Tuesday, January 16, 2018

January 2.0

The Girls in the Picture by Melanie Benjamin
If you liked Benjamin's previous books (The Aviator's Wife, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Alice I Have Been), you like historical fiction, you like learning behind-the-scenes historical trivia, this book is for you. And yes, I have loved all of Benjamin's books; she does in-depth research, develops her characters deeply, and reveals interesting history previously unknown to me. In her newest novel, she explores the beginning of the film industry, focusing on two characters: Mary Pickford, the silent film star and her best friend, screenwriter Frances Marion. It begins in 1914 as we see these two young women, who come from opposite walks of life, be drawn into the world of the cinema. Pickford, a stage star from a young age in order to support a poverty-stricken family, stumbles into work for nickelodeon films, looked down upon by theater people but paying well, ultimately leading her to Hollywood Land. Frances, a socialite from San Francisco, twice-divorced, finds herself in Los Angeles, and completely entranced by this new media. Benjamin explores the rise of Hollywood, the moguls who own the stars, and the American obsession with these film giants as she weaves the story of these two women throughout the history of the 20th century. If you are like me, you will not be able to put this one down.

The Night Market by Jonathan Moore
The question with this book is...is this a police detective/murder mystery or is it a sci-fi futuristic thriller? Once I stopped trying to pigeon-hole it into a specific genre and just went with the flow, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The San Francisco homicide detectives, Carver and Jenner, are just classic: smart, curmudgeonly, loyal, and wily. Their sidekick in uncovering a vast plot of mind control is a complex young woman who lives across the hall from Carver, who nurses him back to health after a fairly creepy crime scene that he is incapable of remembering. As the two detectives race down a rabbit hole of weirdness, the other characters that get involved to try and solve this crime are intriguing and compelling. Yes, one does have to suspend a bit of disbelief, but when you cannot stop turning pages, who cares? I loved this roller coaster ride of a book.

Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Considering the politics of today in America as wealth distribution and economic inequity is forefront in many people's minds, this is a very topical book. Andrew Carnegie was once the world's wealthiest man, accruing his millions from the Civil War era through the early part of the 20th century. Carnegie also became one of the world's foremost philanthropists, giving away 90% of his fortune and endowing universities and libraries worldwide. Marie Benedict (The Other Einstein) has created a fictitious story of the reasons behind how he journeyed from his role as a 'robber baron' to one of the great charitable givers of all time. This story involves a young Irish maid, an impossible love story, the hardship of an immigrant life, the corrupted ties of family, and the inevitable ending that brought the world Carnegie's philanthropy. I found the first half to be the most compelling, with the ending a bit thin; I would have liked further development of the epilogue and both main character's life changes. Yet, it was an interesting read and definitely makes me more curious about this generous 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
Getting lots of pre-pub buzz, the book world is highly anticipating this new dystopic novel that shreds women's rights all over America. It takes place in a world of 'today,' no spaceships, no Big Brother computers, just normal Pacific Northwest setting. However, the federal government has recently outlawed all abortions, as well as invitro treatments, making them crimes for which young unwed teens and grown married women can be imprisoned. And just for an encore, the latest law is due to be rolled out in just a few weeks... the "two parent family, only mom and dad" rule, stopping all single people, much less (gasp!) gay people, from adopting the unwanted babies. The story follows four unnamed women: the biographer, desperately seeking a baby while writing a very weird history of a long ago female marine biologist; the mender, a quirky, off-the-grid woman who uses herbs to help women with their 'problem'; the wife, desperately unhappy in her marriage; and the daughter, a young teen with an unwanted pregnancy. The premise is creative and oh so topical. However, the end result left me wanting me. By choosing not to name the main characters around which the story revolves, it creates a distance that stopped me from empathizing, relating, truly connecting with the characters. Perhaps that was the author's point, that these are 'everywoman,' that the government making decisions about their bodies makes them all 'us.' I appreciate the concept, but as a character-driven reader, I did not become as engrossed within their story as I might have otherwise.

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland
My problem with this book is varied. I began with high hopes, liking the premise of the book (CIA agent learns incriminating news about her much loved husband and father of her four children - what should she do?) I love spy novels so figured this one was in my wheelhouse. Unfortunately, I tend to be fairly critical, as I have read many government-type thrillers (ie. Child 44 if you want a seriously good Russian spy novel) and I also tend to be fairly feminist in my desire for more timely portrayals of women in today's world. The female lead, Vivian, has been with the CIA for years and we are supposed to believe that she is an important and valued member of the spy team vs. Russia. Yet she consistently behaves in an outrageously naive, might I even call it 'stupid,' manner. I found her behavior to be completely unbelievable in the context of the story. Why is it necessary to have the men be wily, manipulative, and brilliant spymasters, and yet leave the female to be shown as gullible and unintelligent, allowing her emotions to rule the day? Aargh, very frustrating and not at all what I want in my lead female roles in a spy novel. I understand the author was likely playing to her audience; I think I am just not part of that crowd. It is a page turner, but in the end I don't want a man to 'save' the woman from herself; I want Cinderella to kick some serious ass and show that brains and wile can outsmart anyone. 

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