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Category: reviews

Spring by Ali Smith

The previous novels in Ali Smith’s seasonal quarter have been highlights of my reading years, so I eagerly looked forward to this third installment. And it started off well: in the first part the reader is introduced to Richard Lease, a 60-something director of TV films who is mourning the death of his longtime scriptwriter, onetime lover, and all-around mentor and conscience, Paddy. He especially misses Paddy now because he is under contract to direct a film about a chance meeting between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke, in Switzerland in 1922. Paddy gives him as much help on Mansfield and Rilke as she can before her death, but the script being written by the youngish and oh-so-hip Terp is an unmitigated disaster; departures from the historical record are the least of its problems.

Richard abandons his work responsibilities and heads way north to the Highlands of Scotland, where he serendipitously meets up with a young girl, Florence, and her companion, Brittany (Brit), who are also up from the south of England. Brit works at a refugee detainment center and Flora is somehow connected to the center and to other refugees, but she’s basically on her own. Their reasons for traveling north are revealed in the second part of the novel.

Richard resembles other Smith characters in being white, educated, affluent, and in distress over choices he has and hasn’t made in his life. His interactions with Paddy are a delight to read (I wanted Paddy to stick around for the whole novel but that was clearly not going to happen). Their dialogue sparkles and even when Paddy is reciting set pieces, they’re Ali Smith set pieces so they’re excellent.

Like Autumn and Winter, Spring explores the political and cultural environment of the current moment through art, artists, and politics. This story ramps up the role of political bureaucracy with a vengeance, as the annoying but manageable institutions like the passport office are replaced by a prison-equivalent refugee detention centre, run by the previously mysterious agency SA4A. We see the centre through Brit’s eyes; she acknowledges the misery and injustice inherent in its operation, but she accepts it as the job she has.

The debates over Brexit and family squabbles that animated Winter are absent here, though; while Brit is part of the institutional structure, her perspective is that of a coopted observer rather than an active ideologue. This is interesting to me because it seems to let her off the hook a bit. Yes, she accompanies Flora to Scotland, but she’s not about to help her out of her precarious situation. She’s a company person to her core.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for May: Her Cowboy Defender

I wasn’t sure I’d get this month’s book read, let alone post a review on it on time. But I’m just under the wire. This month’s challenge book is from an author with more than one novel on my TBR. Needless to say, I have lots of those available. I chose this Harlequin Intrigue release from 2012 because I’d really liked an earlier book by Connor and as a result I’d bought a few more. I wish I could say that it lived up to my hopes, but I can’t.

Piper Lowry is an accountant in Boston who finds her predictable life upended when her younger sister Tara is kidnapped and her twin, Pam, who is an FBI agent, winds up in a coma after an accident. The two events are related. Piper heads off to New Mexico to try and rescue her sister and meets rancher Cade McClain when she demands, at gunpoint, that he drive her to her rendezvous with the kidnappers. Cade is angry (who wouldn’t be?) but then won over by Piper’s story (yes, really) and decides to help her rescue Tara, who is conveniently being held at the ranch adjoining Cade’s.

The entire novel takes place in a 48-hour period and in that time and category page count Connor has to introduce characters and plot, work through several storylines, and bring about an HEA for Cade and Piper. It isn’t enough. The characters are strangers when they meet and they spend the first 24 hours organizing a rescue. Most of the narrative is taken up with introducing the characters and the plot, to the great detriment of the setting. This is technically set in New Mexico but there is nothing to make the reader realize that. The bulk of the story takes place on Cade’s ranch or adjacent to it, but we never even find out what he does on his ranch (except for a lot of paperwork). Is it a cattle ranch? Sheep? Alpacas? Llamas? Donkeys? (I’ve seen all of those in NM, I think.) Who knows. Not only do we not know what this huge ranch is for, apparently Cade can send off the ranch hands and the cook-housekeeper without missing a beat. Maybe he’s just growing sagebrush and cactus.

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March Reading

My reading last month was dominated by library holds and the Man Booker International Prize longlist. I reviewed most of them here, with one outstanding (in both ways) that I really have to write up. Here are brief summaries of each of them.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

This is a slim book about Luiselli’s experiences as a translator for unaccompanied minor children who were apprehended at the US-Mexico border and are trying to establish grounds to stay in the US. They are the lucky ones, because their cases have been taken up by lawyers who will work pro bono. But most of them don’t speak Spanish, so people like Luiselli are needed. The title refers to the 40 questions on the intake form, which has to be filled out for each child, even very young ones, and they cannot be assisted by their relatives or guardians. It’s a powerful book that explores not only the day to day experience of such work, but also the choices US and central American governments have made that have gotten us to where we are today. My full review is here.

