Audiobook review: There’s A Word For That by Sloane Tanen

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Star Ratings:

Story: 4/5

Writing: 3/5

Characters: 5/5

Audio recording: 4/5

Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I listened to There’s A Word For That via Libro.fm, which I recommend enthusiastically. A percentage of all purchases helps out indie bookshops! Please go check them out.

This was very much an impulse download; I needed something distracting and contemporary to temper all the unhappy classics I’ve been reading lately.  While I thought the story sounded interesting  — love me a dysfunctional family, any day — I didn’t expect to get so hooked!

Here’s the publisher’s summary of the book:

Introducing the Kesslers: Marty, a retired LA film producer whose self-worth has been eroded by age and a late-in-life passion for opioids; his daughter Janine, former child star suffering the aftereffects of a life in the public eye; and granddaughter Hailey, the “less-than” twin sister, whose inferiority complex takes a most unexpected turn. Nearly six thousand miles away, in London, celebrated author Bunny Small, Marty’s long-forgotten first wife, has her own problems: a “preposterous” case of writer’s block, a monstrous drinking habit, and a son who has fled halfway around the world to escape her.

When Marty’s pill-popping gets out of hand and Bunny’s boozing reaches crisis proportions, a perfect storm of dysfunction brings them all together at Directions, Malibu’s most exclusive and absurd rehab center.

The plot is essentially just that: a family and its satellites hash out their long-festering problems when things finally come to a head at rehab. While the psychology of recovery isn’t necessarily the subject of the whole book, it certainly drives up the stakes and gives each character’s journey emotional clarity.

I hesitate to call There’s A Word For That a comedy, since addiction; suicide; depression; and teenage angst all feature heavily, but I’m sorely tempted to do so. A few moments had me laughing out loud, and many others made me smile, sometimes ironically, sometimes due to the optimism that shines through on every page. This is ultimately a hopeful book about overcoming past obstacles, enjoying the flawed present for what it is, and looking towards the future. I was rooting for each character (especially Janine and Bunny, my favorites) as they faced their self-made demons and cracked jokes along the way.

Therese Plummer does a great job narrating the audiobook with only a few minor exceptions. Her voices for each member of the Kessler family were totally spot-on, from Marty’s ironic old man voice to Amanda’s high-strung, self-important chatter. Bunny and Martin were each unique as well, I only wish the British accents had been better. But once I got over that hiccup, I couldn’t get enough of their chapters.

Bunny, a famous and acerbic writer with a penchant for gin, put words to so many of my secret complaints about the world. She was a ferocious delight. Honestly, I would read an entire book just about her.

Give There’s A Word For That a listen if you like Arrested Development, California sunshine, screwed up families, and a drink or two.

Book Review: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

This memoir-in-verse is an absolute gem.  The whole time I read it, I wished I were a middle school English teacher so that I could assign it and then talk about it for a month.  But, since I haven’t the patience to be a teacher (nor even the time to write a really long review), here’s a few thoughts instead.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: *****  (5 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: **** (4 stars.  This is a memoir.)

Overall: **** 1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: 10 and up

The general subject of Brown Girl Dreaming is a simple one.  Jacqueline Woodson (award-winning author of Feathers and many other good books) remembers her earliest childhood days, growing up in both the North and South in the ’60s and ’70s.  Starting with her birth to the Woodsons in Ohio, she chronicles the separation of her parents, a big move down to her mother’s old home in South Carolina, summers with her grandparents, and then the beginnings of a life in New York City.  Five parts of the book categorize these phases in Woodson’s memory, and the pieces of her childhood are remembered through easy-flowing poems, each only a page or two long.  

Aunts, uncles, neighbors, and family friends filter in and out of the cast of characters, while Jacqueline writes about her mother, grandparents, and siblings in evocative detail.  Sometimes when you read a great work of fiction, you start to feel like the imaginary characters were once real people.  In Brown Girl Dreaming, these very real people have such memorable personalities I had to remind myself that they weren’t just made up to suit the story.  

