Reviews by Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

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Dangerous When Wet: A Memoir
by Jamie Brickhouse
Sex, Drugs, Rock&Roll. And Mama (3/20/2015)
A searingly forthright memoir from a high level publishing exec recounts his escalating drinking problem, his need for one night stands, and the power his mother's love held over him. Jamie Brickhouse grew up in Texas in an outrageously dysfunctional family and moved to NYC right after college. He had always known he was gay and being free of Beaumont Texas, he soon met his unbelievably supportive partner who stood with him through years of alcohol abuse, trysts in which he found himself waking up in strange towns, losing a few jobs and ultimately, a near death experience. Jamie dried out and it lasted for awhile but there were fall outs along the way until he finally came to grips with the shadow of his mother's love and the need to function without having to prove who loved whom more. It's quite a ride and a story of family and almost unconditional love.
Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
by Mac McClelland
Irritable Hearts (1/4/2015)
McClelland writes an intensely personal and deeply researched memoir of years of her life in the clutches of PTSD. That she actually functioned through most of it is perhaps because she sought subject specific help and had friends, two therapists and a new lover who supported and never abandoned her. There is so much of her invested, so much investigation of what and who gets PTSD that at times it seems we are all candidates. Her work with veterans' wives and sexual abuse cases is considerable and as she hardly needs to point out, the mental illness can be fatal. As I read this I understood quite clearly why a distant friend and so many vets kill themselves. This is a powerful and eye opening testimony of living with PTSD and reading it may well be consolation to others with the disease.
Island of a Thousand Mirrors
by Nayomi Munaweera
Island of a thousand mirrors (4/22/2014)
Munaweera is an exciting and talented new voice. Her descriptive powers are enormous and in using both sides of the Sinhalese/Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka, a case for the casualties of war-that are really the innocent families of both sides-becomes paramount. The violence perpetrated on Saraswathi leads her to perpetuate it and visit it on the sister of Yasodhara. This was a civil war that occurred before those of most recent years in Bosnia, Sudan, Rwanda. It is also about class: those with connections and/or the means are able to leave, those in poverty are doomed to be victims.
The writing is quite lyrical and gives voice to each character. I felt emotionally vested in them, no matter the nationalism because Munaweera is capable of finding the humanity beneath the cultural divide.
The Cairo Affair
by Olen Steinhauer
The Cairo Affair (12/20/2013)
Engrossed in reading the story, towards the end I put the book down and thought about spies and diplomats, moles, double agents, wives of any or all of them and wondered what possesses them. Although I felt the story was plot driven I was pushed to think about what drove the characters, possibly because I didn't understand who Sophie was, and because they seem to me to represent a variety of human motivation for the sins we commit.

