My orchids needed repotting, so I went to Lowe’s and bought a pair of terracotta pots and saucers. The orchids are going to go in my studio, which has orange walls, so I wanted something that would tone down the orange of the clay body. After a couple of days of deliberation, I settled on …
One Plus One by Jojo Moyes
This book is exactly what I was hoping for from a Jojo Moyes novel: emotionally poignant, heart warming and heartbreaking by turns, with relatable, believable characters. It is, at its heart, a romance novel.
Jess, the female protagonist, is kind of manic, the sort of woman who seems to have limitless energy because only through limitless energy can she keep her head above water. She has a daughter named Tansy who is a math prodigy and a stepson named Nicky who is the teenage son of her ex-husband. They also have a huge, disgusting dog named Norman.
Ed is the male protagonist, a ridiculously wealthy man who’s depressed because he has just been accused of insider trading–which he in fact did. He’s desperately feeling sorry for himself and is busy drinking himself silly when he meets Jess, who happens to be the cleaner hired to take care of his swanky beach cottage and a barmaid at the only real bar in town where Ed drinks himself blotto during his self-imposed beach exile.
The plot happens somewhat implausibly when Ed sees Jess and her kids on the side of the road in a broken-down car on their way to Scotland to do a maths Olympiad so that Tansy can win the money to make up the rest of the tuition for a fancy private school. Ed, who has a thing for damsels in distress, gives them a ride home and then offers to drive them to Scotland. He has cause to regret that when it turns out that Norman drools constantly and smells bad and that Tansy vomits if they drive more than 40 miles an hour. I think that’s implausible. I’ve heard of carsickness, but it’s not about speed, generally, it’s usually about twisty roads and not being able to see. But it made for a funny story, so I let it go.
Jess is the best thing about this novel. She’s plucky and resourceful, yet flawed. Her motivations for taking care of Nicky, a child who isn’t hers, is a desire to overcome her own loveless childhood. Her motivation for not hounding Marty (the kids’ father) for support is that she feels bad for him because he’s depressed and unemployed. She’s the kind of person who really doesn’t like to ask for or receive help, even when she so clearly needs it. This makes for interesting tension between her and Ed. Ed wants to feel needed and wants to help people, but has also been burned badly by this character trait of his. He’s a bit of a coward when it comes to having difficult conversations or dealing with unhappy people.
Even though this is a character-driven novel and their relationship and budding romance is the main crux, there are plenty of external conflicts to drive interest in the story. For example, there’s the sheer logistics of driving slowly on back roads across the length of a country with a giant smelly dog. There’s Ed’s impending trial and the luncheon of his parents’ which Ed keeps begging off. Nicky has been bullied by the wicked Fisher boys, and fears that they will come after his little sister next. Plus the unending specter of poverty looms over all of them. There’s never enough money for anything, no matter how they scrimp. Marty even comes into the picture later on, showing his own character flaws in a way that refines the relationship between Ed and Jess.
Were there problems with this? Yes. Ed is not a particularly loveable guy. He wants to be, but his cowardice in facing his parents makes him seem like the most selfishly spineless of men. But you want him to be likeable. You want him to save and be saved by Jess. I cried so much listening to this, hoping they’d get together again, hoping that Tansy would get to go to St. Anne’s, that Nicky would find some supportive friends. There are so many plot twists that Moyes kept me wondering to the very end if it would all work out. I found the ending very satisfying and it gave me a happy glow that turned my mood brighter.
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Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory
I got this book as an audiobook from audible and very much enjoyed it. The narrator had a very pleasant voice and he didn’t do falsettos for the women. A couple of the characters had thick Chicago accents while the others were more neutral.
You could say this story is a story about a family who used to have a talent show until a skeptic debunker unjustly “proved” their powers were false. That’s true, but that’s not the most interesting part of the story. I did like the characters’ interaction with each other in a traditional/conservative old-fashioned type of family in which the women are the grown ups and the men always do things they need to apologize for.
