Friday, December 30, 2011

Triangles - Geometry off the Page

This is another audiobook review for Audiobook Jukebox - the publisher sent me the discs.

Ellen Hopkins's Triangles (AUDIOWORKS, 2011, 8 hours) would be an excellent book to read in print, I suspect. I certainly have heard / read raves about it from trustworthy sources. I'm not familiar with her YA writing, but Hopkins brings a deft touch with poetic language to her comfortably paced adult novel about three women doing some mid-life soul-searching. Unfortunately, the narrators and the characters just didn't gel for me. The three women are Holly, her best friend Andrea, and Andrea's sister Marissa. All three are caught up in - and in need of escape from - lives that too often revolve around home and children. As my friends and I say, they need a little "me time." They don't always go about it in the psychologically healthiest ways, however.

Holly (voiced by January LaVoy) has it all, from an outside perspective. Staying at home with their three teens while her husband makes a success of his career, she finds herself unfulfilled, longing for the opportunities that might have been - if she'd finished college, if she's stuck with one or another of her hobbies, if, if, if. When she finally takes action, she takes extreme action - extramarital sex, and lots of it, so that the erotica she then writes doesn't have to rely much on her imagination. Although I generally liked LaVoy's voice talents, I felt she wasn't entirely connected with the non-raunchy sides of Holly's character, and because Holly was the least engaging of the three, this whole storyline was the weakest for me.

Andrea (voiced by Janel Moloney) is a single mom with an unfulfilling job at the DMV, who has been disappointed by her ex and past boyfriends and has chosen to stay celibate for a time. She's wary, watching Holly's implosion, but tries to stay connected to her friend while being dragged along to clubs and venues that aren't really to her taste. Despite that reserved side of her, which Moloney seemed to have grabbed as the only useful trait when voicing her, Andrea is smart, witty, attractive, and by far the most compelling character. It's primarily the disconnect between Andrea and Moloney that disappointed me and cast a pall over this entire production. It's both difficult and annoying to have to disregard the manner in which a story is badly narrated to get the full impact of the narrative.

Marissa (voiced by Jan Maxwell) is, like Holly, a SAHM with a successful husband. Her story is vastly different, though - raising a gay teen son and a terminally ill little girl leaves her without a second for anything approaching narcissism or hedonism. Not helping matters are her husband's frequent business trips and frequent drinks when he is home, much less his disapproval of his son. Marissa's was a painful story, and Maxwell was the only narrator who really touched me and made me cry - or let Hopkins's text make me cry - though the unrelenting bleak horizon she faced for so much of the novel made this part hard to always connect with. Much more than the other two, Marissa's story was easy to map out from her introduction, but Maxwell's talents kept me listening.

Interspersed with the three womens' stories were narrative poetry (voiced by Michele Pawk, who I could listen to read poetry for a good long while, I think.) These sections reflected on the geometry and the universality of the journeys the women took, and Hopkins cleverly and carefully uses them to elevate her novel from one with a lot of sex and fighting to one that asks probing questions and refuses to give you stock answers.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


My reading lately has introduced me to worlds full of dead drops, double agents, and code breaking. So educational!

Joanna Bourne's The Black Hawk continues her world of French and English spies during the Napoleonic Wars. The Spymaster's Lady was the first of hers I read, and it remains my favorite, but this is a close second. I recommend them all, though, whether you're new to historical romance or turning into an old hand, like me. Bourne paints her characters beautifully, using the tensions of conflicting loyalties and professional dangers to marvellous effect. It's a great way to keep destined lovers apart, plus I love her forceful, determined, clever French female spies. This novel, in addition to exploring street urchin turned Head of Section Hawker, delves into the shadows cast by quiet, deft Pax. Bourne left me eagerly awaiting the next in the series, when I hope and trust we'll learn more about his journey. I also hope the baddies in Military Intelligence get what's coming to them.

Jumping forward a century or more, Jennet Conant's A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS looks at Child's early life, before she knew how to cook, though she did know how to spy. She and her future husband befriended, among other OSS operatives, Jane Foster. It was primarily this friendship that brought Paul to the attention of McCarthy and forced him to defend his roles in the East after WWII. The book is well researched and interesting, but I think I can be forgiven a certain level of disengagement based on my expectation that it would actually be about the Childs, not Foster.

John le Carré's Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy explores intra-agency intrigue in postwar Britain. George Smiley is reluctant to be drawn back into the Circus which shabbily sent him packing. However, it's clear to the upper echelons that there is a traitor in their midst, and George's ouster means he's in the rare position of knowing all the players while remaining free of suspicion. As so often happens in these (fictional) situations, the investigation also forces George to face his personal and professional demons. I had some issues with the pacing in the earlier parts of this novel, but everything built so inexorably to the end crisis. It ends very well, very tightly and tensely.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I Say, It's My Birthday

Forty-two years ago today I was a 7 pound 5 ounce emergency c-section. Cord wrapped round my neck, not an easy time for my mom. (Sorry, Mom!)

Twelve has always been, of course, my favorite number. You guys, next year, on 12/12/12, I'm gonna have the biggest party, and you're all invited! It'll be all duodecad towers of food, and, like, a gross of cupcakes, and we'll play the dozens, and Joe Namath and Terry Bradshaw will be there, and we'll watch The Dirty Dozen then see Twelfth Night. You don't even know how amazing it will be.

On a related note, I always have my expectations too high about my birthday. I am a big baby. Actually, here's my on my first birthday. I was a happy girl. A new giraffe riding toy, and Mom made me a cake shaped like a kitty cat ("kitty cat" was about all I could say at one.) My big brother was probably nice to me, my little sister may have kicked happily in utero while the birthday song was sung. So it seems that when I was a big baby, I was good at birthdays.