 It’s obvious that Jacqueline had a keen observant eye even before she could read.  Re-told conversations and scenes between grown-ups give the reader an idea of what it was like to grow up during a big push in the civil rights movement, even when most of the action happened on the periphery of the Woodson siblings’ younger lives.  Little moments in the South, where passive-aggressive hostilities still ran rampant even after segregation was technically supposed to be over, made me grit my teeth in frustration, while the hopeful forward-movement inspired by Jacqueline’s mother and her friends buoyed my spirits.  There’s a great image of Jacqueline and her friend walking around NYC with their fists in the air like Angela Davis, and also a wonderfully moving poem which compares the revolution to a carousel: history always being made somewhere, while different people have a part in it. 

But, this being a memoir about her own experiences, the political atmosphere is enveloped by a narrative about growing up.  Jacqueline grows to find her voice, to discover a love of words, and to see how her family’s every-day lives can be the stuff of wonderful stories.  She’s not just a Brown Girl Dreaming, she’s a brown girl learning, speaking, changing, and – most importantly – writing.  And all that scribbling in notebooks has definitely payed off; the simplicity of these poems doesn’t diminish the strength of their message.  In fact, each word seems carefully chosen to reflect the temperament of her thoughts at the time.  It’s rare to read a memoir in which the grown-up writer can conjure up visions of her childhood without a tint of romanticism or regret.  I feel like I got a chance to meet the real child Jacqueline Woodson once was, and to hear her voice as though she was speaking just to me.  For this reason, even though there wasn’t a hugely dramatic plot, I found the entire story enchanting.

While the time-period was tumultuous, and the Woodson siblings had to keep picking up their lives as they moved, this is not a melodramatic story.  The poems are written with an earnest, child-like simplicity that captures the tone of happy summer evenings and anxious walks to school.  There are funny memories, and profound moments, and a general warmth of spirit throughout the whole book.  I loved little Jackie. I loved her family, because it was impossible not to feel how much she loved them, too.  Memory is a tricky thing, and that’s a big theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming: the logical conclusions we draw as children don’t always hold up against reality.  I can only imagine how much digging Woodson must have had to do –through her own recollections, as well as the history of her families and the places where she once lived – in order to distill this sincere memoir from her past.  I’m very grateful that she gave it so much thought, because the resulting book was an absolute pleasure to read.

I will be recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to pretty much every child/parent/teacher who enters my store.  It’s thoughtful, it’s funny, and it’s easy to relate to Jacqueline even though she grew up in a much different time than this one.  Anyone who has ever called more than one place home; who has worried about their parents; competed with their siblings; and tried to figure out how they fit into their world, will see something of themselves in these poems.  I have too many favorite poems to list, all dog-eared in my book. (I try never to wrinkle the pages but too bad!  These pages need to be remembered.)  Once the book officially hits shelves on August 28, I’ll probably be reading certain pieces at unsuspecting customers.  And as long as my terrible elocution doesn’t drive them away, I think this book will be a hit.  There’s lots to talk about in it, and even more to enjoy.

Book Review: What Is Left The Daughter by Howard Norman

Another realistic, grown-up book set on the Atlantic coast? I guess it was that kind of weekWhat Is Left The Daughter is the final book I read while on vacation.  It was a lovely, bittersweet conclusion to several days of reading and writing by the crashing waves.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Reading on the rocks at Schoodic Point.

Star Ratings:

Characters: ***** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot **** (4 stars)

Writing **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 +

Both of Wyatt’s parents died on the same day, when he was seventeen years old.  His mother and his father jumped off of separate bridges in Halifax, unbeknownst to one another, because they were each having an affair with the same woman.  How’s that for the beginning of a fellow’s adult life?  Odder, still: Wyatt’s story only gets more tragic and tangled from there. His parents’ demise takes up barely one chapter, setting up for twenty one years of bittersweetness and unexpected calamity. He look back on it all so calmly, though – so open to irony and wry observances – that the book is nicely devoid of too much self-pity.  The writing is candid, not maudlin.  And whenever Wyatt’s remembered experiences reflect too much pent-up tension, a funny conversation or absurd circumstance reminds us not to take things too seriously.  

This novel is framed as a long letter to his daughter, looking back through the decades to when the action began.  After his parents die, Wyatt moves to live with his Aunt and Uncle in a smaller Nova Scotia town called Middle Economy.  With no particular plans for the future, he agrees to become an apprentice to his Uncle Donald’s trade making sleds and toboggans.  Donald and Constance are raising an adopted daughter, Tilda, who quickly captivates Wyatt’s attention with her “ravishing” beauty and lively charms.  Tilda a strange, likable girl: she wants to be a professional mourner and reads all the obituaries, but she’s also fashionable and charming.  In scenes when other characters stumble through awkward social situations, Tilda shines with conscious good humor.  

