The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (Book Review)

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up a used copy of this book for less than a dollar, figuring I’d love it after stumbling across The Invention of Wings. I’m of two minds on this one, this one being a coming-of-age-discovering-the-feminine-divine story in the South, just after the 1964 Civil Rights Act has been signed into law.

What I liked: The writing is poetic. Kidd can turn a phrase, make me smell the honey, feel the thick humidity. The characters are well-developed and I loved them; the plotting and pacing are tight. The story pulled me in and kept me in; I had a hard time putting it down.

What I didn’t like: I have a hard time picturing the scene with Zach and Lily in the truck going down as it did. I daresay a black boy, who has just gotten out of a pickup truck in which he was driving a white girl, and is now standing with a group of other black boys, one of whom has just thrown a broken bottle and drawn a white man’s blood, would certainly not be politely taken off to jail. I daresay he would have had the living shit beat out of him, at least once. The hatred and violence seemed written like a Monet landscape, like watching a violent storm through gauzy curtains. It is skillfully done, and it highlights the sense of peace and safety surrounding the pink Boatwright house, but I’m still not sure that works for me, romanticizing something as ugly as racism and basic human rights. I also didn’t care for the stereotyping. In this book, with few exceptions, white people are bad, black people are good; women are strong and nurturing and wise, men are abusive dickheads.

That’s not to say it’s not worth reading; it definitely is, for the wordsmithing alone. It just shied away from a tied-up-with-a-perfect-bow happy ending, which I appreciated; a good coming-of-age story does not magically lift away the protagonist’s struggles. The voice of the heroine, 14-year-old Lily, is very real, naive but not childish, full of longing and humor. The science and lore of bees are delightful, I loved the Black Madonna, and I really loved how they were intertwined into an earthy spirituality that needs no official church building. Do read it, but be aware you are looking at an ugly part of America’s history through pink-tinted lenses. Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars, so this is rounded up to four.

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Deep Subject (Jane Doe Six Sentence Stories)

Jane’s finger pauses, trembles over the number on her touch screen, then finally presses it to dial.

Who would actually be on the other end of this call, why would anybody be there, why would they care, why should she believe anything like this could help?

“Crisis Call. First tell me if you’re safe or not, and then let’s talk about what’s going on.”

Jane takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Well…”

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Each week, Ivy at Uncharted hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup. This week’s cue was “well.” Fux Sixes from other writers are here.

Navel (Jane Doe Six Sentence Stories)

“Is that a bra strap? That better not be a bra strap,” Michelle says. “We don’t do the Madonna look around here.”

Jane cocks her head to her shoulder, displays the wide strap of the tank-camisole layered under her blouse. “Not a bra strap.”

“And tattoos. Caroline hates tattoos. Keep your tattoos covered.”

“For the…third?… time. I don’t even have tattoos.”

“Or piercings. She doesn’t hire people with piercings.”

Jane surreptitiously pats the soreness at her belly-button, her brand-new glittering dragonfly. Good thing she doesn’t wear Madonna crop tops. She turns back to her desk, rolling her eyes.

RzlBrz007700 Pixabay
RzlBrz007700/Pixabay

Every week at the Ranch, Charli Mills hosts a flash fiction challenge for the Rough Writers and Friends. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a navel story. Fun flashes from other writers are at the link.

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (Book Review)

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed AmericaThe Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What do the planning and construction of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a killer’s rampage have in common? Not much, you might think, and you’d be wrong. It’s the realization of ambition. Ginormous ambition.

I chanced across a pristine copy of this book during a lunchtime used-bookstore escape from a depressing and frustrating job that turned out to a giant mistake. The book was not a mistake. In one hand we have the plans and battles of architect Daniel Burnham as he overcomes sequential (and often simultaneous) obstacles including unions, politics, and weather to create the Columbian Exposition – the White City – that helped make Chicago what it is today. In the other hand, being carefully intertwined, is the scheming of the charismatic H.H. Holmes as he scams his way to build his nearby hotel of horrors that included an airtight vault-cum-gas-chamber in his private office and a coffin-esque kiln and quicklime pit in his basement. Each man had the talent and drive to accomplish a dream, but while one used his gifts to unite and create, the other used his to lure and destroy. The juxtaposition is eerie.

So many firsts: the zipper, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, moving walkways, an all-electric kitchen including dishwasher (invented by a woman, incidentally), spray painting – and America’s first documented serial killer.

I enjoy nonfiction because I love finding things out, but I don’t always love actually reading it because of how dry it can be. Larson is a master of narrative nonfiction, mining historical documents and archives and bringing the past to life with interesting detail and often dry humor.

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (Reading Challenge Book Review)

We Have Always Lived in the CastleWe Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh my.

I mean, holy moly, what a book. This was #8 (a book with a cat on the cover) and #34 (a book recommended by a favorite author, and that would be Edgar Cantero, who has a new book out this July, yay!) for my 2017 reading challenge.

