A note from Barbara:
Like you, I’m a reader. Like you — at least, I assume we’re alike in this — I often pick books based on the recommendation of a friend or bookseller. I’m no bookseller, but please consider me a friend who likes to read hot new releases, book group raves, or books by writers I’ve enjoyed in the past. #AMREADING may be a misnomer; listed below, the most recent first, are books that I’m not currently reading but have just finished. I’ve rated them on a scale of one to five, with the fives being home runs and the ones being duds. I don’t give plot summaries here; you can get those elsewhere. Rather, I’ve focused on why I did or did not enjoy the book. If you’d like to comment on a review, please do so in the “Comments” section of my Facebook page. In any case, be sure to check back here often for the latest reviews. Thank you
IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, by Sinclair Lewis
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I’m not quite sure why I decided to read this book. Maybe it was seeing it included in a new genre called Prophetic Dystopian Literature, and being curious. I mean, for a book written in 1935 to be part of a new genre, with the author none other than Sinclair Lewis, who wrote Main Street and was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? I was surely intrigued by the word “prophetic,” given what is happening in America today, and the word “dystopian,” given my dislike for said happenings. Maybe the title alone, It Can’t Happen Here, clinched it.
Whatever. I couldn’t finish this book. And it was totally my fault. The writing is brilliant, chock full of the wit and description for which Lewis was known. But yeah, talk about prophetic and dystopian. Talk about America today.
Since the election, I’ve stopped listening to the nightly news and limit myself to short clips on my phone. It’s too depressing to hear more – which is exactly what I felt two-thirds of the way through this book. The plot had taken turns that were so appalling, so real, so frightening that I couldn’t read on. Oh yes, it could happen here.
I gave this book three stars for its standing in the history of literature. It lost two stars because … well, just because.
NOTHING TO ENVY, by Barbara Demick
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I would not have read this book had it not been a selection of my book group. Non-fiction not being my thing, I was less that gracious as I read it, wondering the whole while what in the world my group would discuss. I worried that once we got past the horror of life in North Korea and the remarkable strength of downtrodden women, there wasn’t much to keep the evening going.
I was very wrong. For starters, we had appetizers. The meeting’s host bought snack food at a Korean grocery, and the discussion leader brought Korean pears. The pears, which play a part in the story, seemed more an apple-pear hybrid, and were truly delicious. The snack food didn’t go over quite as well, largely because of its smell. But it spawned fun talk before we got down to the book itself.
This book is a marvel. The title, Nothing to Envy, comes from a propaganda phrase habitually drummed into North Koreans: “We have nothing to envy in the world.” The book tells the stories of six North Koreans who, each in his or her own way, escaped the country and were able to tell what life there is like.
Barbara Demick became interested in this subject when she was a reporter for the L.A. Times, stationed in South Korea. She interviewed more than 100 people, that many in part to corroborate facts in the stories of the six she chose to profile. She visited North Korea eight times in all, each time shadowed by not one North Korean handler, but two – the second to make sure that the first remained tight-lipped. She wasn’t allowed to interview North Koreans in North Korea; the shutdown of communications was total. So she talked with defectors.
Of this book’s strengths, even beyond the heart in the stories told, is the manner of the telling. The author moves back and forth between her subjects with a skill rivaling that of a master novelist. I can’t begin to imagine juggling so many facts and then putting them together in such a consummately readable way, all the while remaining objective.
Nothing to Envy is not a long book. Nor, though, is it an easy read. But it is riveting. Like The Underground Railroad, it is an important book. Prior to reading it, I knew few details about life for the average North Korean. Now I do. These details remain vivid in my mind even now. I fear this will help me understand more of what may be currently about to erupt between North Korea and the rest of the world.
THIS IS HOW IT ALWAYS IS, by Laurie Frankel
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What should a parent do when her three-year-old son announces that he’s a girl and then validates it by dressing the part, acting the part, dreaming the part?
I was drawn to this book for its premise, but only until I started reading. Then the style, the sensitivity, the sheer goodness of its characters took over and held me rapt.
The meaning of the title is spelled out early on – that parenting involves making decisions without ever fully knowing whether what you’re doing is right. It’s trying to do what is best for your child with a roadmap that is murky and often shifting. “You never know,” the dad says during one soulful discussion with the mom. “You only guess. This is how it always is.” Is there anything more true?
This Is How It Always Is explores an issue that is as current as any. My grandchildren are in three different states and twice as many different classrooms, but in each of those classrooms, there is at least one child with gender dysphoria. This Is How It Always Is tells of one such child and the efforts of his parents, his four brothers, and grandmother to accommodate his need to be a she. The story is at times painful, at times joyful, but always presented with such knowledge, such wit, such classiness and spunk that I found myself smiling in admiration time and again.
The author, Laurie Frankel, swears this is a work of fiction, though she acknowledges that she has a child who used to be a boy and is now a girl. I read this in the Author’s Note, only when I was done reading the book, and while I do believe that she and her child are not these specific characters, her personal experience surely informs the emotions presented. Hand in hand with that, though, goes exquisite writing. Frankel’s style is witty and sweet, honest and crisp, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
I often write about reaching forks in the road and having to turn left or right. This Is How It Always Is suggests that there are times when neither right nor left works and, instead, you have to go straight ahead, through the great unknown of the middle. Think about it.
This Is How It Always Is is one of the best books I’ve read in months. It is a story with an ending that isn’t really an ending, simply a point en route to something more. I highly recommend it.
TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT, by Maria Semple
I loved Where’d You Go, Bernadette. So when I saw that the author, Maria Semple, had a new book out, I was psyched. I promptly bought and read it. I was mightily disappointed.
For one thing, the book is short. In theory, this can be a plus. I mean, to be able to read a satisfying book in a relatively short amount of time is a gift, right? Yes. But only if the book is satisfying. Today Will Be Different was not, which leads to my other points.
The story takes place over the course of a single day, which just doesn’t allow time for development. I kept waiting for the plot to grab me. Only there wasn’t much of a plot.
Typical of Semple’s style, this book was clever and witty. And clever and witty. And clever and witty. Honestly? Clever and witty took the place of plot. From the start, this book felt more like a series of one-liners strewn together.
Maybe it’s a generational thing. As I struggled through the crucial opening pages of the book, I began wondering whether the humor was meant for someone under forty. Every so often I did smile, but my smile faded fast. The characters were quirky, manic, never quite there. I found little interesting in their stories. And the final plot twist felt like a cop-out.
Maria Semple is a talented woman. Perhaps the success of Where’d You Go, Bernadette did her in? Either that, or it did in her publishers, who saw fit to put the Bernadette logo on the front of this new book. Talent, style, logo – all felt misplaced.
FAITHFUL, by Alice Hoffman
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The premise of this book, as described on the book jacket, is dark: A teenage girl struggles in the aftermath of a tragic accident that changes the life of her best friend. On one hand, I was drawn to it, because my own book-in-progress deals with grief, and I wanted to see how Hoffman handled hers. On the other hand, while my book is about creating a new, relatively happy life, only to discover that the past can’t be left behind, Faithful sounded heavy. I wasn’t sure I could take heavy, what with the presidential election still dragging me down.