It's at all those parties in between then and now that I have whined. The clown didn't make the right balloon shape for me, or I fell down too much on my ice skates, or someone gave me presents wrapped in Christmas paper. Or worst of all, the combined birthday-Christmas gift! Yeah, I didn't care if it was "better" than the two smaller gifts - no one else had to share their birthday with the season when everyone else got gifts, too. Was I not good enough to deserve a little Melanie-centric celebration separate from the crowd? No more candy canes on my presents, please!

I was reminded of this (and not just by Mom, who also noticed and commented) at my lovely niece's 4th birthday party last week. The poor girl had been talking about her birthday party for, literally, months. And my sister pulled out all kinds of amazing stops - there was a castle and a dinosaur and a unicorn and a dragon and it was all organized and beautiful and fun. But my niece had herself a couple of meltdowns that felt all too familiar to me. Because after months and months of dreaming about her Big Day, it was happening! But Jamie didn't understand that she wanted him to come look at her castle cake, and she loved her castle cake, but Jamie was just sitting there decorating a shield instead of looking at it! And that's the kind of blown idealism that a young perfectionist and secret narcissist (not the four year old, me) just can't handle.

But I've put on a lot of pounds since my original seven, and a lot of years, and I just want to tell Mom, and Robert, and everyone else over the years of my tantrums and bad mood birthdays: Thank You. I appreciate the surprise parties, and the non-surprise parties, and the balloons and the cakes (Mom makes the most amazing inventive cakes, y'all. Wait 'till you see the one she'll construct for 12/12/12. Right, Mom? ...Mom? You're making me a cake, right, Mom?) I treasure the gifts large and small, and the 'thought that counts' ones that I've returned (with or without pouting about how you just don't 'get' me), and yes, even the Birthday-Hanukkah-Christmas ones wrapped in Mother's Day paper. And the good wishes, the cards, the texts, the kisses on the forehead because I'm trying to sleep in and you're heading to school, the belated greetings, all of it. I'm blessed with many many lovely and loving and thoughtful people in my life, so hopefully all y'all need to forgive me for being a big baby about my birthday is this blog post.

Thanks for making me happy on my birthday.

Now off to plan for next year....

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Hug on your babies!

So in case I don't get sentimental enough around the holidays (ask K how much I cried during the half of It's a  Wonderful Life we caught post-Thanksgiving) - I always like to delve into a few books that have high potential to make me maudlin. This season: kids without parents!

I've been a fan of Lisa Tucker's since her debut, The Song Reader. (My review of it never ran, but it was my first assignment for People, back when I wrote for them.) Her newest is The Winters in Bloom, and, yep, I still love her elegant and lyrical prose, and admire her insight into people. This one is about Kyra and David Winters, a pair of damaged individuals who think they've found that building a life together will allow them to let the sleeping dogs of their pasts lie. But it's a lie, and when their five-year-old, Michael, is kidnapped from their yard, they find themselves separately slammed into the realities of all they'd hoped to leave behind. Michael proceeds through his own dream-reality of the first hours away from his hovering, overprotective parents. Tucker gives his consciousness a chance to grow and observe in a very organic way that feels right for Michael's age.

I was listening to Xe Sands's narration of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children by Sarah Braunstein, while reading Tucker's novel, which added a layer to Michael Winter's experiences with his kidnapper. Not that Braunstein didn't include plenty of layers of her own for me to ponder. (Sands is another of those narrators I can listen to read just about anything, and her handling of the voices and tone of Missing Children really wowed me.) This is one of those well-constructed symphonies of a book - each storyline trading off and sometimes vying for prominence but all ultimately working together towards a common tune. In this case, the tune is missing children. Children who were taken, or who have run. Children who long for escape, and some who find it. Children who find that escape isn't all that escapist. It's powerful stuff, and Braunstein handles it deftly. Some POV is from the children, some from the adults, and not every adult or even every child is sympathetic. I'm torn between giving my kids a lecture on stranger danger and interrogating them about their innermost thoughts in order to somehow magically ensure that nothing Braunstein wrote in her debut could ever, in my world, be true.

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (which I started out reading but had to return to the library, and finished up by listening to as read by the engaging Hope Davis) is - well, wonderful. One of my top ten of the year. (And it looks like I'll end the year at about 300 books, so that's a pretty tight percentage there.) Patchett is another author I'm always excited to see on the new titles lists - I presume every one of you has read Bel Canto already, right? If not, go away and get it immediately. Now! Go! Okay, so this one moves between Minnesotan research labs and the Brazilian rain forest, as Dr. Marina Singh fulfills a promise to the widow of her research partner, Dr. Anders Eckman. Anders died while chasing up the elusive Dr. Anneck Swenson, who had been Marina's inattentive but brilliant mentor in med school. Anneck does her best to stay elusive while Marina, who already has a bit of an identity push-pull thanks to her Minnesota-India heritage, finds unimagined facets of herself in the Amazon. Meanwhile she struggles with her obligation to Anders's widow and his three sons, to find out what really happened to him, and the purview from her boss to examine the state of Anneck's research, not to mention Marina's memories of the incident that drove her to leave medicine for research. The drugs being developed could enormously enlarge a woman's window for pregnancy, which niggles at the mind of forty-ish, single, childless workaholic Marina. It's all a rainbow of imagination-stretching elements, and in Marina, Patchett has created a prism through which to refract it back at the reader. Heady, engrossing, thoughtful stuff.

Also, there were those three fatherless boys, and the orphan child Marina befriends in Brazil, plus the losses and near-losses in the other books. So what I'm getting at here is, oh, I'm so glad I haven't lost my babies, or been lost to them. And hey, kids, you can laugh at the way holiday movies make me cry any old time.