My favorite part of the story was how all the complex plots interacted with each other. Irene finds online romance but has a lot of baggage. Matty discovers his powers and gets roped into helping his uncle Frankie try to get some money. Frankie owes money to the mob he can’t repay. Teddy, Frankie’s father, falls in love with a woman who is involved deep in the mob in her own way. And Buddy …
Buddy is the most interesting character. Buddy’s talent is clairvoyance. He can see the future and has been able to since he was a little boy. During the course of the novel, Buddy is making big plans, most of which involve renovating his father’s house in odd ways. Why is he digging a huge hole in the yard? Why did he install slippery tiles on the front porch? Why are there steel window shades in the basement, and who did he build those bunk beds for? As Frankie, Teddy, Matty and Irene’s own plots converge on September 4th, you just know that Buddy’s plans are going to be set in motion like a Rube Goldberg machine, with eight kids, a puppy, three government agents, a couple of mobsters and a family of con artists, some of whom are also psychics.
This is a really fun story.
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Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman
As with so many things in life, the strength of this book is also its weakness. This coming-of-age story has deep philosophy from many angles: purity and shame, wholeness and individuality, mysticism and the quest for knowledge. It’s not just a story about a girl who runs away from home to escape a bad home situation and find herself. It’s also a spiritual quest, albiet for her sidekick character. It touches on what it’s like to feel as though your body is shameful, what it’s like to encounter sudden fame, the affect of an abusive upbringing on adult behavior, dementia and elder abuse, technology wiping out old professions, war and politics, linguistics, plumbing, roadbuilding and geology. It’s got a little bit of everything in a familiar McFantasy setting. The strength is that there are so many facets to this story. The weakness is that not all the pieces comfortably fit.
I figured out pretty soon into this audiobook that there must be other books with Serafina as a main character, because while Tess is the main character of this, she’s somewhat eclipsed in her own story by her half-sister who is a living saint, friend to the queen, hero of the realm and all sorts of other things. Serafina is half dragon, and this is both an amazing and wonderful thing that explains her saintliness, and a shameful thing for which her father is disbarred. This dichotomy is not explained in this book, so I suppose if I want to figure out how the world works, I’ll have to read the other novels. This kind of irked me. The quigital (I’m guessing on the spelling) are dragon-like relatives, disdained by the dragons, who are so alien to humans that their blood isn’t even red. And yet the dragons can interbreed with humans? And half-dragon people have scales? Biologically, it just didn’t make sense. And yes, dragons don’t really make sense biologically, but the rest of the book was mostly non-magical so to have this so inexplicable was jarring.
I just couldn’t figure out what dragons were or weren’t. Some of the saur, the dragons, are professors at the university, and I was picturing lizard-people, but then they’re described as having curls (hair) and laps so I wasn’t sure. Maybe they’re not dragon, they’re “dragon” in a metaphoric sense. But then they charter a ship and someone says “why don’t they just fly” and at one point, they’re referenced as eating people. So are they dragons, like big flying lizards with teeth? Or are they “dragons” and are in human form and are something else? They formed such a huge part of the story I wanted it penciled in for me. Maybe if you’ve read all the others in this series it’s obvious, but to me it was off-putting and weird and unexplained.
Hartman writes like someone who knows an awful lot about a an awful lot of different subjects. She uses language beautifully, and as a linguist, I especially appreciated the nuanced way she talked about languages in the book (for example, the quigital can undersand Goreddi but can’t speak it because of how their mouths are.) I liked the quigial’s language, how it had a contradictory tense, like drywater or cold heat or the singular plural. Those are the delightful little thought-problems that keep me coming back to sci-fi and fantasy. I also liked that her sidekick had his own quest and his own personality, though for a girl who can’t get past “virgin=good/not-virgin=bad” she takes the gender-switching of the quigital amazingly in stride.
There were bits and pieces of interesting worldbuilding, but I never really felt like the bits and pieces added up to a cohesive whole. There’s the whole prudish-Victorian sex attitudes, where women are these pure vessels whose vaginas are so delicate that the insertion of a single penis can ruin them forever. Women can’t walk across the city unescorted without being seen as an unclaimed dollar bill begging to be taken. And yet women hold positions of leadership and men just shrug like it ain’t no thang instead of harassing these women and violently threatening them until they quit for taking a job that the men think belongs to men, as still happens in many places today. The quigital have amazing and unique magical creations, like thwips (basically a cell phone), and while Hartman does touch on how the thwips have basically destroyed the job of heralds, you have other advanced technology in a medieval world that somehow doesn’t alter the world at all, and you have medieval technology (sewage gets thrown into the river) without medieval drawbacks (rampaging cholera.) It’s not uncommon in fantasy (see: TSR’s D&D) but so many other things in this book were well-crafted that the disjointed worldbuilding kind of spoiled what would otherwise have been an amazing novel.