But Alice Hoffman is, well, Alice Hoffman, meaning that it is worth the journey even when things along the way are bleak. And bleak they were at times. Increasingly, though, a light shone through, drawing me, breathless, to the very last page. Faithful is a gut-wrenching story with refreshingly honest characters, refreshingly honest dialogue, and a refreshingly honest happy ending.
A final thought. I had mixed feelings about Hoffman’s previous book, The Marriage of Opposites. I felt like a spectator to that one, rather than a participant. I suspect enough people told Hoffman the same thing – too much telling the reader what was happening and not enough letting the reader experience it first-hand through the characters – so that she did an about-face in Faithful. The reader is fully engaged in this one. It’s a story that is entirely in the here and now.
I highly recommend it.
HILLBILLY ELEGY, by J.D. Vance
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I’m a fiction person. You know that. Whether writing or reading, I love being caught up in the intricate details of the lives of characters in a novel, but I have less patience with real life characters in works of non-fiction. If there’s a lesson to be learned from someone’s life, just tell me what it is.
The introduction to Hillbilly Elegy does that. The author’s basic premise, stated up front, is that it’s their social culture, not the economy, that holds many poor people back. Vance, a self-avowed hillbilly who grew up in Appalachia, gives examples of friends and family who had good jobs and even better reason to keep them, but were simply too bored, too lazy, or too limited emotionally to show up for work every day. He argues that with no learned work ethic, they get jobs, lose jobs, stop looking for jobs, then blame others for their woes. Worse, they have the support of friends and family in this.
I nearly stopped there. Here was the book’s message. I’d gotten it.
Then came the rest of the book – the personal story of the author, who managed to escape thanks to strong grandparents, the marines, and mentor teachers.
So I read on, and some of it was slow. I skimmed a little. But there were gems – like the idea that the problem isn’t the schools, but the lives children live before and after school – that role models are too few – that things like social networking, crucial to upward mobility, are foreign to these cultures. And I did come to care, personally, for J.D. Vance.
Hillbilly Elegy could have been shorter (i.e., edited). But it presents a picture of life in depressed areas, a picture so un-PC that the media is too frightened to depict it. It’s about taking personal responsibility, taking ownership for one’s life.
One last thought. J.D. Vance did a stint in the Marines that was a turning point in his life. Makes me wonder whether there shouldn’t be mandatory military service for eighteen-year-olds in this country …
ANOTHER BROOKLYN, by Jacqueline Woodson
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I’ve been at a loss since finishing this book, trying to decide what to say about it. I did enjoy it. The narrator and her friends were growing up in the 70’s, as I did. The author drew me into their lives and painted a vivid picture of the dreams, fears, and reality of Brooklyn for those girls. And it was short.
The best part was the prose, which was beautiful, poetic, and poignant. It was of the Toni Morrison mold, and the reader of the audio version had a voice to match.
The worst part was my confusion. Was this first and foremost a coming of age story? Or a story about female friendship? About the need to belong? About the motherless child? About grief? Loss? Madness? Sexuality? Religion?
All this was packed into less than three hours of listening. I might have been better reading this, seeing the words, processing them at my own pace – which I may well do one day. My gut says it would be a whole different experience.
COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett
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What can I say? I just love Ann Patchett. I would love her for her descriptions of time and place, for her impeccable timing of events, and for the rhythm of her prose – even if I didn’t also love her for her subject matter, which I do. My first book of hers was State of Wonder. It was one of the first audiobooks I listened to, and the reader was amazing. The same reader, Hope Davis, reads Commonwealth, and adds a skillful dimension to this book.
Commonwealth is about family and the many shapes and forms it takes. It is a dense novel – lots of characters, lots of things going on, lots of issues. But it is absorbing, which was exactly what I needed as a distraction from politics. The story follows the lives of four adults and six children, from the 1960’s to the present, moving forward and back and forward again in time, in a way that should be confusing but isn’t. As a writer myself, I am in awe of Patchett’s skill in this. She paints characters who are fully realized and memorable, and layers them into a gripping story that needs no villain. The page-turning element comes from the twist and turns in the lives of these characters, about whom I came to care deeply.
My only annoyance? The publisher’s hype refers to a kiss at a christening party between one man’s wife and another woman’s husband, that sets “into motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.” I kept waiting through that first scene for a sudden upheaval caused by the kiss, but it never came. The kiss was only one of many precursors of the story too come. The hype-quote is a marketing line, but it gives short shrift to the depth in the book.
Training its sights on blended families and why we do what we do when life throws us a curve, Commonwealth captures today’s world. I’ve already found myself comparing people and events in real life to those in this book. Talk about a book staying with you …
THE LITTLE RED CHAIRS, by Edna O’Brien
I read this for my book group’s meeting last Monday. The discussion was fascinating, more so than many we’ve had – which was interesting, since few of us liked the book.
The Little Red Chairs is about many things – the parochialism of small Irish towns, the plight of immigrants in today’s world, the yearnings of women. More, though we felt it was about good vs. evil, as in, the seductiveness of the psychopath. In that our discussion took place right after Election 2016, the discussion was particularly relevant.
The author is renowned for literary work focused on her home country of Ireland. We couldn’t fault her for her prose, which was beautiful, or her settings, which were skillfully painted, or her characters, which were well-drawn. Our major problem with The Little Red Chairs was too much of it all. Part rural Ireland, part immigrant London, part trial of a war criminal at The Hague, it went in too many directions for us. We loved, for instance, the introduction of a young waiter at an eatery who recognized the villain, refused to serve him, and was actually made to apologize to save his job. It was a walk-on part for the waiter; the story never visited him again. This was true of rich characters in this book.
The author definitely had a political agenda, and while we agreed with the cause, we felt that the forum was wrong. More than one of us (and I’m the only writer in my group) felt that this book needed editing. With an author as fabled as Edna O’Brien, though, did any editor dare?
This isn’t the first time that a book we didn’t like sparked the best discussion. We had the same experience years ago with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. Then, as now with The Little Red Chairs, a book we disliked was adored by critics. Gilbert’s book was a huge success. It’ll be interesting to see if this one is, too.
THE WONDER, by Emma Donoghue
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If you have read Donoghue’s Room or seen the movie, you may have great expectations for this new book of hers. I caution you: It’s different. For one thing, it’s set in the mid-1800’s in rural Ireland. For another, the scenario is not one that we immediately and automatically identify with, as it was in Room.
Donoghue does a masterful job capturing the time, the place, the local dialect. She creates interesting characters, each of whom is multi-dimensional. Her word choice is beyond fault.
I had trouble with the pacing. This may be a case of the media being the message – that the author wanted the reader to feel the agonizing wait of “the watch.” Then again, it may have been that I listened to the audiobook. If you’ve read others of my recent reviews, you’ll know that I believe a good audiobook narrator adds a dimension to the story that wouldn’t otherwise be there. The narrator of The Wonder … was … slow. She spoke every … single … word in a plodding … way that may have added both a tedium … and … projected an attitude that the author did not intend. Reading the physical book may be more worthwhile in this instance.
