Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Title: What I Had Before I Had You
AuthorSarah Cornwell
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: January 7, 2014
Pages: 288

How I Heard About It: Another great find from a tour hosted by TLC Book Tours! Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.  

"The past, I feel in this moment, is something that parents dangle in front of their children, something hoarded and valuable that we can never touch. They pretend to share, pulling out the old albums at Christmastime, but under their breath, they are saying, This is what I had before I had you."

Two Sentence Summary: Olivia has just gone through a messy divorce and must leave her beloved home in Austin with her two children (a teenage girl and a bipolar 9 year old son). As she returns to her hometown of Ocean Vista, she is haunted by memories of her past there (largely centered around her mother's denial about the death of her sisters and unexplained disappearances), and Olivia's struggles to parent her children become intricately overlaid upon her own childhood struggles.

[[author Sarah Cornwell]]

Things I Think: Sarah Cornwell has had several short stories published (and has won myriad awards) but this is her first novel. To use the word "engaging" falls short of the mark in describing the braided plot, with its hints of ... what? magical realism? mania? that perpetually overturn expectations.

This book is very much of patterns: Olivia's mother, a psychic, cycles through lengthy phases of manic productivity and near catatonia. Her son is officially diagnosed as bipolar. As Olivia reminisces about her mother's sporadic evacuations from their home (with no notice, no way to reach her, and no explanation upon her return), she finds that her son has wandered off on the Ocean Vista boardwalk and can't be located. 

Cornwell explores Olivia's position as a seeming "hinge" between these two, unraveling landscapes, and in doing so creates a mesmerizing tension, rapidly transitioning between timelines and trials. The writing is lyrical, but not in a manner that overshadows/grinds against gritty circumstance. I'm on a quest now to find more of this author's work!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: "Taking What I Like" by Linda Bamber

Title: Taking What I Like
Author: Linda Bamber
Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Date of Publication: July 31, 2013
Pages: 256

How I Heard About It: I'm reviewing "Taking What I Like" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.

Two Sentence Summary: A collection of short stories revolving around well-known literary characters and plots, "Taking What I Like" is a successfully humorous re-imagining of the classics. The relationship of Shakespeare and other authors to each story differs (characters placed in new contexts, or peripheral characters explored more deeply, for example), and when combined with the sharp intellect and comedic undertones of Bamber's voice, these well-known figures are refreshed and gain interesting new dimensions.

Things I Think: I was immediately drawn to the concept behind this book, it's aim to "reinvent classic texts." It has the feel of a project piece, something I've experimented with and encountered frequently in the poetry world. For this reason, I decided to read and review "Taking What I Like" and am certainly glad to have done so. 

As other bloggers on the tour have pointed out, the author's life as an academic has clearly been influential here. Not only does the nature of the content point to professorial literary love, but settings and characters also reflect an involvement with / interest in the academic scene. And while Bamber clearly has an extensive knowledge of the classics, I feel certain that readers less-versed in Shakespeare, etc. have been provided ample keys to appreciate the stories as well. In "Casting Call," which features the cast of "Othello" as a collegiate faculty, the characters fully recall their sordid previous lives, and as readers we're given glimpses of the past tragedy in conjunction with their current position.

I still have more stories to savor in this book and am greatly looking forward to them. NPR has already featured Linda Bamber for her work in "Taking What I Like" and I anticipate more press for this book in the near future. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: "I Take You" by Nikki Gemmell

Title: I Take You
AuthorNikki Gemmell
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: December 31, 2013
Pages: 289

How I Heard About It: I've previously reviewed other work by this author, "With My Body." I'm reviewing "I Take You" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: After Connie's husband is severely injured in a skiing accident, their relationship (particularly it's treatment of intimacy) becomes increasingly... experimental? Thrilling at first, Connie and Cliff's sexual escapades gain a somewhat alarming momentum and Connie starts to question her role as object, play thing, prop.

"I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard desperate facts."

Things I Think: As mentioned in my earlier reviews of Nikki's work, I've been a fan of hers for many years, ever since a good friend recommended "The Bride Stripped Bare." I have loved her poetic diction and unique take on prose, her tendency to divide lengthy tales into tiny snapshots (separated by well-placed quotations.) 

A key component of the author's works I've read has always been female sexuality; discovery of, exploration of, deviation from... "I Take You" is certainly no different in this regard, but pushes the envelope much further in terms of eroticism. At times making direct reference to "The Story of O" and the more mainstream "Fifty Shades of Gray," "I Take You" holds absolutely nothing back in terms of the erotic (much like its characters). 

Making this book different than its predecessors ("The Bride Stripped Bare" and "With My Body") is the distinctly dark nature of the married couple's eroticism. An opening scene of marital experimentation involves a "surgical" process that truly turns Connie into property of her husband, an inadvertent sacrifice of bodily control at the husband's directive (and for the entertainment of others). The overly of the horrific with the sensual is certainly riveting and disturbing, as is the reader's difficulty to connect with our protagonist's thoughts on the matter. Connie's feelings vacillate rapidly and are relatively unclear from moment to moment; it's unsettling, in that we are driven to react with as much reticence and confusion as the character.

My concern with this narrative is a concern I experience with many "sexual liberation" tales - Gemmell's characters seem, over the course of the three books I've mentioned, to consistently rely exclusively on men to teach them how to utilize and appreciate their bodies and their lives. While this is an occurrence that can be based in reality, the fact that it is so heavily present time and time again in Gemmell's novels began to feel redundant in "I Take You." I found myself yearning for just one sturdy, take-charge female to break up the pattern a bit.