Thursday, October 22, 2015

Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving, All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani, Delia's Shadow by Jamie Lee Moyer, and The Actor and The Housewife by Shannon Hale

I've always seen bookstores as sanctuaries, holy ground for bibliophiles like myself who need to wander and browse, reveling in the unique smells and tactile joys of holding a book in your hands and contemplating its purchase.I know that I would not be the same person I am if I wouldn't have spent a great deal of my life in libraries and bookstores, learning and growing and becoming a storyteller/journalist.
"Bookstores make artists. The ability to wander and browse. To buy not by algorithm but by whim. To be surprised by a book or a cover or a
fellow browser and what he's pulling off the shelf. Record stores,
bookstores and coffee shops are the holy trinity of arts incubation. And
bookstores are the Father."

author of the Summer/Fall 2015 Indies Introduce title Rules for
Werewolves, in a q&a with Bookselling This Week
I've been a fan of John Irving's works since reading The World According to Garp, the Hotel New Hampshire, Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I also read his short novellas and I adored his prose style and way with bizarre but likeable characters. Unfortunately, Irving had a couple of books that were not only awful (A Son of the Circus was unreadable), but he made comments after writing one book about prostitutes that all young women should take a turn being prostitutes because it was a viable career option for women to sell their bodies for sex. I was so horrified by this sexism and misogyny that I stopped reading Irving's books. I don't think I missed much until recently, when I've been reading reviews of his last couple of works that claim that the "old" Irving is back, and better than ever. I might pick up a copy of Avenue of Mysteries, though I would wait to find a used copy in protest of Irving's sexism. I can only hope he's over being a jerk by now.

Book Review: Avenue of Mysteries
 When John Irving became a finalist for the 1978 National Book Award with
The World According to Garp, he leaped from mid-list, MFA-schooled,
literary fiction obscurity to international fame and enough fortune
thereafter to write pretty much whatever he wanted. In the almost four
decades since, he has published 10 novels (including The Cider House
Rules and The Fourth Hand) and has had several works adapted to film.
Often long and heavily plotted, Irving's fiction regularly features
troubled childhoods, violent maiming, sexual promiscuity, circuses,
sports, religion, writers and writing, domesticated animals, travel and
memory. Avenue of Mysteries sits right in the sweet spot of Irving's
obsessions--and as with his past books, its imaginative storytelling
overcomes its plot complexity and characters' often over-the-top

Avenue of Mysteries is a rambling story that moves in and out of
chronological time as it travels across time zones. At 14 years old,
Juan Diego lives in a shack with his younger sister, Lupe, and their
suspected father, Rivera, outside Oaxaca, Mexico. They are the "dump
kids," and Rivera the "dump jefe." By the time he is 54, the
novelist-protagonist Juan Diego (if a novel with many, many characters
can have only one protagonist) is visiting Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
in Manila, Philippines, ruminating on the many ghosts and memories from
his past.

He is known as the "dump reader" because of his self-taught ability to
read dense religious and classic fiction texts in both English and
Spanish. Lupe is born with the clairvoyance to read people's thoughts
and occasionally predict the future, which she expresses in a language
that only Juan Diego can understand. Along the journey of Juan Diego's
life, he and Lupe join a traveling Oaxacan circus, and Rivera accidently
runs over Juan Diego's foot, giving him a permanent limp. Intellectually
confused, Juan Diego makes a pilgrimage to the Mexico City Virgen de
Guadalupe (along the city's Avenida de los Misterios) to sort out his
conflicting allegiances to the Virgin Mary and Aztec goddess Coatlicue,
after which he is adopted by the transgender Oaxacan prostitute Flor and
Iowan missionary priest Eduardo, who forsakes his vows for Flor. They
take him to Iowa City, where he studies and then teaches writing at the
University of Iowa. Falling in with a sexually obsessed, well-traveled
mother and daughter on a flight to Manila, he visits the gravesite of
American soldiers and worries about mixing up the dosages of his
beta-blocker and Viagra pills. (Whew!)

