Wednesday, April 19, 2017

No Book But The World by Leah Hager Cohen, Design for Dying by Renee Patrick, The Midnight Work by Kassandra Sims, and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend

Since I have four books to review, I'll get right to it today. 

No Book But The World by Leah Hager Cohen was a hardback book that I bought because I LOVED her non fiction title Glass, Paper, Beans with such a ferocity that I remember writing her an email and gushing about how brilliant it was, how the prose was so lush and beautiful that I felt like I was reading classic literary fiction. She reminded me of Diane Ackerman, who also writes gorgeous non fiction (and some great fiction based on historical fact, too), and whose work I've read over and over. That said, I hadn't been able to get into Cohen's book about grief, perhaps because it is about such a depressing subject. So I was a tad anxious about this novel, but I need not have worried, Cohen handles fiction like the pro that she is, and manages to make a tough and bittersweet story into a page turner that I read in 24 hours. Here's the blurb: 
A lush, gripping, psychologically complex novel that asks: How much do siblings owe one another?
At the edge of a woods, on the grounds of a defunct “free school,” Ava and her brother, Fred, share a dreamy and seemingly idyllic childhood—a world defined largely by their imaginations, a celebration of curiosity and the natural environment, and each other’s presence. Their parents, progressive educators, believe passionately that children develop best without formal instruction or societal constraint. Everyone is aware of Fred’s oddness—the word “autism” is whispered—but his parents’ fierce disapproval of labels keeps him free of clinical evaluation, diagnosis, or intervention, and constantly at Ava’s side.
Decades later, Fred is arrested for a shocking crime, and Ava is frantic to piece together the story of what actually happened. A boy is dead. Fred is held in a county jail. But could he really have done what he’s accused of? By now their parents are long gone, and the siblings have fallen out of touch, which causes Ava considerable guilt. Who is left to reach Fred? To explain him and his innocence to the world? Convinced that she alone can ensure he is regarded with sympathy, Ava tells their enthralling story.
A writer of enormous craft, Leah Hager Cohen brings her trademark intelligence and storytelling to a psychologically gripping, richly ambiguous novel that suggests we may ultimately understand one another best not with facts alone, but through our imaginations.
I found that I really loathed Ava and Fred's parents for not dealing with their son's autism disorder by pretending it didn't exist, and therefore leaving him to a world that takes advantage of mentally handicapped people and inevitably destroys them. I was also not a fan of Ava's, because she was able to interpret the world for, and understand Fred from a young age, but then suddenly when she became an adult, she was unable to handle his being "different" so she basically abandoned him. Then when her insane parents died, and their mother had consigned Fred's care to some drug dealing lowlife  (which makes no sense, but then, their parents were truly bizarre people) Ava was afraid that having Fred in her life would disrupt her marriage and make her husband divorce her, though it's obvious that he's very much in love with Ava, no matter how weird and fragile she is. So when Fred moves in with a junkie prostitute who abuses her son, it's only a matter of time before the son is dead and Fred, (who is abandoned by the prostitute) who is, by then, living like a cockroach above a garage and recycling bottles and cans for food, is accused of killing the boy. It seemed very apparent to me that Fred should have been institutionalized when he was a child, because he was a sociopath of low intelligence who wasn't taught right from wrong by his idiot parents, and that's a recipe for disaster when a child with no moral compass grows up and doesn't understand the world around him or the people who inhabit it. And Ava seemed to only care about herself. Though I didn't like any of the characters in the book, I did enjoy Cohen's glorious prose and storytelling abilities. For that reason alone I'd give the book an A-, though I would only recommend this book to those who don't get depressed easily, as it's a tragic tale that doesn't have a happy ending. 

Design for Dying by Renee Patrick is the first book in a series of mysteries that take place in the late 1930s, with the crime-solving team of Lillian Frost and famed costume designer Edith Head. I went into this novel completely unaware of what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by the smooth as silk prose that aided a beautifully intricate plot, which floated along on wings of wit. Here's the blurb:
Los Angeles, 1937. Lillian Frost has traded dreams of stardom for security as a department store salesgirl . . . until she discovers she's a suspect in the murder of her former roommate, Ruby Carroll. Party girl Ruby died wearing a gown she stole from the wardrobe department at Paramount Pictures, domain of Edith Head.
Edith has yet to win the first of her eight Academy Awards; right now she's barely hanging on to her job, and a scandal is the last thing she needs. To clear Lillian's name and save Edith's career, the two women join forces.
Unraveling the mystery pits them against a Hungarian princess on the lam, a hotshot director on the make, and a private investigator who's not on the level. All they have going for them are dogged determination, assists from the likes of Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck, and a killer sense of style. In show business, that just might be enough.
The first in a series of riveting behind-the-scenes mysteries, Renee Patrick's Design for Dying is a delightful romp through Hollywood's Golden Age. Publisher's Weekly:
Set in 1937, Patrick’s upbeat, name-dropping debut starring real-life Hollywood costume designer Edith Head puts feminine cleverness, fashion sense, and social acumen front and center. The police suspect Edith and Lillian Frost, a department store salesperson and wannabe actress, in the murder of Lillian’s often opportunistic ex-roommate, Ruby Carroll, who’s found dead in a gown that turns out to have been stolen from the wardrobe department of Paramount Pictures, where Edith works. To clear themselves, Lillian and Edith seek to unwind the threads of Ruby’s final ruse. The interests of celebrities, socialites, and European royalty cross with those of a shady photographer, a club owner, and a boarding house landlady—to create both a complex environment for sleuthing replete with possibilities and an exciting sense of the glamorous, gossipy, and creative world of cinema’s golden age. The warm working relationship that develops between Lillian and Edith will leave readers eager to see more of their adventures

