One-Minute Book Reviews

April 20, 2013

Louisa Hall’s ‘The Carriage House’ – A Suburban Philadelphia Story

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 5:46 pm
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A family tries to save a decaying carriage house in a suburb in which “the neighborhood association is the UN”

The Carriage House: A Novel. By Louisa Hall. Scribner, 281 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

An old joke says: “Why do tennis players make bad spouses? Because love means nothing to them.”

That quip seems at first to describe William Adair, a former club tennis champion on the Philadelphia Main Line who in Louisa Hall’s first novel entrusts the care of his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife to a devious Australian aide. William begins to change after he has a stroke and his three adult daughters carry on his fight to save from demolition a decaying family carriage house that neighbors see as a rodent-infested eyesore. Can he hold on to a cherished symbol of his once-grand clan? If not, what can replace it in his affections?

These questions play out in a well-observed novel of contemporary suburban manners with undertones of neo-Gothic melodrama. William’s mentally adrift wife holes up in an upstairs room of their house “like a benign Mrs. Rochester,” a simile that suggests the influence of Jane Eyre on the plot.  But Hall borrows less aggressively from Charlotte Brontë than from Persuasion, Jane Austen’s autumnal tale of woman who reconnects with a suitor she had spurned years earlier. The commingled effect of the two classics on the novel resembles that of strangers making polite conversation at cocktail party: They get along well enough but don’t engage deeply with each other.

The Adairs’ battle to save their carriage house revives the connection between William’s daughter Diana, a tennis prodigy turned architecture-school dropout, and Arthur Schmidt, a high school sweetheart who has become a successful restaurateur in the years since she broke off their engagement. In a book inspired by Persuasion, there exists little double about how this reunion will end. But while Austen writes mainly from the point of view of her heroine, Anne Elliot, Hall tells her story from the shifting perspectives of members of the Adair household. This kaleidoscopic approach allows for a multifaceted view of the family’s plight but limits the development of any of its characters. And it gives much less emotional weight to the relationship of Diana and Arthur than Persuasion does to the romance between Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth.

The appeal of The Carriage House lies not in deep characterizations or suspense but in its nuanced attention to the contradictions of an ostensibly genteel suburb in which people act, when the stakes are high “as though the neighborhood association is the UN, and war is imminent, and sacrifices are necessary.” Like Penelope Lively, Hall has keen sense of the weight of history on families. She shows a clan that faces, over a sixth-month period, a conflict larger than any member: the clash between its well-ordered past and the new social free-for-all that it must navigate.

Hall filters some of the incongruities that confront her characters though Margaux’s Australian caregiver, Louise Wilson, who finds solace in trips to a CVS store near the Adairs’ home in the fictional suburb of Breacon. “In CVS, the endless helpful products soothed Louise,” Hall writes. “There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.” Such gently satirical passages are long way from Austen’s biting wit, but they show a fine eye for absurdities as close as the nearest drug store.

Best line: “Louise watched her tan fading a little bit each day and was filled with a muted version of despair that manifested itself as a constant desire to drive to CVS, where she wandered among fluorescent aisles searching for the perfect product. …

“In CVS, the endlessness of helpful products soothed Louise. There were solutions for everything: for calluses and corns, blocked sinuses and acid reflux, acne and rosacea, overthick eyebrows and ingrown hairs. … there were whole aisles set aside for the achievement of physical numbness.”

Worst line: No. 1: “The boredom was literally killing her.”  No, it wasn’t. No. 2:  “She took her by the wrist and literally dragged her up to Izzy’s room, where Izzy was sitting at the desk, peering out the window like a cat watching a bunch of crippled canaries.”  “Literally” is redundant, and the use of “cat” and “canary” in the same breath is clichéd and strained.

Published: March 2013

About the author: Louisa Hall is a poet who lives in Los Angeles. She grew up in Haverford, PA.