NUTSHELL, by Ian McEwan
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The premise of this story is brilliant: The narrator is a baby in utero who overhears his mother and her lover plotting a murder. The approach is fresh, and the prose is pure McEwan-beautiful. There were times, murder and all, when I laughed aloud. Not only is McEwan an amazing writer, but I was truly on the edge of my seat at the end of the book.
I listened to Nutshell as an audiobook, and it was done well. It’s a short novel – a novella, really – so the pace rarely flagged.
I had one major problem, hence only four stars. Pontificating. By McEwan. About the state of the world. Country by country. For pages on end. Bottom line, this book needed editing. I know how painful it is to cut what you’ve already written, and how much an editor fears suggesting telling as celebrated a writer as McEwan that certain parts of his book are over the top. But it would have made an excellent book into one that was positively superb.
A MAN CALLED OVE, by Fredrik Backman
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This is one of my two favorite books of 2016 – largely, I think, because it was so unusual, both in structure and characters, and so, so well done. The main character, Ove (pronounced Oova), is a curmudgeonly 59-year-old man with a keen sense of morals and an equally keen need to be blunt. He takes some getting used to; I confess to being impatient with him at first. Then the author began layer him with life experiences, many through flashbacks, and added a supporting cast filled with equally as unusual but increasingly captivating people, and I was hooked.
I listened to the audiobook version. The reader was amazing, but he had incredible material to work with. Since he pronounced “Ove” Oova, I take that as gospel. Why? When my own books are about to be taped, the audio producer sends me a list of pronunciation questions, and I provide the answers. I therefore assume that “Oova” is how the author himself says it. No better source than that.
FYI, Frederik Backman is 35, Swedish, and sounds, according to the article I read, to be as unconventional as his Ove. I look forward to reading others of his books.
ONE PLUS ONE, by JoJo Moyes
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This is the second of my two favorite books of 2016. Many more people have probably read (or seen the movie of) Moyes’ Me Before You, but One Plus One is priceless.
It’s the story of good people who, inadvertently, make bad choices, and how they redeem themselves afterward. The four main characters have huge hearts; I loved them from the start, even as I saw things going wrong. Their plights were real, the complications understandable, if heart-rending. That said, there were times when, listening to this as I drove, I was laughing hysterically.
No doubt, part of my feelings have to do with the fact that I listened to this on audiobook, and it was the best production ever. There were four readers – two male, two female, one each at the 30-something age, one each at the preteen and teen age. The Brits do it right. I recommend this highly!
BEHIND CLOSED DOORS, by B.A. Paris
Okay. Here’s another of those books that everyone is talking about – at least, they were when it came out last summer. But when a book is widely hyped, especially one by a “debut” author, my expectations are high. When they aren’t met, I have a problem.
Behind Closed Doors just didn’t work for me. Try as I might, I couldn’t care about the characters, and the scenario, for me, was beyond the scope of belief. Halfway through, I stopped reading every word and just skimmed to the end, but nothing about that ending redeemed the book for me.
It pains me to give a book a low rating, really it does. And when that book is published by my publisher? Twice as hard. Tons of people loved this book, hence its commercial success. I just didn’t. The prose is competent, so I gave it two stars rather than the one I’d have given the author simply for finishing the book. I wish I could have done more.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by Colson Whitehead
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I felt pain, shame, and horror. This book was at once one of the hardest I’ve read and one of the hardest to put down. Set in the years before the Civil War and told in the voice of a young slave girl with an indomitable spirit, it is simple and deep, stark and rich.
I won’t retell the story; others have done that. Looking back on the whole of the novel, though, five things struck me.
First, the innocence of the main voice. Cora thinks and speaks with a directness, perhaps a childish simplicity that some have criticized but that I thought appropriate. Having been born into slavery, she accepts and describes as unembellished fact the details of what she feels and sees.
Second, her determination. It turns out that Cora’s quiet acceptance isn’t acceptance at all, but mere submission for the sake of a greater goal – escape.
Third, the fate of those who helped blacks escape. I had no idea that collaborators were as suddenly and cruelly put to death in the way described here.
Fourth, the doggedness of the slave catcher, Ridgeway. Whitehead gives him enough of a background to make him a full character, almost sympathetic at times, but not quite. I was quite happy to witness his numerous failures.
Fifth, Cora’s enduring love-hate bond with her mother, who abandoned her to make good her own escape when Cora was ten. Do things ever change? Across the historical spectrum, the racial spectrum, the economic spectrum, girls are shaped by their mothers in lifelong ways.
My only criticism of The Underground Railroad is the railroad itself, which Whitehead presents as a real one that ran underground through tunnels dug by escaping blacks. We know this never happened. Its presence in the book, made me wonder whether other descriptions of the events of that time are similarly fictitious. To some, that will detract from the power of this book.
I’m not a fan of Oprah books. As a writer, I resent her influence in the world of publishing. Naturally, this is sour grapes. If she had ever picked one of my books (Family Tree, for instance, which presents a true-to-life racial dilemma in a predominantly white world), I would be singing her praises. I have not read her comments on The Underground Railroad. Having read the book now, though, I do feel that any extra attention she may have given it is a good thing.
THE SUMMER BEFORE THE WAR, by Helen Simonson
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I sobbed through the last 15 minutes of The Summer Before the War – this, after disciplining myself to soldier on through a book that I found slow for the first half. I deliberately open here with this statement to warn you. I did love this book – emotionally, intellectually, wholeheartedly – once I got to know the characters, and the tension built. But it’s a quiet book, capturing the constraints of the society of the time.
Let me say something else up front. I don’t love war fiction. Strike that. I hate war fiction. But this was more about small town life and love, all exquisitely written. Moreover, being written by a woman in the voice of early-twentieth-century England, even the final descriptions of the war’s front lines were elegant.
But powerful! Very powerful!
Small town life rife with pettiness, gossip, and spite, hasn’t changed much from the early 1900’s to now. What has changed is a woman’s power to choose. The women in The Summer Before the War recognize what they have and where they want to go, and it’s great fun to watch them at work. I nodded through some parts, smiled through others, outright laughed at yet more.
If you’re willing to simply sit back and enjoy the process until the scene is fully laid, your patience will pay off. You’ll love Beatrice and Agatha, Hugh and Daniel. Each has a depth hidden behind surface politeness. I am still marveling at that.
THE CHILDREN, by Ann Leary
I do take notice when a book gets a starred review. The Children got a starred Kirkus review, so, even though I had passed on the author’s first novel, The Good House, I sprang for this one.
Clever is how I’d describe the dialogue. Smart is how I’d describe the author’s familiarity with blogs, online chat rooms, even old school, multi-generational New England families. The writing was quite good.
The content, though, made me wince. I have trouble caring about dishonest, self-absorbed characters. There were many of those in this book – including the main voice, who knows how to hack into most anything and is extraordinarily successful writing a “mommy blog” in which she plays a young mother with two young children, one of whom has a rare genetic disorder. In fact, this character has no husband, no kids. She is paid huge amounts of money by advertisers who don’t really care whether she’s for real or not, only that she has a large following. Greed is a major player throughout this book.