I've lived long enough to know that we don't remain static in our beliefs forever, particularly when events and human characters press on our nerves. Most people probably enter the intelligence services in their formative twenties, having an unexamined sense of patriotism and perhaps they are true believers, but the events and people with which the spymasters, spies and the assassins deal have to impact on their sense of who they really are and what they are doing . And for what reason. For Zora, perverse pleasure in controlling another as well as money. For Emmett, a belief in country because he wasn't a spy but an economist thinking he could further the interests of his country. For Sophie, an undeveloped woman who was essentially amoral. But imagine Omar, a drone who finally figures out the whole damn series of betrayals, double agents, and what it was all for who then co-opts the evil assassin in a world that has changed dramatically. Omar is the most interesting character because he has worked for the state under Mubaryk for most of his career and it is only when weird happenings in the Arab Spring put him in play and each time he is onto something he is yanked back by his boss that he ultimately becomes the master of the game. He has a moral center, or does he? Power backstage on the world theatre is a devil's game.
Last Train to Istanbul
by Ayse Kulin
Last Train to Istanbul (10/1/2013)
A little known aspect of WWll, Ayse Kulin relates the efforts by Turkish diplomats to aid Turkish and other Jews out of Nazi occupied France. Although it's a compelling story, telling it as a historical novel I think compromises part of the tension of the actual events by making two sisters of a Turkish pasha the focal point. One is the wife of a busy bureaucrat and her antics don't really contribute to the story other than to introduce one of the diplomats who will be in France dealing with the solution of getting the Jews on the Last Train. The other sister marries a Turkish Jew and chooses exile in France that is the engine for the novel. However, it is Selva, rather than her husband Raphael and the other Jews, who is written as the strongest character against the almost fecklessness of the Jews and the men of the diplomatic corps who took the biggest risks. I also take exception to using current expressions in a novel about 70 years ago, which may be the translation, but nonetheless jarring.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the book and think it's a story that should be wider known. Of those who aided Jews out of Europe very little is known about who they were and how they were able to accomplish it. I also think it's important because we don't have here in America a whole lot of into about Turkey. Istanbul was quite the place for spies and diplomats during the war and there is a sense of that here. The novel is a good starting place for those interested in these times and particularly the efforts of the Turkish government.
How to Be a Good Wife
by Emma Chapman
How to be a good wife (8/22/2013)
Wow! What a wonderful read this book was! Skillful writing and plotting takes us through the lonely marriage of Marta Bjornstad. There are feminist issues raised tracing the marriage from its shadowy beginning; a husband too dominated by his mother who seemingly is concerned about the mental health of his wife. But is his wife being manipulated by his concerns? As Marta begins to rely more on her own instincts she begins to think about her past and in doing so, raises the spectre of paranoia, which ultimately creates an ambiguity that will be read differently by the marital or feminist position of the reader. Emma Chapman has delivered a stunning debut.
The Lion in the Lei Shop
by Kaye Starbird
The Lion in the Lei Shop (6/3/2013)
The unreliability of memory, mothers and daughters, a signal event in U.S. history: these are the stones of this story about an army family at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Through the sometimes overlapping, sometimes colliding memories of mother and daughter we learn about the surprise attack and how the lives of army families were forever changed. Many families were evacuated to the mainland and spent lonely years hoping for the return of their husbands or fathers. This poignant tale of the lives and losses made me aware that it was more than ships that were lost that day. It's a wonderful novel of memory, hope, loss of hope and endurance that enables the reader a new perspective on human tenacity.
Golden Boy
by Abigail Tarttelin
Golden Boy (1/7/2013)
The younger, not yet so golden brother of the protagonist Max says "You may be different like me, Max, but the good news is that we're living in a world of different people." A wonderfully prescient view from a 10 year old that should be a part of the thinking of most all of us living in the present age. Why do we cling to "normal" and fear the "other", the different? This novel certainly has raised those questions for me while reading about what is now called a middlesex person. We have so narrowly defined sex and gender that any minute deviation drives some people to condemnation and yet we live in an age where fertility drugs, surrogate birthers, sperm donors, in vitro fertilisation, ultra sound, sexual identification and other interventions are considered normal. These interventions are accepted as the results might not be.
I loved reading this novel seeing how accepting one's own very different being growing up in a family conflicted by it could bring sense and acceptance by those who could appreciate the sliding scale of different.
With or Without You: A Memoir
by Domenica Ruta
With or Without You (11/27/2012)
Domenica Ruta begins her memoir in quite a humorous way - how she and her mother go to smash the windshield of a car and how they want to hear the sound of breaking glass. Nikki is the glass that never quite breaks no matter how abused or self abused she is. Nikki is a writer of talent emerging from the dregs of blue collar abuse in all of its manifestations. It is often said that giving voice to the voiceless is cathartic and while Nikki has written a splendid account of her moving from an object of others abuse, I don't believe she will be free until she faces and writes the story of Uncle Vic, the pedophile. This most heinous of crimes has been lost among the tales of drug and alcohol abuse at the hands of herself and her mother, the way she allows herself to be sexually used and abused. She is phoenix-like, Nikki is, but until the cries become screams over the pedophilia that was condoned by Kathi and other family for debt's sake and low class family cohesion, I don't believe she will be liberated enough to let her talent really soar.