All in all, it’s a pretty good book, and probably better if you’ve read and enjoyed the others in this series as the parts with Serafina will feel like an old friend instead of a bizarre, unexplained sidenote. I do feel this book was a little longer than it needed to be, and I’m not so engaged with the characters (and I don’t care at all about the world) that I’m antsy to read the next one, but it had some good moments.
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Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
I had this book on my “to read” list forever and found a hardback at the local library. It seems like the kind of thing I’d just adore, promising twists and turns and deep schemes. I was expecting Girl on the Train, or even Gone Girl, or maybe the not-quite-as-good Girl in the Window. I got a girl, anyway. I’ve hidden anything even remotely spoiler-y behind a cut. The fact that Adele is going to turn out to be a “bad” guy I don’t count as spoilery. You can pretty much know that going in.
On the surface we have a troubled relationship between a beautiful heiress named Adele who loves a man named David, except she doesn’t love his hobby, which is “shagging other women.” David is a psychotherapist, and one night he meets Louise in a bar and they totally hit it off. Only it turns out that Louise is the person who has just been hired to be the secretary for his office. So yeah, he’s hot for the secretary. Then Louise meets Adele and the two of them become best friends. You see that light in the distance? That’s the trainwreck coming.
There’s all these hinted secrets. David has burn scars on his hands, and there’s something about a wrist watch. Adele keeps hinting at her “plan” and how Louise fits into her “plan.” How does Adele know the content of conversations between Louise and David? There’s a notebook written by a boy they used to know named Rob, and something about lucid dreaming to cure night terrors. Honestly, all the secrets and the promise of a revelation at the end was what kept me reading. The secrets are pretty much revealed, and there was a twist I hadn’t expected. But other things didn’t hold water. For example, she paints the room in shades of green, and David is furious about it, and it turns out the reason is that she did it to remind him of her family’s estate in Scotland. Um, what? That’s ridiculous.
On the surface, David is a violent, controlling, cheating, lying, alcoholic who is cruel to his wife despite the fact that she adores him. Adele is a fragile and timid creature who foolishly gave her new husband control of her fortune. Louise is an underemployed single mum who drinks too much and is too weak to say no to David when he shows up at her door wanting some action. Once the true story and the true secret is revealed, you learn that David is still a violent, controlling, cheating, lying drunk who is cruel to his wife despite the fact that she adores him. Adele has a deeper side that means she’s less of a victim than it might seem at first blush, and Louise is an even more pathetic loser of a woman who had a billion chances to make a grown up decision and throws them all out the window. Once I found out the the truth about what really happened, I was supposed to go “oh, Adele is the real villain here and David is innocent!” But he was still a loathsome turd. He says she’s a psychopath, but it sounded too much to me like “oh my ex-girlfriend was crazy! She kept having inconvenient emotions as a response to my selfish and hurtful behavior!”