Publishers Weekly referred to keeping “the reader absorbed until the final, most shocking secrets are revealed.” First off, I wasn’t absorbed. Much of the dialogue went on too long without moving the story forward. Moreover, I didn’t find those “final, most shocking secrets” to be shocking at all. Likewise, another reviewer mentioned “a plot rich with unexpected turns.” I didn’t find the turns unexpected.
And the original Kirkus review, which referred to the book as a “deeply satisfying novel about how unknowable people can be” just mystifies me. The people in this novel weren’t unknowable at all. Nor, did I find the novel deeply satisfying.
I am sure that this book will hit national bestseller lists based on who the author is and how she is perceived. My review, though, is a warning against trusting hype. I would never write a book like this – which, indeed, may be why I don’t get starred reviews from Kirkus. And y’know, I’m just fine with that!
MILLER’S VALLEY, by Anna Quindlen
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I loved this book. I listened to it on Audible, and it quickly became my ear candy of choice while driving around town. The reader was wonderful, but she had great material to work with.
If you want a book filled with high intrigue and suspense, this isn’t for you. Right from the start, we learn that Miller’s Valley – named for the Millers, who have lived there for generations – is going to be flooded by the government to make way for a reservoir and recreation area. So we know from the get-go what the outcome will be. But then, with consummate skill, Ms. Quindlen takes us back to get to know the Millers. We come to understand their varied and shifting feelings for the valley and what they will lose when it is drowned.
This isn’t a long book. Its writing is descriptive and smooth. But its real power lies in the strength of its characters, and our affection for and emotional involvement with them.
I gotta say, this is my kind of book!
THE WIDOW, by Fiona Barton
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I was drawn to this book by a review. This happens to me often, and I’m often let down. This time I wasn’t. The review of The Widow claimed that the story grabs you at the very beginning and doesn’t let go, and for me, it did.
A debut novel by Fiona Barton, it tells of a new, young widow who is suddenly released from under the thumb of a shady and controlling husband. The plot revolves around the investigation into several concurrent crimes, and the writing is deft. Ms. Barton skillfully switches back and forth between several main voices in a way that fleshes out the characters – the detective, the reporter, the widow, even her dead husband. Other characters are glanced over, but still ring true. Despite one or two slow parts involving the monotony of the investigation where the medium was the message, the plot sped along.
Comparisons have been made to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, but there’s a big difference. I liked the widow. She was a sympathetic character. I came to care what would happened to her, so I kept reading even through the slow parts.
Kudos to the author for a job well done.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout
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I loved this book. It worked better for me than Olive Kitteridge, for which the author won a Pulitzer Prize. I suspect I missed some of its deepest elements, but I did enjoy the reading.
It’s a short book. The prose is spare, every word carefully chosen. To be able to illuminate such deep thoughts with so few words is truly remarkable.
Likewise, to be able to create such rich characters. These are likeable people, very real, flaws and all. I cared deeply for them, and wanted to keep reading for that reason alone.
The major theme, as I saw it, was how our lives are irrevocably shaped by our childhood, how our need for love comes from the love we did or did not have growing up, how our self-esteem (or lack thereof) is a direct result of these early experiences.
For me, therefore, this was a book about love of both family and self. It is also about poverty and abuse, as defining experiences that make us who we are. This is certainly true of Lucy Barton, the book’s main voice, as well as of her mother, father, siblings, and childhood acqaintances. We’re talking about PTSD, whether resulting from war, family trauma, poverty, or abuse.
Communication is key here – the ways in which we do or do not communicate. It’s certainly not a new subject. I’ve written of it many times myself. But I’m no Elizabeth Strout. Her handling is masterful, both in conception and execution.
Lucy Barton is a lonely, haunted woman who badly needs love. She is also bright, a writer, a thinker. For those reasons, she does move beyond her parents’ limitations. She makes her marriage work for a time, certainly better than her parents did theirs, and she clearly adores her children. That said, history does repeat itself in small but niggling ways. Emotional baggage is hard to ignore.
Perhaps, therefore, the book is a journey for Lucy, showing the movement toward understand of who she is and what she can do. Perhaps, in that sense, the title is the conclusion Lucy reaches? At book’s end, I hear her saying, this is my name, it’s who I am.
I hope my book group discusses this book. I desperately need to talk with someone else who has read it.
FINDING WINNIE: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS BEAR, by Lindsay Mattick and (illustrations by) Sophie Blackall
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I’m sorry. I usually tell you about books for adults, but enough of us have children or grandchildren – or remember Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh from our own childhoods – to appreciate this recent release. It’s written by the real great-granddaughter of the man who owned the bear on which A.A. Milne based his books.
Finding Winnie tells the story of how a real little bear cub came to be owned and loved by the author’s great-grandfather, how a real little boy named Christopher Robin fell in love with this same bear at the London Zoo, and how boy and bear became the inspiration for the boy’s father, A.A. Milne.
Finding Winnie is absolutely, no-holds-barred delightful. The prose is charming, the storytelling technique spot-on perfect, and the illustrations exquisite. It was awarded the 2016 Caldecott Medal and rightfully so. I highly recommend it.
FATES AND FURIES, by Lauren Groff
* * * *
I have mixed feelings about this book. On one hand, I found it beautifully written, filled with eloquent, often innovative prose. The descriptions are amazingly vibrant. Time and again, I was drawn intimately into time and place, could picture every scene in graphic detail. Likewise, the characters’ emotions are presented in great depth and with the ring of truth.
My problem? Those emotions are dark. The characters are self-absorbed, egotistical people often driven to do bad things. The husband’s story is so slow at times that I might have given up if other reviewers hadn’t advised of good things to come with the wife’s story. And there are some interesting twists in “he said, she said” moments that are revealed to the reader only when the wife’s story unfolds. Toward the end of the book, something actually happened that I hadn’t seen coming. I gasped aloud, drawing the attention of others in the waiting room where I sat. That moment was the most fun I had listening to what was otherwise a painfully sad book.
Fates and Furies was an Indie Next pick for October, so I’m glad I read it. As a writer, I was definitely inspired by the prose. Do I feel uplifted as a reader? No. That said, the farther from the book and its agonizingly lengthy detail I get, the more interesting I find the story.
STATE OF WONDER, by Ann Patchett
* * * * *
I had never read Ann Patchett before. Though many members of my book group had repeatedly recommended Bel Canto, I never got to it. But when I needed something to listen to in the car last summer driving back and forth to the lake, and my local bookseller recommended State of Wonder, I bought it. I’m so glad I did. I loved this book. Right from the start, the reader captured many different voices well enough for me to follow perfectly as I got into the plot.
And that plot was awesome. There was enough doubt planted in the opening events to make me suspicious of where we were headed, and were enough subsequent twists to keep me wondering. I did anticipate some of what happened, but the telling of it was so riveting that I was glued to each word. Each time I turned on my car, I was immersed in the Amazonian jungle, the imagery was that vivid. I could feel it, smell it, see it. The author’s detail was incredible. During one scene telling of an encounter with an anaconda, I must have had such a look of horror on my face that drivers around me would have worried, had they bothered to look.