Niceville: A Novel
by Carsten Stroud
Niceville (5/16/2012)
Kind of a southern gothic, Niceville is a town with a few other worldly characters who calmly murder in cold blood and then take a literate note of their surroundings. This is a really good read that has sharp dialogue and those calculating masters of murder and mayhem. The story flows and although the ending is a little too abrupt, it will captivate you and make you wish for more.
Cloudland: A Crime Novel
by Joseph Olshan
Cloudland (3/6/2012)
Wilkie Collins is credited as being the father of the modern mystery story and he plays a prominent role in Cloudland. A scenario in an unfinished tome of his is pursued as the origin of the serial murders committed in this novel that is based on a never solved series of the same in the Connecticut River Valley. Catherine Winslow, a former journalist now writing a helpful hints column for the local paper, essentially tells the story. The Collins book has gone missing from Catherine’s house and becomes an important piece of the puzzle. So it is that Catherine’s former lover returns and where he, like everyone in Cloudland is thought by his neighbor to be the suspect at one time or another, and everyone becomes his own detective at some point. Catherine’s introspection in the final paragraphs is the kind of who did, what and who am I? that Collins employed so there is a debt to Collins here.
One thing I found quite interesting was that Olshan’s voice, or protagonist was a woman. Although I didn’t feel the characters were unlikeable as other readers have, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in them either. Could be that’s a result of male fiction writing. This is a good book for clubs and beach reads.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo
behind the beautiful forevers (1/9/2012)
Down the road from the Mumbai airport, behind the beautiful forevers - a series of painted cement walls - lives a community of indigent people whose lives I sometimes read with my eyes half covered, hoping to avoid the death of one more young person whose hope had run out. This is narrative non-fiction that creates a theatre of the mind, visualizing the fetid, open sewer pathways, sewage lakes, and squalid patchwork of huts of Annawadi where its inhabitants eke out survival of the fittest. I have ventured into communities on the margins of societies but Katherine Boo has infiltrated one and gives us their stories. The stories are vivid; the systemic corruption of India makes life even more difficult and the awareness of the changes in the global marketplace are recognized by the roadboys who compete with one another for garbage to sell to buy a bowl of rice. They see those who have attained the “full enjoy” while waging their daily struggle to make the next day. Boo’s description of the “education” that prevails in the slums exposes not just the lack of education, but why-because one struggling teacher or one corrupt person after another takes the money and runs.
This is a book that should be read in sociology and political theory classes to open up for discussion the ways corruption silently steals the truth and creates and continues a permanent underclass. It’s an interesting read for book clubs if it pricks at their consciences and makes them aware of why there’s an Occupy movement in the first world.
Salvage the Bones: A Novel
by Jesmyn Ward
Salvage the Bones (8/7/2011)
This is so well written that I even got through most of the dog fight. Narrated by a young girl, Esch, who describes her daily life in a swamp in Louisiana as Katrina comes closer and finally bears down on the poorest of the poor, it is a heartbreaking story but one that also shows the inner strength of our forgotten neighbors. Comparing herself to Medea in the way her own life unfolds, Esch lives out the treachery of living in poverty and the choices that are made. Metaphor, simile, and the gloriously descriptive use of language lead me to believe Jesmyn Ward will be telling stories for a long time.
Outside Wonderland: A Novel
by Lorna Jane Cook
Outside Wonderland (2/26/2011)
A good beach read. I was interested in the repercussions of how children's lives would be affected by the loss of both parents as they became adults but really found nothing except the emotional disconnect of either the writer or the characters. The heavenly device was a bit clumsy although it answered how Dinah didn't fully die after seeing "the light." I suppose I feel as though this were a not very well fleshed out TV or movie script when it could have been an insightful novel.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A Novel
by Camilla Gibb
The Beauty of Humanity Movement (12/25/2010)
At once both a brilliantly conceived novel about the past and present in Vietnam, and an inquiry into family, love and responsibility, Camilla Gibbs writes with familiarity with the country: in particular the trauma, deprivation and political turmoil the north experienced during the years of the American War. The main characters are well developed, especially Hung, the itinerant pho vendor. One thing that struck me was Hung’s recognition of the difference in 3 generations, with the middle one-the ones who became silenced or compromised by the revolution-not the same as the dissidents of the first and the young influenced by the post war cultural changes since opening to the west. The arts endure and somehow a people survive, nourished by what’s most meaningful to them. Love and redemption for Hung and Lan, Maggie, Tu and Binh transcend the boundaries of traditional family and bring together the stories of a nation in conflict.
Few Americans have heard stories about how North Vietnam endured during our war there. Having spent time in communist or post-communist countries I'm familiar with the corrosive effects of the system on the population and Gibb has woven those into the story skillfully. This is a good book club read as well as for individuals interested in the country or the period.
The Stuff That Never Happened
by Maddie Dawson
The stuff that never happened (9/9/2010)
I began to read and thought "oh, no!" but found myself caught up in the story of Annabelle, a young, naive California girl married without a thought in the 70's to Grant, a man of inaccessible emotions. The '70's were a time of sexual and emotional upheaval which created a new drama. The story is told from Annabelle's point of view - and details the complexities inherent in relationships with lovers, spouses, children. Annabelle's costly affair with her husband's closest friend is the elephant in the room for 26 years while she matures, reconciles with Grant and tries to put her life in perspective.