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong

I read this because it was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. I would have liked to see it shortlisted, but it was not to be. The novel explores life in contemporary Korea from two perspectives: one is that of an older architect who is contemplating the effect of the professional and personal choices he has made in his life, and the effect of those choices in shaping contemporary South Korea. The second is from the point of view of a young artist who feels isolated and unable to pursue her personal and professional goals, despite having a good education and a middle-class background. Hwang is one of Korea’s foremost novelists and I found this spare, understated book quite compelling. My review is here.

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Mini-Reviews of recent reads

I’ve read a couple of shorts, DNF’d a new release, and am still mulling over a novel I had many many feelings about. In other words I don’t have lots to say about any of them at the moment, so here’s a brief roundup.

If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again by Zen Cho

Nominated for a Hugo in the novelette category this year. I have Cho’s new full-length novel sitting on my ereader but I’m not quite reader to dive into that yet. I hadn’t heard of this story until I saw the Hugo list, and it is free to read at the B&N blog site. It’s more of a short story in length, in my opinion (the Hugo people obviously disagree), but there’s plenty here to sink your teeth into.

This is a lovely little story about Byam, an imugi who cannot seem to become a dragon no matter how hard it tries. And it has been trying for hundreds of years. In order to ascent to heaven as a dragon, an imugi has to be recognized as a dragon by a human. Byam comes close but never makes it. It gives up and unexpectedly finds itself in a loving and rewarding relationship with Leslie, a human. But imugi live much, much longer than humans, so what happens after Leslie?

Cho writes little jewels of stories in which there is always a deeper theme but one that meshes beautifully with the characters and plot that are front and center. The voice that I love from her other short stories and novelettes permeates this story, and it is funny, wise, heartwarming, and sniffle-inducing all at once. Go read it.


The Bewitching Hour by Vivi Anna (Harlequin TBR #510)

A short in the Nocturne Bites series that delivers a bit of story and a bit of romance. Part of a longer series set in the same world. I picked this up to read because it met the “something different” requirement for Wendy’s TBR Challenge category for March, but 40 pages seemed like a bit of a copout. Still, I’m glad I read it.

This short is set at a wedding where our two main characters meet. Fiona has paranormal powers that she can’t control very well, so she’s your basic adorable, cute, but clumsy heroine. Hector is a human in this paranormal world and works in the paranormal CSI unit with other regulars from the series. Since it’s a novella (maybe even a novelette) and they haven’t met before, they have to have lust at first sight, which they do, but it’s nicely done and competently written. I enjoyed it.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for April: Burn for Me

I’ve had this book in my Kindle collection for years. Sirius is a huge Ilona Andrews fan and she bought it for me as a gift. I read about a third of it but then put it aside. I don’t remember why it didn’t work for me, but I just wasn’t engaged. I’ve been meaning to go back to it and this month’s challenge, “Something Different” seemed like a good opportunity because if there’s one subgenre I don’t read, it’s PNR/UF. Yes, I know they’re not the same, but the features they share are the features I generally shy away from.

I cracked it open, started reading, and was immediately engaged with the characters, the world, and above all the voice. I’ve been reading the Andrews’ blog for the last few months, and I could hear the voice that I enjoy there in the book.

I’m guessing many of you have either read the book or know enough about it that you don’t need me to recap. But I’ll give you the setup and a quick summary of the plot. Nevada Baylor owns a private investigation firm in which she’s assisted by her military vet mother and her college-going cousin Bern. They live together with the rest of their family (grandmother, another cousin, and Nevada’s two younger sisters) in a converted warehouse. The firm used to be run by Nevada’s father, but he died a few years earlier from cancer. The treatments took all their money and forced them to sell their house and mortgage the business to one of the big Houses of Houston, where the story is set.

This Houston is our Houston but also not our Houston. The discovery and development of a serum that gave people magical powers has created a world of haves and have-nots based on their magic endowments. The Houses are powerful families who have the highest levels of magic and can use that magic to consolidate and extend their power and influence. Augustine Montgomery has taken on a job for House Pierce, a client, to find their wayward son Adam, who is sought by police for a deadly arson at a bank. Nevada doesn’t want the job but she can’t turn it down. Meanwhile, Adam had a partner from another big House, which brings in Mad Rogan, a vet with his own amazing magic skills.

The plot has two main threads: the search for Adam and the development of a partnership between Nevada and Rogan. Both play out against the backdrop of Nevada’s family, a set of characters who are great fun to spend time with. Nevada has a magic skill but because it’s one that is sought after by governments and law enforcement, she has hidden it and not allowed it to flourish. By contrast, Rogan has obvious and over the top powerful magic skills.

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