Despite some plot twists at the very end of the book that didn’t sit as well as the rest, I am still missing the voice, the setting, and the characters from State of Wonder. Guessing that this story is extraordinary in book form as well, I highly recommend it.
THE LITTLE PARIS BOOKSHOP, by Nina George
* * * *
I listened to The Little Paris Bookshop on CD. I say this right off, because the audio reader was so wonderful that he may have biased me. I loved listening to this story — loved the French accent, the French setting, the humor. I loved the love story — yup, gotta say that, too. Toward the last of the CD, I was driving around town just to hear a little more. I was so sorry when it ended that I couldn’t believe some of the reader reviews were so negative.
I loved The Little Paris Bookshop. But did I love it because of the talent of the reader? There were actually three readers, two women and a man, though the man did the bulk of the work. Would I have grown bored with some of the plot twists, without the lure of that fabulous, accented voice? Would I have felt the ending was too pat or too syrupy sweet, if the process of listening hadn’t been so enjoyable?
This raises the question, of course, of whether a skillful actor can add a whole new element to a book, above and beyond what the author delivers with her words. I may have hated this book had I read it in print. Or loved it. I’m so glad I listened instead. It brought me many pleasurable hours.
THE EXPATRIATES, by Janice Y.K.Lee
* * *
The setting of this book is Hong Kong, the characters a trio of American women who are part of its expatriate community. Each woman is dysfunctional in her way, bogged down by elements of loss, confusion, paralysis, or grief. Their individual stories are interesting, as is what happens when their paths cross. But I never felt close to any of the three, and the neatness of the ending still unsettles me.
The Expatriates was published on January 12, 2016. Loving reading new books, I raced out to buy it based on rave reviews in The New York Times Book Review, Vanity Fair, People, Publishers Weekly, not to mention a slew of 5-star reviews online, so my expectations were high.
Oh, the writing is gorgeous. If you’re an armchair traveler who likes experiencing foreign places in exquisite detail, this book is for you. The author knows her Hong Kong and paints it well. She also knows the life of the “trailing wife,” who follows her husband to a foreign country, and she knows the social scene there. If reading about this kind of thing interests you, go for it.
Me, I’m a plot-lover, and this plot just didn’t work for me.
The author does go into the minds of these three women with skill and depth. But I could never quite warm to the youngest, Mercy, who makes one bad decision after another. Hilary struck me as being shallow. And I could feel Margaret’s pain, as any mother would, though I never fully understood her. I never fully understood any of them – not to mention that I‘m still haunted by the child named G. Does he not have a full name? Or is the medium the message?
I may have missed whatever it was that others saw and loved in this book. It could be that if my book group discusses this, I’ll see more in it than I have so far. I enjoyed parts of it, but only parts. The rest left me feeling chilled.
THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, by Alice Hoffman
* * * *
I have loved Alice Hoffman’s books for years, and The Marriage of Opposites didn’t entirely disappoint. Her portrayal of setting is exquisite – in this case, St. Thomas in the first half of the 1800’s, then Paris. Her imagery is vivid, and her research through. I have no doubt but that the historical detail offered in The Marriage of Opposites is accurate.
Truly, though, I learned more about the scenery that may have inspired the artist, Camille Pizzarro, than about the artist himself – or any of the other characters, for that matter. The story seemed to float along on a beautiful surface without ever quite dipping beneath. I felt that the author told me her story, rather than letting me live it myself. The characters felt flat and two-dimensional. I never truly got inside them.
And then, when the artist’s mother, Rachel, whose voice is the most prominent in the book, grew unreasonably bitter, the charm I usually feel while reading Hoffman’s books was lost. Even the magical elements in this book felt superimposed.
That said, I deeply admire Alice Hoffman as a writer. This book may not have resonated with me, but so many of her other books have that I will buy her again without doubt.
CIRCLING THE SUN, by Paula McLain
* * *
After so much praise for her last novel, The Paris Wife, it must have been daunting for this author to approach a follow-up. The woman she chose to chronicle this time around, Beryl Markham, was the first woman ever to fly solo from England to North America, though this is a surprisingly small part of the book. The bulk of it details her childhood in what would become Kenya, her growing up years as a fiercely independent woman in a male-dominated world, and her endless bid for freedom.
Circling the Sun is one of the most lyrically descriptive books I’ve read lately, which is one of the reasons I was desperate to adore it. But I didn’t. Much as I loved the style, I was increasingly frustrated with the pacing, organization, and the search for a point to the book.
The main character was prone to making poor decisions, impulsive decisions. She was scattered in matters of the heart – loving one thing, then another and another, perhaps all in compensation for her mother’s desertion when she was four. By the time she got to flying, I felt she was simply running away. Yes, through the book she seeks freedom, which flying embodies. But with so little here about her actually experience in a plane, flying seemed like just another distraction.
Paula McLain certainly couldn’t change Beryl Markham’s life. But I wish she had been more focused in her retelling of it. And then there’s the title. Does it mean that Beryl is always in orbit, as in, on the move? Or that she is destined to always revolve around bigger and brighter things? Or does it relate to flight (though her solo flight was portrayed as being wholly in the dark)? This was unclear. At the end, like Beryl, I felt unfulfilled. Perhaps this is what the author intended.
AMERICANAH, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I struggled with this book. When it first came out, I picked it up more than once after hearing buzz about it, but something held me off. Then my book group picked it for discussion, and I had no excuse. My initial hesitance lingered, then grew through the reading, and though we had an amazing book group discussion, nothing was said that changed my mind.
Strong points? Characterization. There were wonderfully rich side characters. And places. Scenes in the hair braiding shop in New Jersey were clear and poignant. This book makes hair into a symbol, and I do see that, though whether it’s a race thing, a class thing, or simply a style thing, I’m not sure. Hair care is a huge commercial enterprise, not just in New Jersey or in Nigeria, but worldwide, and seeing it through Adichie’s eyes was enlightening.
There were some other wonderfully insightful moments here, any one of which might have formed the core of this book, had they not been so quickly passed by.
That, for me, was the problem This book was all over the place — not quite a memoir, not quite a novel, not quite a blog. By the author’s own admission, the story was semi-autobiographical. And the main character does have an awful time as she goes from Nigeria to America and back. But nothing about her engaged me. Nothing about her evoked compassion. She was her own worst enemy, making one bad decision after another, sabotaging her own happiness and hurting others. Yes, she encountered racism. But she too often blames it for things that may, indeed, be simple facts of life.
The author gave a TED talk about the danger of hearing only one story. In this book, she tells only one story. I’m sorry for that. She is articulate and has talent as a writer. I simply wish it were better directed.
OUR SOULS AT NIGHT, by the late Kent Haruf
* * * * *
I listened to this using my new Audible subscription. I was able to switch back and forth between phone and iPad, which meant that I listened to some of this while I was outside walking through gorgeous fall weather. Maybe that affected my feeling about the book. Whatever, I found Our Souls at Night to be delightful.
