FRONTERA STREET by Tanya Maria Barrientos: A Review

A very engaging novel of female friendships

This 2002 publication showed up in my Little Free Library, and I read it before putting it back in for neighbors to read. As a gringa, I learned a great deal about the Hispanic culture and even a few Spanish words. The buttons on the cover is what caught my attention, as well as the dark and light women pictured there. The novel shows how female friendship can transcend age, culture, and ethnicity. Dee, an Anglo woman visits a fabric shop in the Barrio, and after arriving, faints, causing the Hispanic women who own and work in the shop to go into a “tizzy.” Septima, the owner takes pity on this seemingly down-and-out woman and offers her a job, much to the displeasure of her employee, Alma.

The working environment is strained because of tension between Dee and Alma, and even becomes worse when Dee goes to “stay” with Alma and her ballerina daughter, Socorro. What the Hispanic mother and daughter don’t know is that Dee has a secret, a very unusual one. The longer Dee keeps her secret, the harder it is to “come clean” with the mother and daughter she comes to care for. Many contrasts pepper this story: the barrio vs the affluent neighborhood nearby, the Mexican vs Anglo culture, and all of the women involved must learn to set emotional boundaries. These are all strong women with strong ties of friendship, but are these ties strong enough to withstand the revelation of the secrets held between Dee and Alma, or Alma and Socorro? If nothing else, this novel ends on a note of hope and healing.

Celebrating Color Progress: DEAR MR. KNIGHTLY by Katherine Reay

Bright orange colored cover

Thanks to Carla at Carla Loves to Read for introducing me to this great author. I checked this one out from my local library in big print. Knightly was Reay’s debut novel, and perhaps the one I enjoyed most. It is epistolary in nature, told in the form of letters from Samantha, a “bookish” grad student who often quotes classics and sometimes hides behind the words of their characters, to an anonymous donor who pays for her school and gives her a monthly allowance. I guessed early on who the donor was, but instead of ruining the story for me, it just made it all the better.

As in most of Reay’s novels, there is a touch of romance, and Alex, a published author five years older than Samantha provides just that. Christian values and integrity are present as well, and instead of making the story “sappy,” it allows the “good guys” to win.

There are also additions at the back of the book: a reading group guide, a list of the books Samantha quotes or mentions with enough to make the reader say, “Aha, I see… ,” and questions and answers with the author. This would make a fine book club selection.

BOOKWORM: A MEMOIR OF CHILDHOOD READING by Lucy Mangan, THURSDAY REVIEW

This lovely, nostalgic memoir/reading list is written by a “born and unrepentant bookworm.” A book for all readers who love books and all things “bookish,” Bookworm deals with both British and American authors. It describes books Mangan loved from ages one to three when she was still being read to (Most were UK authors and unfamiliar to this American reviewer.) and books from the time she learned to read, to her choices during her “coming of age period,” both physically and intellectually, as a reader.

The books mentioned range from Barbar the Elephant (She did not like it.) to Bette Greene’s Summer of My German Soldier. (She describes herself, as a discriminating reader, thinking this one was “dense, beautiful, astonishing.”)

One of the best “to the reader” asides of the book, and there are many delightful ones, comes near the end where Mangan gives advice to parents of bookworms: “We are rare and we are weird…there is nothing you can do to change us…Really, don’t try. We are so happy, in our own way…Be glad of all the benefits it will bring, rather than lamenting all the fresh air avoided, the friendships not made, the exercise not taken, the body of rewarding and potentially lucrative activities, hobbies, and skills not developed. Leave us be. We’re fine. More than fine. Reading’s our thing.”

This was a most enjoyable Book about Books, a continuation of a challenge left from 2019. It was a gift from Deb Nance of Readerbuzz.

REVIEW: REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD by Anne Tyler (2020)

Ann Tyler’s latest offering, Redhead by the Side of the Road, delivers what we have come to expect from Ann Tyler: excellent characterization, “ordinary” protagonists, and middle aged angst.