Juan Diego is an inspired character who provides Irving with a platform
from which to explore the mysteries of growing old, of religious
fanaticism and fantasy, of language, of companionship and love, and
especially of writing. Regarding his maimed foot, Juan Diego thinks: "A
cripple's life is one of watching others do what he can't do, not the
worst option for a future novelist." From wherever it came, Irving's
knack for telling a good story is as strong as ever. --Bruce Jacobs
founding partner, Watermark Books &Cafe, Wichita, Kan.

All the Stars in the Heavens is Adriana Trigiani's latest masterwork, and it comes on the heels of the movie version of her wonderful Big Stone Gap books debuting this month in theaters around the US and Canada. I've read everything Adriana has written, and I've loved her books for their evocative prose and delightful characters. All the Stars in the Heavens is a bit of a departure for Adriana, as it's about real people whose lives have factual happenstance that the author has woven into a fictional narrative. Here's the blurb:
In this spectacular saga as radiant, thrilling, and beguiling as Hollywood itself, Adriana Trigiani takes us back to Tinsel Town's golden age—an era as brutal as it was resplendent—and into the complex and glamorous world of a young actress hungry for fame and success. With meticulous, beautiful detail, Trigiani paints a rich, historical landscape of 1930s Los Angeles, where European and American artisans flocked to pursue the ultimate dream: to tell stories on the silver screen.

The movie business is booming in 1935 when twenty-one-year-old Loretta Young meets thirty-four-year-old Clark Gable on the set of The Call of the Wild. Though he's already married, Gable falls for the stunning and vivacious young actress instantly.

Far from the glittering lights of Hollywood, Sister Alda Ducci has been forced to leave her convent and begin a new journey that leads her to Loretta. Becoming Miss Young's secretary, the innocent and pious young Alda must navigate the wild terrain of Hollywood with fierce determination and a moral code that derives from her Italian roots. Over the course of decades, she and Loretta encounter scandal and adventure, choose love and passion, and forge an enduring bond of love and loyalty that will be put to the test when they eventually face the greatest obstacle of their lives.

Anchored by Trigiani's masterful storytelling that takes you on a worldwide ride of adventure from Hollywood to the shores of southern Italy, this mesmerizing epic is, at its heart, a luminous tale of the most cherished ties that bind. Brimming with larger-than-life characters both real and fictional—including stars Spencer Tracy, Myrna Loy, David Niven, Hattie McDaniel and more—it is it is the unforgettable story of one of cinema's greatest love affairs during the golden age of American movie making.
I've never really been a big Loretta Young or Clark Gable fan, as I prefer musicals and movies that happened a bit later than the 30s, mostly movies of the late 40s,50s 60s and 70s, that star actors like Danny Kaye or Katherine Hepburn or Audrey Hepburn. I find movies like Singing in the Rain, White Christmas or the Court Jester thrill me more than depression or WW2 era films. But here Trigiani's fills out the narrative of the last of the silent movies and into the talkies with aplomb, allowing us into the lives of the Young sisters who all lived in a mansion with their mother Gladys, who was an interior designer. All devout Catholics, Loretta gains a good friend and confidant in Alda Ducci, who, after leaving the convent, becomes Young's secretary.  While claiming to be devout, Young seems to fall prey to Gable's charms fairly quickly, and when she becomes pregnant, (and I find it hard to believe a devout Catholic would have sex outside of marriage) Gable doesn't want to be responsible for their child, and leaves Young to make a convoluted path to "adopting" their daughter from the convent orphanage, while Gable continues to have affairs with other women while still married. He eventually divorces and remarries, but not to Young, whom he supposedly loves, instead he marries Carol Lombard, who dies tragically in a plane crash. Young never seems to find the "right" time to tell her daughter that she's Gable and Youngs love child, and according to Wikipedia, Young told her daughter in law that Gable raped her, and that she saw their daughter as a "walking mortal sin." Yet Adriana paints Young as a sweetly innocent religious person who still loves Gable and loves her daughter more than anything. When Young remarries Lewis and he mistreats her daughter Judy, Young doesn't seem to actually care enough to do anything about it, and though he seems like a cruel and controlling person, Young has two sons with Lewis. This all lead me to not really buy that Young was such a pious and sweet person who treated her daughter well. I also don't believe Gable was such a great guy, only coming to see his daughter twice and not having the gumption to marry Young because he was afraid of losing money to his ex. Because I didn't really like Gable or Young that much, this book wasn't as much of a joy for me to read as all of Trigiani's previous works. That's not to say that it isn't a good book, it is well written and has interesting side characters, like Alda and her husband. I'd give it a B+, and recommend it to those who enjoy the Golden Age of Cinema and reading about the love lives of the old-time stars of that era.