It’s a slow book. There’s no great action here, no riveting suspense. It’s also a short book. Kent Haruf writes in a style that is beautiful but spare. I think the total listening time was five hours (versus the usual 11 or 12). I could have probably read it in print in three hours, max. But truly, after suffering through a recent 500+ page tome that badly needed editing, this book was a breath of fresh air. It’s about the budding relationship between two lonely 70-somethings who have decided to thumb their noses at convention in their small mid-western town by spending their nights together. The characters were wonderfully quiet but authentic, and their dilemmas were real.
The reader was skilled. Men don’t do women as well as women do men, but this male reader did just fine. He made listening to the story a pleasant journey, a good thing as it was the final one for Haruf. He died last winter, a great loss for the literary world.
There you have it, though, three audio book recommendations. I have three new print recommendations about which to blog next, but in the meantime, consider the question I posed above. Do you think that the skill of the narrator can add an element to a book that wouldn’t otherwise be there?
THE HUSBAND’S SECRET, by Liane Moriarty
* * * *
I had never read Liane Moriarty before, and I was charmed by this book. I found the characters to be very normal, ultimately real, and generally likeable people. The brilliance for me, though, was in the plotting. The tension set in early, and as I listened on through plot twist after plot twist, I increasingly wondered (in a good way) what was going to happen. As many books as I’ve plotted myself, I didn’t guess the ending to this one. But it was perfect.
The book, which is set in Australia, could as easily have taken place in suburbs of America – except that then it wouldn’t have been read in an Australian accent, which I loved.
INSIDE THE O’BRIENS, by Lisa Genova
* * * *
Lisa Genova’s earlier book, Still Alice is about Alzheimer’s disease. This new one is about Huntington’s, specifically as it affects the family of a Boston cop who slowly but inexorably develops the symptoms and becomes disabled.
Huntington’s is a family disease, passed genetically from generation to generation. So when one member is diagnosed, the others are deeply and permanently affected. This is a novel steeped in fact and beautifully written. Each family member is interesting, handling the HD scourge in a different way. There are times when the plethora of information on the disease made the book feel more like a Public Service Announcement than a novel, but the general cause was worth it. It’s a painful read. But solid.
NIGHTBIRD, by Alice Hoffman
* * * *
YA novels. Do you read them? I do. I like the straightforwardness of the plot and the insight the characters give me into the teenage mind. I also vet them for my grandchildren, who thankfully like to read. This one, Nightbird, is by Alice Hoffman.
I’ve always loved her work, particularly the magical element in her books, and Nightbird has that aplenty. It tells of a long-ago witch’s curse that to this day gives all boys in the heroine’s family wings. Yes, Twig’s beloved big brother James has wings, meaning that he is home-schooled and only goes out at night, when he flies off until the sun rises again. The thrust of the story is reversing the curse, and the writing is clever, smooth, and intelligent. When I winced at how pat the ending was, I had to remind myself of its target audience. That said, my granddaughter will love this. What eleven-year-old wouldn’t?
THE MOUNTAIN STORY, by Lori Lansens
* * * *
Several years ago, I read – and loved – The Girls, so when I saw that its author, Lori Lansens, had a new book out, The Mountain Story, I quickly bought it.
I was drawn into the story on the first page and stayed there through the last. This is a survival story of four people lost on a mountain. The book is rich in realistic dialogue, prose that is picturesque without being pretentious, and perfect pacing. I liked the main character, Wolf, from the get-go, and came to care deeply for the others as well. While not laden with earth-shattering issues, The Mountain Story is a very, very good read.
EIGHT HUNDRED GRAPES, by Laura Dave
* * *
This is an easy read, with witty dialogue and likeable characters. I enjoyed learning more about growing grapes and making wine; the author either knows her vineyards or fooled me completely. There’s nothing heavy here, nothing requiring work, which makes it a good summer read.
H IS FOR HAWK, by Helen Macdonald
* * *
I don’t often read memoirs, much less wildlife books, but when I heard that this book was about dealing with grief by raising a hawk, I was intrigued. I remained intrigued intermittently as I read, most enjoying (to my surprise) the specifics about the hawk. I kept waiting for the grief-handling part to resonate – how raising Mabel helped Macdonald come to terms with her father’s death – and it never did. But the writing is excellent. And I did love reading about Mabel.
GO SET A WATCHMAN, by Harper Lee
* * * * *
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s newly discovered piece, is a treat. It started so slowly that I was fearful those critics who said it should never have been published were right. Once past my expectation that it would be another courthouse drama, aka To Kill A Mockingbird, I was completely sucked in. This new book is a period piece that focuses on a young woman’s relationship with her father – a young woman who has idolized her father so thoroughly that she is unable to form an identity separate from his. Go Set A Watchman describes her very necessary, very healthy separation from him.
Early critics have been fixated on the issue of Atticus being racist. I saw him more as a product of time and place and, even more important, as a man who encouraged his daughter to disagree with him and to fight for her beliefs. The climactic discussions between Jean Louise and Atticus, and then between Jean Louise and her Uncle Jack, are remarkable. They are also timely, given recent issues with the Confederate flag.
I can’t imagine that those who actually do read this book cover-to-cover will find that it tarnishes To Kill A Mockingbird. In its own way, To Set A Watchman is every bit as brilliant.
BTW, and I’m sorry, but I have to make this analogy, I watched the first episode of “I Am Cait” last night. It was very touching at times and certainly convinced me that Caitlyn Jenner has wanted to be female since childhood. Was it riveting TV? Would it have ever seen the light of day without the Kardashian connection? Perhaps not.
Likewise, would Go Set A Watchman have ever been published without the To Kill A Mockingbird connection? Perhaps not. Like “I Am Cait,” though, there is enough to appreciate in it – more for some people, less for others – to warrant its showing. Lord knows, both are more substantial than some of the fare out there.
THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR, by Marja Mills
* * * *
When I recently picked up this book that had been widely and positively reviewed, I was drawn to it for the way in which the author did her research. The book, which is non-fiction, is The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills, and its focus is on the life of the very, very elusive Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird. Ms. Lee never wrote another book after this one, and, increasingly and insistently, shunned the public eye. How, then, did Marja Mills come to befriend Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, to the extent that she ended up renting the house next door (at Harper Lee’s suggestion, no less) for a time?
This was what fascinated me. Oh yes, I was interested in learning about Harper Lee, her town, her friends, and the South, all of which I did. But what most intrigued me, still does, about the book is the quiet, gentle, insightful way the author won the hearts of these women. There was nothing nefarious about it, nothing stealthy. From the start, she was blunt about why she had come to town, but she wasn’t frenetic about it. Afflicted with lupus herself, her lifestyle was, of necessity, more quiet and measured than some. Beyond that, she genuinely enjoyed the sisters and their environs, and respected their needs to a fault.