The opening lines, “Micha Mortimer is a creature of habit,” introduce us to the most neutral man in the United States, and our first impression of him, as well as our empathy for him is just that–neutral. Micha is a handyman and manager of an apartment building who also runs a computer fix-it business, “Tech Hermit.”

The storyline is described as being, “an intimate look into the heart and mind of a man who finds those around him just beyond reach.” We, as readers, are vaguely interested in Micha, this vague man who just “doesn’t seem to get it,” yet is satisfied with his mundane life. He goes about his scheduled routine, a specific day for each household chore, a specific daily round of activities, beginning with a morning run. It is on one of these runs that the reader sees the world through Micha’s myopic eyes, as he looks at a fire hydrant and sees it as a person, “a red head by the side of the road”–thus the title.

The book/narrative itself is not dull nor myopic, it is written in a witty, clever, detailed, pleasing style and never loses the reader from the first line to the last, a darned good read.

a darned good read

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012): A Review

Billed as a “literary adventure story,” Penumbra’s was a delightful read. Set during The Great Recession in the US, we find Clay Jannon, the protagonist and narrator up to his eyebrows in mystery thanks to his new night-shift bookstore job.

There are many strange things about the bookstore, first the fact that it’s open 24 hours, second that there are “customers” who come in during the overnight hours. The customers are strange themselves, hurried, older, “driven” and they do not buy many books, but instead hold cards that allow them to “check out” books from the “wayback” stacks. When he finally peeks into one of the massive tomes, these requested books, Clay finds out they are all written in some kind of code.

Who better at breaking a code than the attractive “computer-geek girl” who becomes more than a friend to Clay and his wealthy junior high geeky friend who finances and participates in the wacky adventure the three undertake to solve the 21st century mystery.

Even stranger than the bookstore is the its namesake, himself, Mr. Penumbra. A true “character” has been created here, a likable, peculiar, eccentric old man who reveals not only his respect for Clay and his computers but his “connections” with a medieval, possibly dangerous cult/sect.

This book has everything: things to make you laugh, things to make you sigh, as you travel all over the country to solve all things Penumbra. A great read!

BUT IS IT ART? by Cynthia Freeland: A Review

This cover shows the “Art Cow” phenomenon popular in Houston a few years ago. Many of the cows are located in Houston and the surrounding counties still.

I admit it was the cover and the memories of encountering the cows in various places that made me take this small art theory book out of the Little Free Library in my home town. Having audited a course in the history of Art and Graphic design at my university until the pandemic closed the university last semester, I was very interested to see what the author considered was art, and what was not. The book deals with contemporary art and art criticism, and is a very good introduction to art theory. Freeland, who has attachments to Houston, discusses the relationships of art with beauty, culture, money, sex, and new technology. She posits the question of what art is and what it means, a broad topic for a tiny book. She covers basic art theories and discusses why current exhibits and articles are considered art. She discusses definitions of art according to various art movements, including everything from Hume and Kant’s opinion to the opinion of the artist who created The Piss Christ.

There are photographs and musings from the author as she discusses the philosophy of art. Does she answer the question posed in her title? No, instead, she makes a fine argument that what is art is in the eye of the beholder.

2020, ALPHABET SOUP CHALLENGE, author version LETTER “M”

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820  In attempting to whittle down my TBR shelves, an on-going goal, I checked there first for a book whose author’s  name began with an “M.” I was rewarded with The Song of the Jade Lily, a 2019, hefty 450 paged novel by Kirsty Manning. It took me a while to read it, but its mysteries and family secrets that were revealed kept me turning pages. The novel was formatted in one of my favorite ways: alternating chapters set between1939 Shanghai where Romy, a Chinese girl adopted by Jewish parents flees Germany and 2016 present-day Shanghai where her granddaughter Alexandria, visits seeking her grandmother’s story after being notified of her beloved grandfather’s impending death in Australia. What he says to her, telling her to seek out “Li” and the evasiveness of her grandmother, whose silence often suggests hidden secrets rather than the mere grief of losing a spouse, present the opportunity for mystery, war stories, romance, and the finding of identity.