Delia's Shadow by Jamie Lee Moyer is a taut supernatural thriller with gothic romance overtones. Told from the POV of three of the main characters, Moyer weaves this turn of the 20th century tale into an almost Sherlock Holmesian ghost story, with creepy but crisp prose and a plot that is like a roller coaster ride, it's so breathtakingly fast. Here's the blurb: It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia's most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side.

Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest.

It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again.

And who is now aware of Delia's existence. 
Poor Delia is harassed throughout the book by Shadow, whose ghost keeps expressing the need for Delia to find her killer, the serial killer who is daily murdering innocent people in 1915 San Francisco, and taunting the police about it. Among the police is handsome Gabriel Ryan, who falls for Delia, and believes her when she says that she sees and hears ghosts. Gabe's sidekick, police officer Jack Fitzgerald, is also a great guy who is in love with Delia's best friend Sadie, and whose mother, it turns out, is actually the Shadow ghost who has been following Delia around. (that's a SPOILER, sorry!) Until the last couple of chapters, I wasn't sure who the killer was, and the ending, though well done, whipped by as fast as all the other pages of this novel, which is un-put-downable. I'd give it an A, and recommend it to anyone who likes a good Gothic ghost story with some romance woven throughout.

The Actor and the Housewife by Shannon Hale was a library book sale find for a mere $1. Since I'd read one of Hale's YA titles, I thought I knew what to expect from this adult romantic story. I was wrong. Surprisingly fun, Actor and Housewife is a spunky modern romance that somehow manages to make it's Mormon housewife Becky, mother of four, into a relatable character. I would bet that someone like Benedict Cumberbatch or Tom Mison or Tom Hiddleston were the templates for Felix Callahan, the witty British actor who finds his best friend and verbal sparring partner in Becky.Here's the blurb:
What if you were to meet the number-one person on your laminated list--you know, that list you joke about with your significant other about which five celebrities you'd be allowed to run off with if ever given the chance? And of course since it'll never happen it doesn't matter…

Mormon housewife Becky Jack is seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she meets celebrity hearththrob Felix Callahan. Twelve hours, one elevator ride, and one alcohol-free dinner later, something has happened…though nothing has happened. It isn't sexual. It isn't even quite love. But a month later Felix shows up in Salt Lake City to visit and before they know what's hit them, Felix and Becky are best friends. Really. Becky's husband is pretty cool about it. Her children roll their eyes. Her neighbors gossip endlessly. But Felix and Becky have something special…something unusual, something completely impossible to sustain. Or is it? A magical story, The Actor and the Housewife explores what could happen when your not-so-secret celebrity crush walks right into real life and changes everything.

I found that Becky's emotional roller coaster was just a bit much, especially the waffling about her feelings for Felix. Felix seemed like a lot of men, in that he doesn't always know his own heart, or his libido, and yet you know that he's going to do the right thing by Becky, no matter how many times she's in crisis. I love babies and children, too, but Becky's rhapsodizing about the joys of children also gets to be a bit saccarine and silly as the book goes on. There's a lot of witty banter and dialog in the novel, which reads, ironically, like a movie script, since Becky sells movie scripts to studios and that's how she meets Felix. But Becky's naive and innocent views of Hollywood and the various people who work there is also too ridiculous to be believed. Still, I liked her when she was with Felix and I enjoyed the twist at the end of the novel, which is not a HEA so much as a Happy For Now. I'd give the book a B+ and recommend it to those who enjoy contemporary romantic comedies on the screen, and those members of the LDS church who fantasize about making it big in Hollywood.

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