THE DARK HEROINE, by Abigail Gibbs
* * * *
I first read about it in the Wall Street Journal as an example of a self-published book that did well enough to be picked up by a mainstream publisher, which then offered the author a contract for future work. When I learned it was a vampire story, I bought it instantly. I love vampire books and have read a slew of them, but I don’t think I’ve read one quite as colorful or imaginative as The Dark Heroine. And the backstory of the author? She was 14 when she started writing this – that’s right, 14 years old. She is currently 18 and a student at Oxford, which I hope won’t teach her that vampire fiction is bad.
This book has a strong heroine, always key for me. If you’re in the mood for well written, paranormal fun, try The Dark Heroine.
THE LAST RUNAWAY, by Tracy Chevalier
* * * * *
The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier, is at the other end of the fiction spectrum. I picked it up because I loved Chevalier’s earlier book, “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which is about a famous painting of the same name by Johannes Vermeer. That one was set in the 1660s, and I thought Chevalier did a masterful job weaving fiction into history through a voice that felt totally real.
The Last Runaway may be set in 1851, but the weaving is as skillful, and the voice – ahhh, smooth and serene even in the most stressful of times. This one focuses on a young Quaker woman in Ohio in the days leading up to the Civil War. It is a thought-provoking book about the ways of the Quakers and the clash between their view of freedom and that of a government in which slavery is clinging to life by a last ugly thread.
If you’re in the mood for a thought-provoking read, try The Last Runaway. BTW, it wasn’t until a week after I finished it that I realized the title didn’t refer only to slaves. I’m still pretty awed by that.
LOW PRESSURE, by Sandra Brown
* * * * *
A disclaimer here. Sandra Brown is a friend. We started in the field of romance together, actually met at the first ever Romance Writers of America conference. We raised our kids, saw them marry and have their own kids at roughly the same time. Both straying from the romance genre, I entered the field of women’s fiction, while Sandra made her mark writing thrillers. Her novels are beautifully written, exquisitely plotted, and deeply sensual.
Low Pressure grabs you on Page One and never lets go. Just when you think you’re getting a handle on Bellamy Price or Dent Carter or one of several key secondary characters, Sandra adds a twist that has you desperate to read on to learn more. Whether describing the sky ahead of a tornado, the panic of feeling an assailant’s blade at one’s throat, or a physical desire that approaches explosive, Sandra nails it. The characters. Bellamy and Dent are fully-formed, rich in background and hang-ups that prevent them from getting what they most surely want — that prevent them from even seeing what they most surely want. Ahh, but the other sees. Where to go from there?
Sandra’s ear is perfect. The dialogue in Low Pressure is fast-paced and realistic, true to the personalities of each speaker. The sex is hot. The ending is very, very satisfying.
RULES OF CIVILITY, by Amor Towles
* * * * *
I didn’t want to like Rules of Civility. It’s set largely in the late 1930s and deals with the lives of the rich in New York City, neither of which are generally my cuppa. I also read the opening pages online and wasn’t wild about the characters. But this book was the October pick of my book group, and since I hadn’t read the September pick, I stuck with it.
I’m so glad I did. I admire a well-written book, and this one was that. The prose was smooth, the dialogue catchy, and if the metaphors came a little too close to one another, they were clever nonetheless. Once past the intro, the characters took hold. I came to really care about them.
I had a few problems with the depth (or lack thereof) of characterization. Perhaps this was the effect of a male author trying to see the world through the eyes of a woman. But Rules of Civility is enough of a well-written, well-paced story to make up for that.
New York is a fully-developed character in this book. The author clearly adores it and certainly did his homework when it came to capturing what (I imagine) New York was like in the 30’s.
That said, I loved the timelessness of this book. The observations of human nature were spot-on. Change the background, and these characters could have experienced similar challenges in most any time period, including the present. There were coming-of-age elements, unrequited-love elements, decadent-aristocracy elements. All are timeless.
THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS, by M.L. Stedman
* * * * *
The Light Between Oceans is set in the 1920’s, as was Rules of Civility, but these books are as different as night and day. While that one follows the lives of the wealthy in New York, this one is about totally down-home family folks in western Australia.
Here is the story of a married couple who live on a tiny and otherwise unoccupied island 100 miles off the Australian coast. Tom is the keeper of the light and madly in love with his wife, Isabel, who has had one tragic miscarriage after another. One day, a small boat carrying only a dead man and a cold, crying infant washes up on shore. Having just give birth unfruitfully yet again, Isabel nurses the child. Should they keep her? Send her back when the boat comes with supplies in three months? With no one the wiser, they could raise the child as their own. After all, the father is dead, and the presence in the boat of a woman’s sweater suggests that the mother is dead as well.
One decision impacts so many lives. I’ve dealt with this in my own books, most notably The Secret Between Us, and the author of The Light Between Oceans handles it well. This is a love story on many different levels, a story of good people caught up in a web of circumstance that changes their lives, their relationship with each other and with those back on the mainland who are quick to judge.
The Light Between Oceans is highly emotional and well written. It’s a first novel, which makes it all the more remarkable to me. Hopefully, there will be others from the author, M.L. Stedman.
A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES, by Deborah Harkness
* * * * *
I read A Discovery of Witches when it first came out. It had been highly reviewed, and I love books about the supernatural. Let me be clear. The basic premise of this book is that there are four types of creatures in the world: humans, daemons, vampires, and witches. If you absolutely refuse to read books about any of these, stop here. If you do read them, or haven’t before but will try it with one that is extraordinarily well-written and intelligent, read on.
Because (bad grammar, I know, but it fits) intelligent is the first word I would use to describe this book. Fast on its heels comes well-written, then charming, romantic, authentic, fierce, colorful, interesting, historical, and fun, not in that order, but you get my drift.
Here’s the set-up. The protagonist of A Discovery of Witches is Diana Bishop, who comes from a long line of witches, but has lived her life denying her powers. A respected historian, she comes across a book that has been lost for generations but, for whatever reason, emerges from the Bodleian Library stacks when she puts in a call slip. Its appearance ignites a firestorm of interest among other supernatural creatures, not the least being Matthew Clairmont, the vampire whom Diana is destined to love.
Matthew is fabulous, and Diana is delightful, very human, often hysterically funny when it comes to her heritage and her powers.
SHADOW OF NIGHT, by Deborah Harkness
* * * * *
Shadow of Night, the sequel to A Discovery of Witches, takes us back to Elizabethan England, where Matthew’s circle includes not only Elizabeth I but such notable figures as Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlow, and Will Shakespeare. Matthew’s presence there is couched in historical possibility; I Googled often and found amazing accuracy with regard to secret societies, witch trials, and the like.
Having loved A Discovery of Witches, I read Shadow of Night as soon as it came out. But I’d forgotten enough of the first to go back and reread it. Deborah Harkness has to be every bit as talented as Matthew and Diana to have crafted so many twists and turns, and then kept straight the wealth of details accompanying them. You have to think when you read these, and neither of them is short. But I’ve now read both twice, and with great pleasure, which tells you something about their readability.
HOME, by Toni Morrison
* * *
I’ve always been a Toni Morrison fan; I particularly adored Beloved and The Bluest Eye. Reading these books was a journey for me, painful at so many times, but oh so worth the trip. Morrison’s writing is a work of art, exquisite from topic to pacing to prose.