Life in 1940s Middle Economy has a gentle rhythm into which Wyatt falls easily enough.  He keeps his love for Tilda secret (she sees him as a cousin despite the lack of shared blood).  He tries hard to please his kind aunt and impress his uncle.  But World War II rages on, bringing a reality of violence to Canadian shores in the form of U-boats, deaths overseas, and a constant threat of spies.  Uncle Donald and others start to fixate on the dangers of German weapons sinking their boats and endangering their waters.

So when a German philology student comes to town and gets close with Tilda, the rhythm of Middle Economy is thrown out of balance. Hans Mohring is no Nazi – he and his family moved away when Germany started to spin out of control – but his accent and his attentions rile up some citizens of Middle Economy.  Uncle Donald shatters all his own beloved Beethoven records in a moment of suspicious anger, to make a point. (Music and trust run in the same metaphors throughout What Is Left The Daughter, illuminating certain characters’ deeper conflicts.)  Some army boys rough up the friendly owner of a Halifax music shop because Hans was teaching him a little German language.  Tilda and Hans eventually move above the local bakery – owned by a delightful local lady who takes no nonsense from any townsfolk – and plan a hurried wedding.  Throughout all this, Wyatt hovers somewhere between friendship and an aching jealousy which bursts out at unfortunate moments.  What was once a peaceful seaside town soon fills with pockets of unease.

And then a boat is sunk.  And then a murder.  And then a split-second decision which will change everything for Wyatt, his family, and the town.  There’s an image which I saw so clearly, I felt like I was standing in the house myself: Tilda sitting at the kitchen table while the song playing skips on the gramophone.  The needle keeps jumping over a bullet hole.  The gun in Tilda’s hand, pointed at her head, is at contrast with her measured voice.  It’s a moment of still clarity in the midst of panic.  It’s the calm before a slow storm of tragedy.  

Things can never go back to the way they were, and the next twenty one years bring Wyatt through changes of circumstance which, eventually, guide him back to his childhood home, where he writes to his daughter.  The second half of the book isn’t quite so vivid and moving as the chapters in Middle Economy, but they’re realistic and still an interesting picture of one man’s altered life in such a charged time period.  Characters resign themselves to unhappiness for a while, then have to look for comfort when it gets too hard.  There are so many heavy hearts in this book and they all need someone to bear the weight now and then, even when injured pride and the messy past would recommend solitude instead.  The war ends, time passes, but Wyatt still has to live with the consequences of his actions.  His letter to Marlais reveals the circumstances of her birth and the nature of her parents’ relationship.  It shows that sometimes fairness means someone has to suffer.

I loved the setting of What Is Left The Daughter, because Nova Scotia is one of my favorite places in the world.  (My last reviewed book, Lobster Kings, also takes place near there.)  I have to admit that I’ve never learned or thought much about Canada during World War II, but the setting and time period were easy to picture and a great stage for this character-driven story.  Little details really made daily life in Middle Economy seem real: the bakery’s cranberry scones, or a crow trapped in the library.  Even Wyatt’s job as a gaffer after he leaves town, years later, inspired little anecdotes which made me interested in a job which had never demanded my interest before.  I definitely preferred the first 2/3 of this novel to the final section, because the pacing was a little better and the characters more captivating, but by the end I thought the story felt nicely rounded out.  

I would recommend What Is Left The Daughter to readers of historical fiction who don’t need everything to be a history lesson, people who like Evelyn Waugh’s more serious novels.  Fans of stories about sad families in small towns, seen through a lens of beauty rather than grit – books like The Strange And Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – will like the writing in this book.  The plot’s wayward journey will eventually fade like a childhood memory, but little moments between the characters, a line here or a false impression there, will make a lasting impression.

 

Book Review: Chime by Franny Billingsley

Don’t be deterred by the annoying cover – this book is excellent!