Louise, by virtue of the fact that she was knowingly screwing not just her boss, but another woman’s husband, was also pretty much a loathsome turd. And she’s friends with the woman she’s cuckolding, which just makes her even more vile. The supposed secret that Adele held over David to answer the obvious “why don’t they just get divorced” didn’t hold water. (view spoiler)[David knows enough how unfairly the world is skewed in his favor when he tells Louise that if she goes to his boss about their affair, she’ll look like a tramp because the boss is a man’s man who always blames the woman. Does he really think that a man that deeply entrenched in privilege is going to go to prison on account of a wristwatch? (hide spoiler)]
Some of the writing bothered me. I got confused in more than one chapter about who was speaking because Adele and Louise had the same voice. They also name-dropped brands constantly. I’m assuming they were brands, though I hadn’t heard of any of them. The characters make a big deal about lucid dreaming being this super-secret art, but lucid dreaming is like learning to French-braid your own hair; a moderately clever 12-year-old might figure it out on her own. (view spoiler)[Astral projecting (which is what it’s called, though it doesn’t work quite like it does in the book) is either supernatural or a difficult skill one learns after years of meditation, not stage two of lucid dreaming. I think that the author thought she was making something up, but accidentally described something that (many people believe) actually exists, and because I went into this book with the expectation that this was not speculative or supernatural fiction, the result is that it feels like the author just didn’t do quite enough research. I like supernatural elements in books, but I prefer it when I’m expecting them. (hide spoiler)]
Does it have plenty of secrets and unexpected twists? Yes. Did I start to root for a different person once I find out these secrets? No. Does it have compelling and believable characters? No. The heroine, Louisa, started out sympathetic and got pathetic. I was supposed to hate Adele once I found out her secret and have tolerance and understanding for David, but I could never forget how nasty David had been in the present day to think that the events of the past exonerated him. At the end of the book, I only had sympathy for Louisa’s son, that he had the misfortune to have Louisa for a mother. End verdict: Plotting is pretty good, characters are unlikeable, prose has issues. This book is only okay.
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What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I have really been enjoying Moriarty’s work. This is the third book of hers I’ve read/listened to (I listened to the audiobook of this one) and while it wasn’t as hard-hitting as Big Little Lies or The Husband’s Secret, I still found it enjoyable.
I think Moriarty’s strength is in the little details that make everyone so believable. Even the children have their own personalities, which is not the case with many novels that have children in them. The people aren’t just different from each other, they’re different from themselves depending on their age. Alice at 29 is a different woman from Alice at 39.
I loved exploring Alice’s world as she figures out what has happened in the previous ten years. There’s enough mystery and tragedy and events to keep revealing them one by one and make it interesting. The best thing about the book were these little reveals and the depth and nuance of the characters. I also liked the “will she or won’t she” question of whether or not she would repair her marriage with Nick.
I do get a little tired of reading about rich, snobby, competitive mothers. Do people really host social events for the other parents of Kindergartners? That just seems totally weird. She seemed to get bent out of shape about unimportant things. Alice doesn’t have real problems. Alice’s marriage doesn’t have real problems. There was no reason for them to be splitting in the first place except that they’re too wrapped up in themselves and in their own lives. I found Alice, young Alice, a more or less likeable person, if a bit of a mess. Old Alice wasn’t quite so likeable. She’s more jaded and spoiled, unkind and not terribly emotionally mature. Or maybe other people don’t sort of grow up in their thirties like I did? Maybe you don’t need to if you are of the 5-latte-a-day and expensive personal trainer class of people.
This is a sweeter book than Big Little Lies, though it still deals with hard-hitting subjects such as grief and infertility. Now that I’ve read three of them, I’m finding a sameness in the “very rich suburban mothers of young children who have their entire social circle and identity wrapped up in their motherhood and their children’s school lives” circle. It seems a rather specific sort of person, rather foreign to me but alike to one another, and I used to be a suburban mother of young children. I just didn’t get quite so into it the way these women seem to assume everyone does.
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For the third paperweight, this one, I decided to use the optic mold. This is a star-shaped mold that tapers to a narrow point. I believe it’s made of aluminum. After rolling my first gather of glass in the frit and melting the frit into it, I put the jack glass-side down and push, incising …
This was my second paperweight I made at the one-day workshop I did in May. My idea was to quickly pull a bird into shape out of the hot glass I’d gathered. This is easier said than done. My bird quickly became a melted taffy impersonation, and it was all I could do to loop …
The paperweight class I’d signed up for at the Mesa Art Center, though cancelled three times in a row, went off fine the fourth time I registered for it, and I was able to make three paperweights. We were having trouble with the crucible kiln not clicking shut properly, and the glass got too cool, …
This was one of the cups I threw with my share of the batch of porcelain that some of our classmates mixed up. I had some of Kurt Weiser’s cobalt underglaze that Bridget Harper (my ceramics teacher and friend) cadged for me. I’ve done underglaze or stain on porcelain many, many times. This is a …