is very well paid and her job comes with perks (free food, after-work cocktail parties, health insurance). In the current economy, she is very fortunate and recognizes it, even if she feels her actual job is meaningless.

Bertie’s best friend is Kate. They’ve been friends since high school and have a complicated past. They bonded during the recent crazy years (representing the end of the world as they knew it.) However, Bertie is more attached to Kate than Kate is to Bertie. Rather obsessively so. Kate has decided to move to L.A. for a new job, and Bertie is both furious and devastated.

As a way to salve the pain, Kate agrees to a Paris vacation with Bertie.

The novel opens with the two on their way to the Louvre on a day that it is closed. They had met a man in a bar the previous night who, after flirting with Kate, promised to sneak them into the museum for a private experience. Here things go haywire. 

The museum is odd. They wander aimlessly through it. They are separated. Bertie panics. Then she wakes up in the hotel room with Kate and they start the day all over, with similar results.

The two are separated again. But instead of finding Kate, Bertie finds her old boyfriend. He is a stalker it seems, but he understands what’s going on and she doesn’t, so she falls in with him. They end up back in the U.S., living a semi-idyllic life as boyfriend and girlfriend. She has odd compulsions about an old friend she never sees anymore (Kate), and eventually pulls the boyfriend back to Paris.

The novel moves along pretty well. The plotting is clunky, but that is how it’s structured. The characters live superficial lives and are not, in themselves, very interesting or likeable. Even the friendship between Bertie and Kate doesn’t ring true, since they spend their short times together getting on one another’s nerves and apologizing passive-aggressively.

The true star in this novel, the thing that kept me reading, was the setting. The disturbing atmosphere captured the disconnected weirdness of a slow crawl to the end times. People know the world is falling apart yet strain for some semblance of normalcy. Looking at it from the outside is horrifying. Particularly because it is holding a mirror up to our current day.

Rather than a pandemic, there was a worldwide series of unexplained bombings. People hunkered down. They chose buddies for sheltering in place (like Covid pods.) Political upheavals, border closings, supply chain issues, gas rationing, the rich getting richer while the poor get left behind, living lives through social media, and the omnipresent evidence of climate change is all here. And people’s response (or lack of response) to it all is realistically, depressingly, portrayed.

Human interaction becomes very superficial. Best friends can be discarded, or maybe they were never all that close. It was easy for Bertie to become fragmented, for her reality to dissolve, because there was so little real there to begin with. The ending is not hopeful. Nor is it satisfyingly sad. It’s just unsettling.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Archangel by Andrea Barrett

Historical fiction and short stories don’t generally go together in my mind. When I think of historical fiction, I think of detailed world-building, big-event settings, and large casts of characters. However, Andrea Barrett’s Archangel surprised me. In her collection of interconnected short stories set in the early 1900s, Barrett is able to create intense, poignant vignettes featuring several characters whose lives are caught up with the new discoveries being made in science and natural history. They deal with difficult life situations while grappling with new understandings that displace the comfort of the familiar. Scientific theories permeate their lives and they draw connections between scientific endeavors (engineering, astronomy, biology, genetics, and medicine) and their own life experiences.

The reader is firmly drawn into the time and place of each short story. The details bring the world to life. The writing is beautiful. And the characters are sympathetic and realistic.

I loved the book and will have to look for more of Barrett’s work.

Friday, April 22, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a gripping, important book, but brutally difficult to read.

Civil Townsend narrates the tale in two timelines. In 2016, she is a middle-aged Black OB-GYN, looking back and trying to make sense of her life. In 1973, she is a newly-graduated nurse, determined to help people. Her first job, at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic, initially seemed perfect. Knowing firsthand the importance of reproductive health, of reproductive choice, she believes in the mission: giving Black women living in poverty some control over their bodies and their futures.

Unfortunately, the clinic was not what it seemed. Early on, Civil was assigned to give birth control shots to two sisters – hormone treatments that had not been FDA-approved. Worse, the sisters were 11 and 13 years old and were not sexually active. The opinion of the head of the clinic, a white woman who saw herself as a do-gooder, was that if they weren’t yet, they soon would be, based on their race.

Civil is appalled by their living conditions. She inserts herself into their lives, finds them government housing, supplements their food stamps, buys them clothes, even teaches their father to read. Her intentions are good. But...

The sisters are essentially abducted from their home by the clinic supervisor and sterilized without informed consent. 

When Civil finds out, she seeks justice for the girls. With the help of a family friend, the other clinic nurses, and an idealistic young white lawyer, a lawsuit is filed against the clinic. However, as they uncover information about the scope of the government’s forced sterilization project, the lawyer takes on the Federal government instead. Tens of thousands of women of color were forcibly sterilized.

The novel dramatizes these events in a horrifying fashion. Yet there is nuance to the story. Civil, too, realizes that she steps across boundaries she shouldn’t in her eagerness to help.

There is a lot to absorb in this novel. It’s based on true historical events. Because the history is so recent, it’s raw and difficult to take in. Difficult too are comparisons with ongoing efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive health and to deny women bodily autonomy.

In some ways, the book reminds me of The Illness Lesson, another novel where young women were exploited and used as guinea pigs. So much trauma.

Even though it’s difficult to read, Take My Hand is not to be missed.

Monday, April 18, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: A Perilous Perspective by Anna Lee Huber

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

The tenth book in Anna Lee Huber’s Lady Darby mystery series, A Perilous Perspective, is newly released. 