Star Ratings

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing : ***** (5 stars)

Overall: ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 13 +

Nancy Werlin recommended Chime to me way back in the fall when I met her at the Boston Teen Author Festival. I was one of those insufferable young aspiring writers who blabs about her work-in-progress to patient authors, and I knew that Werlin had written some YA novels inspired by just the sort of faery lore which was also inspiring me.  She was kindly encouraging, and one of the first things she asked upon learning that my faery story takes place in a swamp was, “Have you read Chime by Franny Billingsley?”  I had not.  I was told that I must.  I believed her.  Then I promptly forgot all about such instructions and only sat down with the book months later when I needed something gloomy, youthful, and uncanny.
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There was a small void in my reading life, waiting for a natural tale of unnatural creatures, and Chime filled that void perfectly.  I didn’t have particularly high expectations of this YA novel: only that it would be swamp-y and contain faeries.  Well, it completely passed those moderate expectations – blew them out of the murky, slimy water, as it were – and then some.  This was a truly remarkable novel.  I’m wildly impressed with Franny Billingsley, and have a mind to track down all her other books so I can get lost in them, too.
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Chime is Briony’s story, and Briony would like to confess to her crimes and be hanged.  It’s one of the more interesting opening pages I’ve come across in my reading life.  Hangings? Swamps? Wickedness?  Sign me up!
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chime text
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From here Briony tells us, in her own words, the events leading up to her trial.  It’s sometime around the end of the 19th century, and the secluded English village of Swampsea has been living in tandem with some supernatural neighbors for ages.  The townsfolk have a special method for trying witches, to ensure that they don’t hang innocent women, but lately the Chime Child responsible for making that judgement has been making mistakes in her old age.  Anyone who wanders into the swamp carries bits of bible paper with them, as protection against the faery-like creatures who dwell there.  The “Old Ones” range from mischievous nature spirits to the downright malevolent entities like The Dead Hand.   A deadly swamp cough troubles the town, and people live in fear of the “Old Ones,” though they’ve grown used to living beside them by now.  And yet, as it always does, progress has finally made its way from London to Swampsea. Mr. Clayborne comes to drain the swamp, bringing his son Eldric with him from London in the hopes that the University lad might stop getting into trouble and attend to his studies in less invigorating environs.  Swampsea is going to get a railroad.  Swampsea is going to join the fashionable and modern world.  Unfortunately, those spirits and creatures who dwell in the swamp aren’t too pleased about these new developments.  They need someone to hear them, to side with them, and stop the process.  Or the Boggy Mun will keep inflicting the swamp cough on innocent townsfolk, like Briony’s sister Rose.
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Briony is the Parson’s daughter.  She is also a witch.  She admits that to us from the beginning.  There’s no point in hiding this fact, and she’s grown comfortable with the wickedness which must then be an inherent part of her being.  She’s always been able to see the Old Ones, but it’s her ability to call them up to do her bidding which makes her capable of destruction.  Swampsea, in all its superstitious vigilance, does not take kindly to witches who can summon the Boggy Mun to flood the parsonage and incapacitate her beloved stepmother.  There’s not a lot of sympathy in the village for a girl who caused her twin sister to fall, hit her head, and lose her wits when Briony was a child and couldn’t control her powerful urges.  Briony’s stepmother understood.  She helped Briony to hide her power, kept her from entering the swamp, and always repeated that they must never, ever tell her father, who would feel obliged as the Parson to turn his own daughter into the authorities.  But their stepmother is dead, and there are blank spaces in Briony’s memory.  Was the fire, which burned up all the fairy stories she used to write for Rose, really Briony’s fault?  If stepmother didn’t take her own life with arsenic, who killed her? What mysterious illness afflicted their entire family when they were children, but not anyone else in town until Eldric comes down with it, too?   What terrible secret is the addled Rose trying to convey to her twin sister – some secret about their birth which she was forbidden to tell long ago?  The more we learn about the answers to these questions, the less sure we can be about anything in the natural and unnatural world of Chime. If Briony can’t trust herself, let alone anyone else, who can we turn to for the truth?  You will want to read this book and find out, I promise you that.
