Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Imperfect Bliss by Susan Fales-Hill

***SPOILER ALERT :  Please do not read this review if you are planning on reading this novel. There are SPOILERS***

This review is from an ARC for Kindle from NetGalley, courtesy of Simon and Schuster.

Meet Bliss Harcourt, of the Harcourt family of suburban Maryland. In her 30's and divorced, she's living at home again, working on her Masters, and taking care of her sweet, smart and very mildly handicapped daughter, Bella. Her mother, Forsythia, is the Jamaican version of Hyacinth Bucket (of the Brit com, Keeping Up Appearances), her father Harold, the long sufering Richard Bucket (A Bristish citizen). Their four beautiful daughters, Charlotte, Diana, Elizabeth (Bliss) and Victoria, are all currently single, and this panics their social climbing mother, who is obsessed, with, well, keeping up appearances.

Bliss is the main character in this novel, the story is told, mostly, through her critical eyes. We learn about her sisters' different personalities via her perspective as grown sister returning to the nest after an unhappy divorce from her hot Latino husband who is an aspiring politician in Miami. Diana has managed to snag a reality tv deal--she has been asked to be "The Virgin" on a twisted and even more bizarre version of The Bachelorette. Her mother is overjoyed, father is disgusted (as is Bliss, of course), teenaged sister Charolotte, an egotistical nymphomaniac, is excited to say the least, and soft spoken and "perfect" oldest sister Victoria is appalled and distant. Bliss just wants to protect her 4 year old child.

We are supposed to identify these characters, as well as Dario (executive producer of the "The Virgin") and Wyatt (host) with characters from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: Dario is Darcy, Wyatt is Wickham, Forsythia and Harold Harcourt are Mr and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth/Bliss, well, naturally she is our heroine, Lizzie Bennet. But Elizabeth Bennet was not a worldly single mother, who often has sexy dreams of her professor and constantly describes her buttocks as "ample," a word that is used in that particular context repeatedly throughout this novel. 

The novel uses a pop culture reference on just about every page. Even Bliss's daughter's name, Bella, struck me as an unnecessary salute to Twilight. She seems to function as the court jester in the book, saying things the adults won't say aloud, and often exceeding the intelligence of the average 4 year old child. The book was funny at times, and at other times tragic. Instead of Lydia running away with Wickham, Wyatt manages to marry Diana (The Virgin who deosn't act like one), and Charlotte makes a sex tape with an "athletic" looking man--she is obsessed with athletes, and although a teenager, there are absolutely no repercussions for anyone when the sex tape arrives at their doorstep with a threat to reveal it to the whole world. The network squashes the tapes and poor Charlotte is disappointed, since she missed her chance to be the next Paris Hilton. (Yes, it actually says that in the book!) 

I had a few problems with some references. This author is obviously very well educated, and in addition to the many pop culture refernces, she also alludes to many historical and literary ones as well. But it really bothers me when someone who is this educated still displays a complete misunderstanding of what the Immaculate Conception is! In Chapter 19, when Bliss arrives at the hotel where The Virgin will be shooting in Germany, she is asked by the desk clerk is she "The Virgin": "The man asked puzzled as he looked from Bliss to Bella and back to Bliss again as if to say, Am I to deduce that this was an Immaculate Conception?" The Immaculate Conception does NOT refer to Jesus' conception. The Immaculate Conception refers to Mary's conception, Jesus' mother, without Original Sin, and has NOTHING to do with the act of intercourse. Shocking that a Harvard educated graduate does not understand this very simple concept!

Also, in Chapter 32, a producer from the television show screams "Why the fuck didn't anyone tell me Henry VIII was only four foot eleven?" I'm not sure if the author thinks this is funny, or of she really believes this also: Henry VIII was a very large man for his time at well over six foot tall. Another gaffe, purposeful or not, but irritating when one learns that Ms. Fales-Hill graduated with honors in literature and history from Harvard. Maybe she doesn't think people who will read this novel are knowledgeable about anything, so accuracy doesn't matter.

Some of the descriptions within the book are annoying and gratuitous. Chapter 23: "Bliss sat with her father, nursing a Viennese coffee and cringing as Forsythia, squeezed into a red cocktail dress and teetering on a pair of spangled pumps, belted out the third stanza of "Santa Baby," the Earth Kitt come-hither holiday classic." A description of the lyrics and her presentatin follows. Really? Editor please! Too MUCH info. I know Earth Kitt sings it (or Madonna) and I really don't care for this much detail about your coffee, her outfit, etc. This goes on to describe Forsythia "...draping herself over the piano and writhing on it like a Jurrasic version of Michelle Pfeiffer's torch singer in The Fabulous Baker Boys." Enough already! I'd like to be able to use my imagination once in a while! Other annoying lines, "Looking like a multicultural prince froma late-issue Disney Film" (from Chapter 26). "His horse responded to his every prompt like a pliant female" Ugh. (from Chapter 36). For a character who is so "progressive," I was shocked when she reassures her mother she is not a lesbian like her sister reveals she is: "No, Mum, you can relax. Of all my failings, that's not one." What?! Being a homosexual is a "failing"???

The book takes an even more disturbing turn towards the end when Forsythia Harcourt reveals at the end of the book to Bliss, after rejecting her gorgeous, but sadly (ha ha) lesbian daughter Victoria, that she wishes her daughters had pretended not to be related to her because she was "a nigger." She would have happily pretended to be the Nanny, in a reverse Imitation-of-Life declaration that Bliss suddenly finds very touching, even though her mother has been a complete narcissistic shrew. Blech. Real people are confused about life, for certain, but as this book progresses and Bliss becomes more and more muddled, instead of less so about her relationships, I felt more annoyed. 