Many years ago, my son Monster played soccer, and I did my time as The Soccer Mom The Other Soccer Moms Don’t Speak To. It’s always been that way for me, that I don’t really fit in much of anywhere, and most of the time I’m all right with it, I realize I just have different vibes from most people, but when people don’t answer your greetings time and time again, it wears thin. (I would not learn until later that the stereotypical soccer mom is someone I can’t stand being around anyway, so absolutely nothing was lost to me.) I would wonder, is it because I don’t wear my hair in the right kind of ponytail, or drive a minivan, or dress in hideous mom jeans? During one game Monster got the wind knocked out of him, and I was stopped and confronted as I tried to go to him where he lay on the field: “Who are you?” Um yeah, I’m his mother, and you might know that if you didn’t just look right through me when I say hello. Whatever. I enjoyed his games, and spent the practices apart from the others, with a book. And I was not sorry when he decided he didn’t care for soccer. (Or football. Or baseball. He likes to watch them, but for participation he prefers solitary or one-on-one sports, like running or racquetball.)

That kind of other-ing is one basis for We Have Always Lived in the Castle. But which came first, the other-ing, or the agoraphobia and sociopathy? Who did it to whom first? Schadenfreude, anyone? And who is the real bad guy here? “Oh Constance,” I said, “we are so happy.” Just as I was happy with my book on the sidelines, not being included on the Snack Mom roster. And this is where the rubber meets the road, that I have to admit wishing their perfect blonde ponytails would fall out, much as Merricat Blackwood wished all the people in the grocery would drop dead, savoring the thought of stepping over the bodies as she put eggs and sugar in her shopping bag. And I fully recognize that when we are attacked, and driven back, we can make a new refuge within even smaller confines, and pretend we are happy there while laying even stronger spells for protection.

So, yeah. I read this entire book (quite short, at 146 pages) in a single night/evening, and it zoomed straight up to my hallowed shelf of All-Time-Most-Favoritest-Books-Ever. Jackson’s writing is crisp and concise yet paints an unsettlingly lush portrait of ostracization, neurosis, insularity, mob-mentality hatred, and collective guilt. It brims over with sympathetic magic, buried treasure, dark humor and irony, old murder, the ties that bind. No ghosts or gore; this is psychological creepiness, the kind I like best. The characterizations are sublime. It’s not until you really begin to think about why Mary Katherine and Constance and Uncle Julian do what they do that you see the switchbacks and the ironies, the layers of misdeeds and misperceptions and mistreatments that cradle and blanket the family skeletons. I did not think the unreliable narrator could be done better than Nabokov did in Lolita, and I was wrong. Merricat Blackwood may be my favorite narrator character of all time, reliable or un-.

You will be wondering about that sugar bowl, I imagine. Is it still in use? you are wondering; has it been cleaned? you may very well ask; was it thoroughly washed?

Pour a nice cup of tea (careful of the sugar), and curl up for an excellent read.

Bookshelves: classic, goth-lit, heebie-jeebies, literature-with-a-capital-l, sleep-with-the-light-on, schadenfreude, psych-thriller, reading-challenge, love-the-cover, plot-twists-and-irony, magic, mental-illness, this-is-the-stuff-right-here, thriller

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Key (Jane Doe Six Sentence Stories)

Jane feels the cold rush of shock and fear. “But Michelle said I’m doing a good job,” she protests.

Caroline’s thin lips get thinner. “I’m told you were told, and Becca agrees. Please gather your things and leave your key. I’ll pay you through the end of the day.”

Simeworks-Pixabay
Simeworks/Pixabay

Each week, Ivy at Uncharted hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup. This week’s cue was “key.” Fun Sixes from other writers are here.

Love With a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche (Reading Challenge Book Review)

Love with a Chance of DrowningLove with a Chance of Drowning by Torre DeRoche

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did.

Which probably sounds kinda dumb, seeing as I deliberately picked it as #13 on my 2017 reading challenge. It’s not like a dear friend gave it to me for my birthday and I felt obligated to read it; I picked this book that involves travel out of approximately one bonkzillion other books that involve travel that I could have picked instead.

Still, I was expecting a very chick-lit bit of top-skimming self-discovery with some romantic sunsets and sightseeing thrown in, and not much else. It is chick lit, sure, and that’s all right. There’s a nice and very real and sometimes funny love story, which I appreciated partly because I married a hot guy I met in a bar, and what’s so wrong with that? Then there is the whole amazing feat of crossing the Pacific Ocean in a 32-foot sailboat when you’re terrified of water, and the personal growth and triumph that come with that. There’s also a lot of sailing, which the author made both educational and entertaining, and various bits about various places that made me want to visit all of them. It’s not Steinbeck, but the writing is competent and the voice is engaging and the characters (real people; this is a memoir) are likable. The whole thing combined into a light but satisfying read that I had a hard time putting down. Like a huge salad, I guess: good, and good for me.

Highly recommended as a beach read, for obvious reasons. I want to run away to Tonga now.

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