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© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

April 30, 2010

Girl Meets Gun in Lois Lowry’s First Picture Book, ‘Crow Call’

Filed under: Children's Books — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:21 pm
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A girl spends a day with her father who has returned from World War II

Crow Call. By Lois Lowry. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Scholastic, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages: School Library Journal recommends for grades K-4.

By Janice Harayda

Two-time Newbery Medal winner Lois Lowry can write what she pleases at this stage of her career, and this fact may help explain her tepid first picture book. Crow Call tells the story of a pigtailed girl whose father, just back from World War II, takes her along when he sets out to kill crows that are eating the crops on nearby Pennsylvania farmlands.

Liz feels happy, if shy, about spending time with someone who “has been gone for so long.” But she worries about the crows, and her father, sensing this, takes her home without shooting any – a change of heart that causes the plot to sputter out in the last pages. Liz also tells her story through slightly affected first-person, present-tense narration. You don’t fully believe she would have all of her thoughts, which include self-conscious lines like “our words seem etched and breakable on the brittle stillness.”

Lowry says in an afterword that the events of Crow Call happened to her and her father in 1945, and her publisher casts the story as an allegory that “shows how, like the birds gathering above, the relationship between the girl and her father is graced with the chance to fly.” Maybe so. But the text has much less loft than the art by Bagram Ibatoulline in the color palette and social-realist style of Christina’s World, which his fellow Pennsylvanian Andrew Wyeth painted three years after the events that inspired Crow Call took place. His lovely pictures are the saving grace of a book that, you sense, Lowry needed to write more than children need to read.

Best line/picture: A picture of Liz’s father stretching his neck out, imitating a giraffe, as she tries to stifle a laugh.

Worst line/picture: The last line: “Then I put it into the pocket of my shirt and reach over, out of my enormous cuff, and take my father’s hand.” This line isn’t strong or credible enough for its position in the book. Lizzie and her father have spent quite a bit of time alone together by the time she takes his hand, and you don’t believe she wouldn’t have done so before then.

Published: October 2009

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© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

April 25, 2009

Rich Wallace’s Tale of Young Chess Players, ‘Perpetual Check’

Teenage brothers face off in a novel about a chess tournament

Perpetual Check. By Rich Wallace. Knopf Books for Young Readers, 128 pp., $15.99. Ages: See discussion below.

By Janice Harayda

Perpetual Check has a warning for parents who overpraise their children’s modest talents, hoping to enhance self-esteem. The caution comes from Zeke Mansfield, a high school senior who is a good athlete but less than the star his father imagines. Zeke realizes at a chess tournament:

“Having his father telling him what a star he is for all those years hasn’t been a plus after all. Somehow it made him decide that an extra hour of working on his ball control was plenty, no need to make it two; that 50 sit-ups after practice were just as good as a hundred; that sometimes it wasn’t worth running hills in the pouring rain. He was great; he was unbelievable. His natural talent would carry him as far as he wanted to go. It was heady stuff at 12 or 13 or 15.”

That “heady stuff” gets tested at the Northeast Regional of the Pennsylvania High School Chess Championship, held during a snow-encrusted weekend at a hotel in Scranton. Zeke and his pudgy younger brother, Randy, a freshman, have both qualified for the event. Randy can beat his brother nine times out of ten and outranks him in other ways: He’s better student, has a girlfriend, and can guess the colors of M&Ms in his mouth with his eyes closed.

So when the two brothers meet in the semifinals, there’s a showdown, complicated by the presence of their father. Mr. Mansfield is a hypocritical, overcontrolling, sexist who tries live out his failed dreams through Zeke. His boorishness has fueled the natural rivalry between his sons, a reality that emerges in chapters told from the brothers’ alternating points of view.

