Wednesday, September 2, 2015

August 2015 Book Reviews

The Expats by Chris Pavone.  I decided to read this, Pavone’s first book, after enjoying his second, The Accident, last month.  The Expats apparently was even more of a best seller, and is being made into a movie, but I didn’t like it as much.  What I liked about The Accident is that it was very smart and stripped down.  The Expats is baggier and a little more obvious, and contains one of my main pet peeves, which is to jumble up the chronology of the scenes for no apparent reason other than cheap suspense.  That is, the book starts with a scene towards the end of the timeline of the plot, and then jumps back to the beginning, and continues this jumping backward and forward in a way that is not necessary to the plot.  It’s a crutch and used too much, in my opinion.  The story is basically this:  Kate moves to Luxembourg with her I.T. husband and for the first time is a stay at home mom to her two young boys.  She is befriended by the expat community there, but soon becomes suspicious of a couple with whom they spend a lot of time.  It turns out the reader should take Kate’s suspicions seriously, since the career she resigned was as a CIA agent – and an assassin.  Kate begins to dig into the background of her new friend, Julia, and as she does, begins to realize that her husband might not just be the naïve tech guy she thought he was.  You get the gist.  It’s a fun read, too, but not the most skilled of books.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson.  I’m still really working out what I think about this novel.  Kate Atkinson is one of my favorite writers and I think her previous novel, Life After Life, is brilliant.  A God In Ruins centers on Teddy Todd, the brother of Ursula, the main character of Life After Life.  I do think you need to have read the first book to really appreciate the second.  I’m not sure I would have cared enough about the characters if I were meeting them for the first time in this book.  The two points I keep returning to mull over are this:  first, in Life After Life, Ursula keeps redoing her life as things go wrong.  She is born again and has to live through certain events again until she gets them “right.”  What IS “right” is never really resolved or spelled out in that book.  Yet in A God in Ruins, Atkinson picks one version of events to continue forward.  (She talks about this in an epilogue, and what she says there is fascinating and complicated.)  Atkinson also backtracks a bit about choosing the one course at the end of this novel too.  I like that she does this more than I dislike it, but it brings up so much to ponder about both novels, and I’m not done doing so yet.  The second snag I keep returning to is that in this novel, Teddy’s life is sad in a mundane way that becomes very depressing.  He made a vow during WWII that if he made it through the war, he would be kind and delight in the small things of life.  He does this , and isn’t unsatisfied.  But his relationship with his wife (Nancy Shawcross) is rather sad (if very ordinary) and they have a dreadful daughter who is a narcissist at best.  I keep thinking of what this all means in the context of Life After Life (and all of Teddy’s promise):  it is not unlike Eliot’s Middlemarch, in a way, in that it is a book about what happens in the “happily ever after part” – after the wedding, after the war, etc.  Atkinson is a brilliant writer and also a really good story-teller.  She goes back and forth from the war to after the war, to Teddy’s midlife and the end of his very long life, and does it all with skill and not mere manipulation.  Teddy was a fighter pilot in the war and she delves into this in detail.  So in a nutshell:  in this as always, Atkinson’s writing is superb.  I’m still mulling over how this fits in with and changes Life After Life, as its sequel. It can be read on many levels though and enjoyed, albeit in a bittersweet way, as the story of one man’s life after life:  the “after” he thought he’d never make it to see.

In Your Prime:  Older, Wiser, Happier by India Knight.  This is a fun advice book about enjoying middle age.  I don’t know much about India Knight, although I know she is English, lives in London, is in her late forties, and is known primarily as a nonfiction writer, although she’s also written novels.  This particular book concentrates on the physical, and her advice runs the gamut from what to do during menopause, to what face cream to use, to more general, state-of-mind metrics.  She’s opinionated and fun, and whereas some of the topics are obvious to the point of being surprising that anyone would need to be told this stuff, as the book progressed I fell into the rhythm of it and found it enjoyable on the whole (even though I fell into a category that she often scoffs at in the book – old people with young kids.  Harrumph.)  She’s witty and bossy:  it’s an amusing, “how true” kind of read.

The House At Riverton by Kate Morton.  I read Morton’s fourth novel, The Secret Keeper a month or so ago and enjoyed it, so decided to read her remaining novels in order in which they were written.  This is her first, and it really wasn’t up to the same level of writing as her fourth.  (So, progress!  I guess that’s a good thing).  It seemed a bit derivative of Downton Abbey to me (although it came first), and the characters fell a little flat.  Most were stereotypes of both downstairs and upstairs folk – the noble butler, the hardworking, self-effacing ladies’ maid, etc.   And the life that the main character, Grace, goes on to have seemed a stretch, as did the main reason for the central plot twist of the novel – which was why Hannah would stay in her loveless marriage.  It was an okay light read and in it Morton shows promise in her ability to tell an “intriguing” story, but overall the characters weren’t well done and the plot twists were too made up out of thin air.  Basically, the story is told by Grace, a one-time ladies maid and house servant, at the end of her long life.  She wants to unburden herself of a secret which she kept since the 1920’s, and decides to tell the details to her grandson via tape.  She then discloses her experiences working for an aristocratic family on the down and out pre and post WWI.  She ends up working for the older sister, Hannah, after she gets married and moves to London, and plays a part in a deception that proves fatal. 

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.  I loved this book.  Elizabeth Strout’s writing is wonderful, as is her character creation.  I looked forward to reading it each night and was sad when it was over.  She writes about the Burgess family, three adult siblings from Maine.  The Burgess brothers left Maine to live in NYC, while their sister, Susan, stayed in their home town of Shirley Falls.  Both brothers are lawyers, but the oldest, Jim, became famous in the nineties for successfully defending a pop star, while the other, Bob, ended up doing nonprofit law.  We learn right away in the book that when Bob was 4, he released the brake in a parked car, causing it to roll down a hill and kill his father.  This of course haunts him, and he seems to have lived his life in a bit of a muddle and in awe of Jim.  When the story begins, Bob and Jim return to Maine to help out their nephew, who has gotten into trouble involving the Somali community in his hometown.  The return sets off a series of events that upends the relationship between the siblings, but also changes how they appear to the reader.  It’s an interesting plot, but I think her characters are genius.  We see things from all the siblings’ point of view, as well as Jim’s wife and Bob’s ex-wife.  They are somehow better than real, and Strout is able to reveal their foibles and weaknesses while remaining kind.  It’s a sad book at times, and there is a rather strange prologue framework in which the “author”, also a Mainer living in NYC, decides while gossiping with her mother to write about the Burgess Boys from their hometown.  This “author” never appears again in the book, so I’m not quite sure if that extra layer of narrative is needed.  It’s a truly delightful book.

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