The book has some very genuinely funny moments, and is mildly entertaining. A great beach read, although I felt that the author wanted this to be much more. She seems to be trying to be the new Zadie Smith, recrafting the social commentary novel of the late 1800's for a new generation, with an over abundance of pop culture references (that she also seems to feel need to be explained for her audience) but she really doesn't achieve this with so many gaffes and a few rather crude and unrefined moments in the novel.

2 stars 

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mother's Day

Yesterday was Mother's Day here in the United States. Always a day of frenzied buying and gifting. I always tell my children and husband do NOT buy me flowers. I love flowers, but I'd prefer ones picked by them, if I must have flowers. My gift was some chocolate (which I happily shared) and time with them. Seeing my two beautiful and wildly talented daughters singing at church, that was my gift. Sitting next to my adorable and sweet 11 year old son, that was my gift. My darling children are my heart, and what I am most thankful for in life. The best gifts I have ever been given!

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

(Advanced Reader Copy)

My reading ears perked up the moment I read the synopsis for this new YA novel a month or two ago. It really appealed to me, and will appeal to others who love dystopian novels, in this case, especially those who love Susan Beth Pfeffer's Life as We Knew It trilogy. The plot is superficially similar, but the female protagonist in this novel is in middle school, 6th grade, that age of miracles.

Julia is a perceptive and reasonably well adjusted child at the start of the novel, with a best friend and two seemingly stable parents. When the completely unexpected news breaks that the earth's rotation has dramatically slowed, adding minutes (at first) to every day, all of their lives change instantly.

Julia is an honest narrator, dealing with her troubles and worries in a fairly direct way, although she hides much of her pain from her suddenly fragile mother. But she tells all to the reader, and as a woman who has much in common with Julia, I found myself really empathizing with this girl on the cusp of adolescence and, an unfortunate push into adulthood. Her father is having an affair with a neighbor, and Julia knows this but her mother does not. This increases Julia's anxiety over what will happen next in a world hardly anyone can understand anymore.

This novel is really well written, the prose is often poetic and beautiful, even when describing scenes that are unsettling and scary. Karen Thompson Walker is very talented, and this book really grabbed me and sucked me in from the very first moment. Julia's only child-ness and awkwardness was something I could completely relate to, and I am happily sharing this book with my 15 year old daughter, since I know she will love it too. Excellent reading, I could hardly put this one down! Definitely well deserved hype.

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar: A Novel by Susan Joinstone

This was advanced reader copy I received via NetGalley.

I decided to read this book after seeing the cover, and liking the time period mentioned in the summary of the book. I had no idea, really, that I would enjoy it so much. Great storytelling, told in a unique way, with two threads of a story running parallel and occasioanally interweaving. This novel does not disappont.

 Naturally, being the curious reader I am, I immediately looked up Kashgar on the internet after reading the first chapter.  Kashgar (accoeding to the almighty Wikipedia), is a city located in China, but near the border, and close to Tajikistan.  It has always been a place of great civil unrest, and during the time setting of this novel (early 1900's), was a dangerous place. Muslims there worship in the largest Mosque in all of China. Obviously, not a place welcoming to Westerners.

Eva English is very much a Westerner. She and her sister, Elizabeth, are missionaries, being led through the hazardous Eastern deserts by Millicent, their leader in the Order of the Steadfast Pace, on horseback, with Eva on her bicycle, of course. Eva is not as true to the cause of being a missionary as her devoted sister actally seems to be, but Eva is taking advantage of the adventure to write a guide boks for woman riding on bike through the region, although her companions do not know this. A terrible event occurs, and when the women stop and try to help, they become captives of the governing forces of Kashgar, held after trying to aid a very young woman who gives birth to a child on the side of the road and dies, tragically. The women take the child and are brought to the city where they are "guests," held until a trial can be arranged. They are free to wander about the city at first, and Millicent reaches out to a priest, another missionary, but a very odd person indeed.

 Flash forward to the present day, London, England. We meet Frieda, a young woman, frustrated with her ongoing affair with a slightly older, married man, and tired from her diplomatic travles and globe trotting. Nathaniel has children and a business, and is selfish with her. Frieda has complicated relationships with her parents. In her first days home, two odd things happen: she meets an illegal immigrant from Yemen who takes refuge on her doorstep, and she finds she has been left the property of an older deceased lady who she does not know.

So, these two storylines continue this way. Eva's life is frightening and complicated. She is now taking care of a child, an infant, and this job is all consuming. Lizzie is somehow charmed by Millicent and her constant demands, and Eva discovers many secrets about her sister, whom she feels she must protect in this strange land. Millicent controls her. Eva eventually learns many secrets.

Frieda also discovers things about her life she had no idea about. The two stories weave in and out, intermingling in so many complex ways. I was amazed at the incredible storytelling in this novel. The timeliness of it was striking,

Without giving too much away, of course Eva and Frieda have a connection. Frieda learns a lot about herself in a short period of time, while Eva's journey is longer and more convoluted, but still rewarding.

I can't recommend this wonderful novel enoough. I was really struck by the genius of the stroies and their interlocking parts, fitting together as the novel prgressed like a Chinese box. Mysterious and beautiful, this is a well crafted and well written novel.