Will one son outperform the other in the tournament? Or might both embarrass their father by losing to – oh, the horror! – a girl? Wallace controls the suspense well in a lightweight, fast-paced book that portrays Zeke and Randy with more subtlety than their father, who is a caricature. By the time the tournament ends, the brothers have had insights into more than chess strategy: They understand better the role their father has played in their relationship and in their parents’ shaky marriage. Zeke reflects early in Perpetual Check that “he never had a chance to be the big brother in the equation” with his sibling, because Randy had so many strengths. The equation may not be solved by the last page, but the boys have the formula.

Best line: “Randy knows that Zeke will often make a seemingly careless move early in the game. The strategy is to leave the opponent with ‘He must know something I don’t’ bewilderment.”

Worst line: “Dina giggles again.” Wallace casts Mr. Mansfield as a sexist, without using the word, but isn’t it sexist to have only female characters giggling, as in this book? Perpetual Check also has many lines such as, “He’s a dick,” “This guy I’m playing against is a prick,” and “No way you’re sitting on your fat ass for another summer.”

Published: February 2009

Ages: The publisher recommends this book for ages 12 and up, a label that appears based largely on its use of words such as “dick” and “ass.” This seems prudish and misguided given that many children start hearing these words in preschool.  Apart from the “bad words,” this short novel — a novella, really — would better suit ages 9-12 and strong readers as young as 8.

Read an excerpt form Perpetual Check.

About the author: Rich Wallace also wrote Wrestling Sturbridge and Playing Without the Ball.

Caveat lector: This review was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear on Saturdays on One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 24, 2009

A Review of ‘Perpetual Check’ — Coming Tomorrow

Filed under: Children's Books,Young Adult — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:23 pm
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Reviews of books for children appear on Saturdays on this site. Tomorrow: Rich Wallace’s new Pepetual Check (Knopf, 128 pp., $15.99), a short novel about two teenage brothers who compete in a Pennsylvania regional chess championship. Perpetual Check seems to have earned its “ages 12 and up” tag mainly for language like “your fat ass” and “He’s a dick.” Otherwise it’s for strong readers ages 8 and up.

November 17, 2008

Two Books That Deal With the Battle of Gettysburg Could Win 2008 National Book Awards on Wednesday, 145th Anniversary the Gettysburg Address

Filed under: News,Nonfiction,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:08 pm
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I’ve been covering book awards for a long time, and I can’t recall having seen a coincidence like this one: Two books that reconsider the Battle of Gettysburg could win National Book Awards on Wednesday, the 145th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address www.nationalbook.org. On the nonfiction shortlist: Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which deals in part with the creation during the war of a new kind of cemetery at Gettysburg and other battle sites – a burial ground intended not just to dispose of bodies but to “memorialize the slain and celebrate the nation’s fallen heroes.” Among the poetry finalists: Frank Bidart’s Watching the Spring Festival, a collection that includes “To the Republic,” in which fallen Union and Confederate soldiers accuse the U.S. of having betrayed their sacrifices at Gettysburg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 2, 2008

This Week’s Gusher Award for Achievement in Hyperbole in Book Reviewing Goes to …

Filed under: Gusher Awards — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:02 am
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“Radish unrolls a rollicking yet reflective read that adds to her robust repertoire of beloved fiction. (Can a reviewer really use that many ‘r’s’ in one sentence?)”

Sandy Huseby in “Radish Raises the Roof,” a review of Kris Radish’s Searching for Paradise in Parker, PA (Bantam, 235 pp., $22), in the April 2008 issue of BookPage, a tabloid book-review section available free at many bookstores and libraries.

Comment by Jan:
Give Huseby credit. Unlike the previous winners of this award, she does seem to know that something is wrong with her sentence. But neither she nor the editor who approved the headline could fight off this case of the cutes. Even if the sentence lacked the manic alliteration, you might wonder: If this novel is “rollicking,” how does a book “rollick”? And by whom is Radish’s fiction “beloved”?

One-Minute Book Reviews gives out Gusher Awards every Friday except in weeks when critics show uncharacteristic restraint in their praise for books. It welcomes nominations from visitors.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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