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The story is wonderful, but the writing is even better.  Each time I’ve recommended the book, the only way I can describe the beauty which Franny Billingsley weaves into each paragraph is by saying, “I want this tattooed on my face.”  That wouldn’t be a pretty sight, and I probably won’t get lines from the book going across the bridge of my nose, but I can find no better way to express my enthusiasm. There really are some marvellously poetic arrangements of words; the images are occasionally mesmerising; and the dialogue is good, too.  Briony’s voice is unfaltering — at no point does the narrative drop into a more generic omniscient tone, which is impressive since Briony’s thoughts are always twinged with guilt and colored with distrust verging on desperation.  The narrative is so personal but also requires some careful exposition to get us comfortable reading about the freaky swamp and unusual customs which seem so normal to the characters.  Briony has a rather poetic thought process, herself.  While the sing-song formulas and imagined patter might seem out of place at first, it quickly becomes clear that our conflicted narrator draws upon these literary formats to distance herself from the serious (and deadly) concerns hiding behind her wordplay and hypothetical conversations.  She compares Eldric to a lion, herself to a wolf-girl, and has metaphors on hand for whomever crosses her path (human or not).  This could have grown tiresome very quickly, but I think that the technique was employed just shy of over-zealously, and therefore it worked out beautifully.  Remember that Briony’s a teenage girl, and that’s the time when we think of everything as our own personal fairy-tale.  It was an absolute pleasure to read every page of Chime.  Not a word was wasted, not an image used uncertainly, and I could picture every strange event quite vividly.  Whatever magical power Ms. Billingsley has over language, I’d make a few blood sacrifices to get a taste of it, myself.
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My complaints about this book are very few and not too consequential.  I don’t really like the title; it doesn’t have much to do with the majority of the novel.  But it’s not a big deal, the title isn’t horrible.  It just doesn’t hint at the general swampiness, the creeping sorrow, or the sharp dialogue which I enjoyed so much.  On that note, the Chime Child and some of the other minor characters weren’t as fleshed out as maybe they could have been.  There is so much going on below the somewhat-puritanical surface of Swampsea, and I wanted to understand every single secret.  Secrets are the whole point of Chime; how they can control us and turn us into something we’re not.  But most characters’ stories are pretty much left alone, unless they have anything directly to do with Briony’s.  I suppose that’s only fair, but I hate it when my curiosity isn’t satisfied.  The Chime Child only makes a few appearances, despite the incredible cool-ness of her job description.  Seeing “Old Ones” and dealing out death sentences: what a lady!  I wish there had been a few pages dedicated to such details, as well as to the other characters who made Swampsea such a fascinating stage for this story.
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There’s also the question of romance.  Eldric is staying in the Parsonage with Briony, Rose, and the girls’ father.  It’s not too surprising that things must escalate for the sake of the story.  I’m pleased to report that Briony and Eldric start out by developing an honest and entertaining friendship, forming a secret brotherhood and starting inside jokes just because they’ve been thrown together by circumstance.  He’s a city boy, and lives life at more her speed than anyone in her own village, so I didn’t find their interest in one another too forced.  What a damned relief!  My one complaint on the matter would be the sudden inclusion of another woman after Eldric’s affections.  The fashionable lady who is drawn to his artistic endeavours and starts turning up everywhere has a mysterious secret which makes her a little more interesting, but on the whole I thought her character was mostly unnecessary.  Jealousy made Briony catty rather than sharp, but even though this may have been an important layer to her character, the dangers presented by beautiful, manipulative Leanne weren’t nearly as interesting as the dangers presented by the swamp, the townsfolk, and Briony herself.  The matter was resolved satisfactorily, but it was probably my least favourite part of the book.
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Those tiny issues aside, though, I will reiterate that I absolutely adored Chime.  It’s just the sort of book I was wanting to read: intense and dark, but without the oh-help-the-world-will-end-if-we-don’t-save-it drama.  The drama here was powerful because we care about the characters and don’t want to see their lives turned upside down.  The rest of England — indeed the rest of the world — would go on without Swampsea if it had to, but that’s one of the many reasons I was so desperate to find out what would happen.  Magic isn’t always big and grand, it can (and should) be organic and subtle, earthly and timeless, with roots in one strange scene.  Chime gets this just right, on every single page.  The murky swamp and the dark corners of the town are each fraught with peril, and our narrator’s mind hasn’t much more hope, but in the end most mysteries will come to light.  What these answers might reveal about our heroine, her family, and her conviction in her own wickedness must remain to be seen.  Read the book to find out.  It’s beautiful and you’ll probably love it.