Although I thought Annabelle to be annoyingly naive I grew to understand her well and was surprised by her understanding of relationships and acceptance of self as the story drew to a close.

A really good read and one that perhaps resonates with anyone who has betrayed or been betrayed.
Learning to Lose: A Novel
by David Trueba
Learning to Lose (6/1/2010)
A great read! A story of 3 generations of a Spanish family in Madrid and the ramifications of choices they’ve made. Fate has certainly set before them incidents that lead to those choices and the questions of immigration and sport as business are issues in the background.

Lorenzo retreats from Aurora's impending death by becoming overly fascinated with an African prostitute. Leandro, who has murdered his former business partner and whose wife Pilar has left him, becomes involved with an Ecuadoran au pair and daughter Sylvia is hit by a car driven by Ariel, a newly arrived Argentinean soccer player. The novel centers primarily on where the choices lead Lorenzo, Leandro, Sylvia and Ariel.

The questions and problems of each couple are timeless and Trueba (with his able translator) has written a beautiful novel, which speaks to the truth of who we are and how we define, or are defined by, our relationships. This is a novel to be read by anyone who likes to keep up with European literature as well as book clubs interested in exploring generational choices in living, and finding comfort in life.
The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors: A Novel
by Michele Young-Stone
A Perfect Strike (4/29/2010)
Read this book! I was hooked from page one and the characters just grew on me, even the unsympathetic. The parallel stories of Buckley and Becca were destined to connect at some point and the plotting drove it forward. I had not thought about lightning stricken survivors and was fascinated by how different strikes can be and how survivors adapted. In the beginning Becca’s father infuriated me with his indifference but learning that people often don’t believe the survivor was intriguing. If it hasn’t happened to you or you haven’t seen it happen what can it be like?
Strike survivor Young-Stone has written a highly engaging story of the randomness with which lightning and life strike. A minor quibble about the ending being predictable doesn't dissuade me from telling Book Clubbers, young adults and everyone who loves a well told story to READ THIS BOOK.
The Lotus Eaters: A Novel
by Tatjana Soli
The Lotus Eaters (1/30/2010)
I’m fairly well informed on Vietnam and our war there and it has been of abiding interest given the loss of friends and relatives who died for it or of it as well as my own activism during the time. I looked forward to reading this novel and I have had the damnedest time trying to get through it. While Soli has evocative passages of narrative, often bringing the country to life, that cannot be said of her characters. Characterization is weak - and some of the images are hard to swallow. Did she really go to find Vietnam armed only with the knowledge of how to use an Instamatic and that her brother died there? How do we go from a woman-child worried about how to deal with her period to a woman ready to exchange sex for selfish and juvenile emotions while becoming jaded by a war she presumes to understand? I read an advance reader’s copy and I’m not a stranger to those so the extraordinary number of syntactical errors, dependent clauses with no antecedent and unchecked assertions of truth that have made me stumble and go back a sentence or more to decipher are uncommon and have interfered with my reading. There are elements here of a story to be told but the lack of character and plot development as well as serious editing are a hindrance to making it take off.
An Edible History of Humanity
by Tom Standage
Food through the Ages... (4/3/2009)
Without great thought most of us have perhaps thought that history has influenced food but the opposite is true - food has written history. Who would be thinking farming was an alien activity 10,000 years ago? The mutations of corn, rice, wheat and other grains over the millennia, from a grass into a so called cereal, which can only be grown by man is illustrative of the current food supply. Standage’s book is a very interesting story of how we have gotten to where we are through the domestication of grain and livestock. And here I stand; an opponent of genetic engineering who has not understood the precedents!

What this book also shows us is that we should follow the food, not the money in order to understand the growth of societies. Today we take food for granted in a country dominated by agribusiness - cheap food for cheap health. Though many of us may want to eat and think local it behooves us to understand the inter dependence of global agribusiness and populations which have led us to these desires. Thomas Malthus, wars, famines, Norman Borlaug, synthesizing ammonia, and feeding huge populations - all of these many people and events are shown by Standage to have brought us to what we eat now. I’m delighted to have learned what I have, to understand the interrelationships, the history of food and civilizations in reading this very interesting book.

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