Themes of friendship, love, family loyalty, heritage, and stories of what happened during the War abound as the true facts of Romy’s life and background are peeled away like the numerous skins of an onion by Alexandria. The difference this investigating makes in both their lives is not only significant but also life-direction changing.

MY FAVORITE NON-FICTION WRITER

shopping I’ve read several non-fiction books this summer, and my favorite so far is Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile. As a fan of novels set in WWII, and a baby born during that war, I’ve always had a fascination with Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and especially their relationship as heads of nations so dependent on each other. This book was written just for me.

I’ve read other Larson books, Issac’s Storm, The Devil in White City and Dead Wake, but this one not only reads like a novel (as do all Larson’s books), it characterizes the major figures of the war as well as any novelist does. We see the first impressions, the interplay of personality, and the desire to present one’s country in the best light in both Churchill and Roosevelt. Splendid/Vile focuses on the period of the blitz and the stamina and character of the English people. It focuses on Roosevelt’s desire to keep America out of the war but to retain Britain as a “sister nation.” Through this focus it tells an amazing story of politics, war strategy, and change as the war progresses. Sources used (diaries, documents, and once secret intelligence reports, some released fairly recently) and research done are a testament to the author’s desire for detail and correctness.  It is an amazing read, and also amazing is the way Larson is able to pull everything together to offer the reader a “darned good read”[ing] experience.

I DID IT!

shopping-1ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820 I did it!! All 500+ (800+ for large print) pages!! And what a delight it was. There were many “faces” I’d met in documentaries and historical books about WWII, and the stamina of the English citizens made me proud for my grandmother’s people.

Larson never ceases to amaze me; his non-fiction facts are strung together in a way that makes his books read like a novel, tracing threads of family drama, political intrigue and biographical characterization.  I have read and enjoyed several of Larson’s books, but this one was as fascinating as it was informative. I never lost interest or was bored. I loved following the career and love-life of Churchill’s daughter,Mary and was entertained by the excesses his wife, Clementine put up with from The Prime Minister.

Any WWII fan will enjoy this book, but so will readers who enjoy a “darned good read.”

Letter “G” of the 2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge, author version

ALPHABET-SOUP-2020-AUTHOR-EDITION-BE-820e

Elizabeth Gilbert is an author whose books I have always found pleasing. After reading her non-fiction offerings, I was intrigued as to what her novel would be like.Unknown.jpeg

City of Girls, which deals with life in New York City over several decades, held a special spot in my heart at this time because my  girlfriends’ trip to New York, scheduled for March 19th through 23rd, was cancelled thanks to COVID-19. Sighing as I read about landmarks and all things New York that I wouldn’t be seeing any time soon, I was soon caught up in the story of Vivian who tell of the “one true love of her life.”

To me, characterization is more important than plot, resolution of conflict, or anything else. To read of the personal growth of a character and the resulting actions (which of course have consequences) that character takes, makes for a fascinating read. Using questions suggested by a fellow blogger many years ago, I’d like to write this review in terms of characterization.

  1. Who was your favorite character? Definitely Aunt Peg, Vivian’s eccentric aunt who owns and runs the Lily Theater, and who has a hit on her hands, along with drama queens and complex social and sexual situations of her off-Broadway “family.”
  2. Who was your second favorite character? The primary character, Vivian is my second favorite character. Surely no one was ever so innocent or has ever undergone such change (and gained in knowledge) as this character was. She reminds me of myself and several other people who “just don’t think.”
  3. Would you want to follow these characters in future books? Because Vivian is an old woman as she begins to tell her story, a sequel would be unlikely, and Aunt Peg would be long deceased if a sequel were to occur, my answer would be no.
  4. What about the relationships between the characters in the book? That is exactly what made this novel a page-turner and a delight. The author never had her characters act out of character or in a way that wasn’t believable based on what the reader had been told about that character’s backstory.  

During the story, Vivian’s loss of innocence but lack of maturity cause her to “make a personal mistake that results in a professional scandal.” As a critic for The New Yorker wrote, this novel is “by turns flinty, funny, and incandescent.”What Vivian learned about life, in general, was “You don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.”