So I expected a lot from Home – a big mistake there, expectations. Home is different. Perhaps because the protagonist is male, I didn’t feel the same emotional intensity as I did reading those earlier books, but I certainly felt something. I liked the characters – a Korean War vet who is very slowly emerging from the horror of the war, and the little sister who has always been his touchstone to humanness. I loved the theme of overcoming adversity through sheer force of will. And I loved the writing. Once I gave up on expectations and simply enjoyed, I was fully on board. Home is another Toni Morrison gem, capturing time and place with prose that is at once resonant and blunt. This book has stayed with me; I think of it still, perhaps because it ends on such a note of hope.
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
I didn’t feel that hope in Gone Girl. The book started at a high point and went steadily downhill the more I learned about the crime – and I use the word crime in its most broad sense. Mind you, I don’t love murder mysteries, and Gone Girl is that. But even aside from violence, I had trouble with the central characters. Okay, Barbara, you don’t have to like them to appreciate their stories. I can’t tell you how many times I said that as I read. But I found these characters sad. Sad.
That said, I couldn’t put the book down! I was riveted to the plot twists and turns – this, even after I knew the ending. (Sorry, but I’m one of those who reads the last page when the suspense is too great.) Gone Girl is brilliantly plotted, skillfully written from alternating POVs, and perfectly paced. This is a modern book, not only in format and content, but in language. I was definitely in the minds of a husband and wife in their mid-thirties and early forties in 2012. Indeed, the characters are so fully drawn that, by the end of the book, I knew them intimately. I didn’t like them. But I did know them, which deepened my appreciation of the psychological insights Ms. Flynn shared.
I read Gone Girl in a single day, definitely the way to go, though I was reading ‘til midnight. I found it edgy and clever, a cliff-hanger at a dozen different spots. Do I recommend it? If you like intricately-layered psychological thrillers, yes.
SUMMERLAND, by Elin Hilderbrand
* * * *
I loved Summerland. Here’s why.
Sense of place. The setting is Nantucket, where the author, Elin Hilderbrand, has lived since 1984, and she knows the island well. From the very first page, you’ll see it, smell it, hear it.
Immediacy. The plot centers on the tight-knit island community, so idyllic, yet vulnerable. As soon as we’ve fallen in love with the place (“Absolutely have to go there …”), we learn of a tragic automobile accident that occurs on the night of the high school graduation. The story that follows details the fallout of this accident.
Real characters. I could see them, feel for and with them, and appreciate their flaws as some of my own.
Huge range of emotions. Given the subject matter, you understand why this is so. Aside from the opening and closing pages, the book is written in the third person, with alternating chapters designated for each of the major characters. This does entail a certain amount of shifting gears on our part, but Hilderbrand is a skilled enough writer to make it work.
That said, if you prefer books that offer an in-depth emotional experience through a single point of view, you’ll be frustrated. Likewise, if you don’t like flashbacks. The story goes back and forth in time as it elaborates on each character in detail. I have to confess that I grew impatient at times, wanting to know what was happening in the here and now, rather than wading through backstories of less pivotal characters. That said, Hilderbrand writes beautifully. Her prose is smooth and revealing, consistent (as is the title) with the feel of Nantucket.
This isn’t a light book. It’s about teenage angst, parental angst, marital angst. The setting is magical, but the problems are real. And yet the outcome is uplifting. Hang onto it!
THE BEGINNER’S GOODBYE, by Anne Tyler
* * * * *
I’ve been a fan of Anne Tyler for years. Her stories are mostly set in Maryland, and her main characters are eminently quirky, if loveably so. The Beginner’s Goodbye isn’t long (9 chapters, 208 pages), but it’s a gem. The story unfolds through the eyes of 38-year-old Aaron, whose wife died the year before but whom he swears he has seen several times since. Oh, he hasn’t told anyone that she comes back to see him, though he has plenty of explanations for it. Most, of course, have to do with understanding his life with her and accepting her death. Ms. Tyler nails that, tackling each stage of grief in a way that is totally entertaining. Yes, entertaining. There’s much humor here.
Being a writer, I have always envied Anne Tyler’s knack for description. Take this example. Of his wife, Aaron says, “She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested.” Do you see her? I do.
Anne Tyler first hit it big with books like An Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. If you’ve never read her before, you could start with one of those, or skip right ahead to The Beginner’s Goodbye.
THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins
I read a lot of popular fiction. As a writer, I need to know something about books that are extraordinarily successful – i.e., what it is about them that makes millions of readers clamor to buy. It was on that premise that I read Twilight, and loved it enough to read all four books more than once. For the same reason, more recently, I read the Fifty Shades trilogy, and you all know how I feel about these.
I initially resisted The Hunger Games. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I tried to read it, but stopped soon after Katniss volunteered to take her sister’s place as the Tribute from District 12. The plotline upset me. I mean, children fighting to the death? I have trouble watching reality TV, and this is reality TV taken to extremes.
But my son read all three books and loved them. And my daughters-in-law read them and loved them. And my BFF read them and loved them. And there were all those millions of readers – and then the movie!
So I picked up the book again and pushed through it this time. I’m not sure if I can say that I loved it. I’ve never been a big one for dystopia, and violence just isn’t my cuppa, so to speak. I do think it was very well written, and it certainly has action and drama.
But I’m still unsure.
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E.L. James
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Surely by now you’ve heard friends talk of this book, and if you haven’t yet, you will. Consider me a friend. And here’s my talk.
I love the characters. Ana may be sexually naïve at the start of the book, but she has spunk and wit. She takes on Christian as no other woman has; the email between them is priceless. Christian is flawed, but for a reason. Discovering that reason is cause enough to read on.
I love that this book is, at one level, about the empowerment of women. Despite Christian’s needs, Anna has control from the start. Moreover, Christian falls so hard for her that she actually has the ability to change him. Isn’t this every woman’s fantasy – to take a flawed man and help him grow?
I love the sex. It may be kinky, but it is consensual, erotic but gentle and intriguing, with built-in safeguards and care. I love that it has none of the violence of, say, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Fifty Shades of Grey is the first of a trilogy. Having breathlessly finished it, I’m into the second, Fifty Shades Darker, and am fascinated both by the growth of the characters and the evolution of the sex. The third, Fifty Shades Freed, is on my iPad. I suspect I’ll be reading it within the week.
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
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I loaded the book on my iPad last Thursday and read it, start to finish, over the weekend, but come Monday night, I was still asking myself why our group had picked this book. Then we started talking.
The main character intrigued us. Some of us believed every word he said, some wondered if he might have embellished a bit.
The war details horrified us, but discussing them with others, each of whom was haunted by a different scene, was cathartic.
We had relatives in this war. Talking about them – and about how little they wanted to talk about itand when, in manic bursts, they did – was fascinating.
Three elements – an intriguing protagonist, something to learn, emotions with which to personally relate – made the night. But you don’t have to be in a book group to appreciate these. My books are as different from “Unbroken” as night from day, yet I try to put these three elements in each.