Kiera (Lady Darby, Mrs. Gage) is at the country home of her great uncle for a wedding party. Kiera is eager to finally see her uncle’s painting collection, which is supposed to be superb. (She is a well-known portraitist. Earlier books explain how her talent dragged her into her first husband’s illicit cadaver dissection business. He was psychologically and physically abusive. After his death, Kiera had to deal with the fallout with the help of now-husband Sebastian Gage, a government investigator. They have solved many murders together. That’s a quick recap.)

Kiera is enjoying the visit and the time with her three-month-old baby girl. Unfortunately, things fall apart when she explores the painting gallery and discovers that a prized Titian is a forgery. This leads to the spilling of old family secrets, painful ones, which would be difficult enough to deal with. Then, one of the maids is discovered murdered in the gallery beneath the forged painting.

Once again, Kiera and Sebastian are called upon to solve the murder (murders), while dealing with complex family situations.

This remains a well-plotted mystery series with engaging protagonists. A secondary relationship between Kiera’s lady’s maid and Sebastian’s valet keeps things interesting on the romance side now that the love story between Kiera and Sebastian is so well settled.

Fans of this series will be thrilled with this new addition. For those who have not yet met Kiera and Sebastian, start with book 1!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Pandora's Jar: Women in the Greek Myths by Natalie Haynes

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I loved Natalie Haynes’ novel of the women (and goddesses) of the Trojan War, A Thousand Ships. So when I saw she’d written a nonfiction exploration of a similar topic, Pandora’s Jar: Women in the Greek Myths, I wanted to read it as well.

Haynes is an authority on Greek myths, particularly the women in the tales. This new work looks at Pandora, Jocasta, Helen, Medusa, the Amazons, Clytemnestra, Eurydice, Phaedra, Medea, and Penelope and how they have been viewed through the ages. The earliest appearances of these women (whether human, goddess, monster, or some combination) are often quite different from the versions we have come to know through later--even modern--representations. I was a bit surprised to learn that the early Greek renderings were often less misogynistic than more recent versions. The variations in the stories are fascinating and the reasoning behind the changes are complex. Haynes traces the evolution of the various tales and offers insight into how we’ve come to settle on particular versions, as well as why the stories are destined to continually change.

Haynes has a great deal of empathy for the characters. She writes clearly, with great understanding and with wit. I have always enjoyed retellings of the old myths and I equally enjoyed this analysis. 

I recommend reading Pandora’s Jar and A Thousand Ships in tandem.

Monday, April 11, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton

I have no idea when I first heard a reference to Goodbye, Mr. Chips. It seems I’ve always been aware of its existence, embedded in the culture, probably from the movie title. Yet I never actually saw the movie or read the book. What is it about? A teacher of some sort? So when I heard it referenced recently, out of the blue, I decided it was time to read the book. To my pleasant surprise, Goodbye, Mr. Chips by James Hilton is a novella that I could read in a sitting.

First published in 1933, the novel peeks in at the elderly Mr. Chipping, known to everyone as Mr. Chips, a retired school teached/headmaster, who devoted his life to a private boys’ school called Brookfield. This is described as no Harrow, but still one of the top second-tier schools in England. Mr. Chips is quite elderly as the book opens. He looks back at his life over the course of a few short chapters.

Mr. Chips’ career spans a busy time in the history of Britain and in the world. He started teaching at Brookfield in 1870 and continued on through the turn of the century, retired just before WWI and came back to help out “for the duration.”

Allusions to the war are made throughout, mainly as poignant mentions of alumni who were lost. One chapter shows Mr. Chips keeping his classroom together and teaching throughout a bombing, courageously helping the boys through the terrifying event. The war is central to the novel, as it was to the man’s life; and yet, the focus is so squarely set on Chips’ involvement with the school that the war is kind of hazily distant, a memory.The novel is mainly about this good man, his love for the school–which to him embodies the ideals of the Englishman, and his love for his country. He is helping to bring up the next generations of Englishmen. Times change, but he remains the same, mostly. Longevity helps him become an institution at the school and he takes pride and comfort in that.

He is an old-school gentleman and the later generations peg him as an old bachelor. However, embedded within the novella is a poignant love story. In middle life, he met, fell in love with, and married a younger woman whose more modern ideas challenged him and whose charm softened him. She died tragically. And he forged on.

The novella packs a lot into its few pages. The storytelling is simple and is mainly presented as narrative with a few short scenes. The secondary characters are sketched in. Even his wife is only fleetingly presented. And yet, there is emotional depth to the story because Mr. Chips is so fully fleshed out.

This is a charming story. And now I’ve finally read it!

Friday, April 1, 2022

BOOK REVIEW: Wellington and the Vitoria Campaign. 1813: Never a Finer Army by Carole Divall

Continuing with my new obsession with the actual history of the Regency Period, I read Wellington and the Vitoria Campaign. 1813: Never a Finer Army by Carole Divall. This is very much a military history, focused on the troop movements, the immediate set-up to the battle, the stages of the fight, and the decisive victory of the British and their allies over King Joseph of Spain (Napoleon’s brother) and the French General Jourdan. It incorporates excerpts from letters, memoirs, and dispatches of the participants. And it includes appendices detailing troop numbers. While rather dry to read, the book is a comprehensive account that succeeds at its task. If you’re interested in episodes in the Napoleonic Wars besides Waterloo, this is a good book to study.