That last line from Publisher's Weekly is all too true. I couldn't get enough of the champagne-fizzy-ticklish wit of the prose and the fascinating characters. I was surprised and saddened that Ruby was pretending to be a princess in order to get a screen test and get work in Hollywood, when her talent should have been enough, but sexism was everywhere at that time, and women in tinsel town had to do outrageous things to get on the studio bosses radar. Renee Patrick is actually a non de plume for a way too good looking couple living in Seattle who just happen to write mysteries together. I certainly became a fan after reading this book, and I hope that the next one, which I have on hold at the library, will be just as fun. I'd give this book a well deserved A, and a recommendation to anyone who is curious about Hollywood and costumes of the 1930s, or just about Edith Head, who costumed many famous actors and actresses for years on stage and screen. 

The Midnight Work by Kassandra Sims is a sham of a novel, listed as a romance when it is actually dark urban fantasy bordering on horror, and written by someone whose first language isn't English, made obvious by the cliches and poor use of idioms.  I kept waiting for the writing to get better (it didn't) or the characters to seem less like cardboard cutouts of the Kardashians (they didn't), or for the plot to start making sense (never happened).The only "romance" in the book is the first encounter of the protagonists, Sophie and Olivier, when they basically have sex without even knowing one another, and then Sophie gets turned into a vampire because someone pushes her down in the street and she breaks her neck. Olivier, who is a Cathar (a weird religious sect that was killed off by Catholics a thousand years ago) somehow thinks that Sophie is the reincarnation of his one true love, though he doesn't even try to tell her that until very late in the book. Meanwhile, Sophie is an idiot who can't manage to do anything without one of her friends/room mates around to tell her what to do, so she makes one of her room mates, an African American gal who is an anchor person on the local news into a vampire, and said roomie just lets loose with all her sociopathic and psychopathic tendencies and starts killing and enthralling anyone whom she doesn't like (and that includes anyone but herself and Sophie). They also steal a lot, and Olivier and his frenemy Luc just sit back and wait for the girls to come to them and ask about the limits of their abilities. Things turn even uglier from there, with nasty Fairies making deals for the life of their other room mate, who is a witch, and the prose gets even more stilted and stodgy, while the characters ramble on about the Cathars and life and whatever else suits their nihilistic view of the world. This novel deserves an F, and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, because it's even worse than Twilight.

Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend was a very readable book that I was expecting to be an adventure story, or a mystery, when it ended up being more of a reflective novel about World War 2. 
Here's the blurb:
Born to immigrant parents in Minnesota just before the turn of the century, Frances Frankowski grew up coveting the life of her best friend, Rosalie Mendel. And yet, decades later, when the women reconnect in San Francisco, their lives have diverged. Rosalie is a housewife and mother, while Frances works for the Office of Naval Intelligence and has just been given a top-secret assignment: marry handsome spy Ainslie Conway and move to the Gal√°pagos Islands to investigate the Germans living there in the build-up to World War II.
Amid active volcanoes, forbidding wildlife and flora, and unfriendly neighbors, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves. But the secrets they harbor—from their friends, from their enemies, and even from each other—may be their undoing. Publisher's Weekly: In Amend’s mesmerizing third novel, Frances Conway struggles through the lies of her life and marriage, where “the circles of deception were endless.” Frances’s childhood and adolescence are shaped by her friendship with Rosalie, but their close relationship is destroyed by a stunning betrayal. Years later in the 1930s, Frances is a 50-year-old secretary for the U.S. Navy in San Francisco. Bored and restless, Frances is persuaded to join in a marriage of convenience with a naval officer 11 years her junior, as a cover for an obscure intelligence operation on the Galapagos Islands just prior to World War II. Her new husband, Ainsley, is handsome and charming, but with disturbing secrets of his own. Their marriage is odd—they may be married, but they are not husband and wife. Their life on the Galapagos Islands is spartan, consisting of hard work in a harsh, beautiful environment, keeping an eye on the few Germans living there. Always watchful and wary, they make it through the war, but Ainsley’s secrets take a darker, more sinister turn. This is a taut, powerful tale of human relationships and the sacrifices people make to maintain their balance.
Most of the novel is narrated by Fanny/Frances, who is, at the outset, a mean and jealous woman who never seems to be able to forgive Rosalie for becoming a wealthy success story due to marrying a philandering philanthropist. Fanny, described as skinny and plain, ends up marrying a gay man so that they can spy on German agents who live on the Galapagos Islands. Rosalie comes from a horrible family who prostitute her out to their landlord in exchange for rent from an early age. It's no surprise then that Rosalie ends up having sex with Fanny's beau/fiance, (which ends their friendship for decades) and then becomes a prostitute just to keep herself alive. Rosalie seems to cling to Fanny whenever she can, and still constantly writes to her and wants to be her friend, though Fanny doesn't seem to have the compassion or kindness to forgive Rosalie, even when they're old ladies and Rosalie is getting an award for her work during the war that she's lied about. Rosalie knows that her husband is a jerk, but she likes being rich and having four children to raise (and their paternity doesn't seem to matter), so Fanny continues to steam and stew about her friends life, and all her advantages, while she isn't allowed to reveal her own work as a spy during the war that saved countless lives. I gather readers were supposed to like Ainsley, who is supposedly so handsome, but I found that his ability to be a cold blooded killer and a closeted homosexual whose only care was for himself and his own desires, made him a villain to me. I would give this book a B+, and recommend it to anyone who is interested in stories of the Galapagos Islands during WWII.

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