Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Book Reviews May 2016

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  This was the last book of Morton’s that I had yet to read, and it was a bit disappointing.  It’s her usual format, so I won’t waste time talking about that.  I think the problem was that the characters weren’t fleshed out enough.  There are three sisters who live in a castle, and when the main character, Edie Burchill, meets them, they are elderly, but we also see them young in many chapters.  Their crucial actions didn’t ring true to me though:  I don’t believe that they would act the way they did.  There’s also a crazy father who has written a best-selling children’s fable, The Mud Man, and then Edie’s mother, to me the most interesting and sad character in the book, who stayed in the castle for a few years during the war as a 10 year-old evacuee.  It was entertaining enough but not well done.  I’d rate it along with The House at Riverton as one of her lesser books.

Bridget Jones:  Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding.  I had no intention of reading this novel, so mad was I that she killed off the Colin Firth character.  It seemed, as of course it was, just a cheap way of getting another novel out of Bridget.  But then Martha read it and said it was enjoyable and so she loaned it to me and I had a go.  And it was rather fun to spend time with Bridget again on the whole, although one really only needs to read the first book and call it a day.  In this one, Mark Darcy has died from a land mine, and a few years have passed.  Bridget is raising their two young children, Billy and Mabel, on her own (financially quite comfortable).  She doesn’t have to work, so spends her time mothering, and working on a screenplay—a re-write of Hedda Gabler.  Her friends convince her to start dating again, and the book consists of her dating misadventures.  I’d say too much of the book was in twitter format, but then again, I don’t tweet, so perhaps I’m just immune to its charms.  If you are missing Bridget, it’s a fun enough read; Fielding is witty and good at writing slapstick.

The Black Path by Asa Larsson.  This is the third “Rebecka Martinsson” mystery and it was as good as the first two, if not better.  I really love Larsson’s writing, and I can’t really parse why I think it is so good.  It’s spare—not for her the coffee-making detail of The Dragon Tattoo – but she manages to write the perfect amount of description and character development.  In this one, Rebecka has stayed up north in Kiruna after her second trauma; it took a while for her to recover, and then she was convinced to work there as a prosecutor, instead of returning to her big law firm in Stockholm.  We also once again spend a lot of time with the wonderful Anna Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stalnicke, the police duo.  Anna Maria Mella is a delightful character:  she’s smart, and has good instinct, and a good work/life balance.  A murder occurs in an ice house in Kiruna and Anna Maria starts to solve it, and gets Rebecka to help with some of the corporate twists and turns.  It is suspenseful and interesting and extremely well done.  Larsson is really adept at having multiple threads and storylines continually veer apart and come together; she’s able to keep the intrigue going without leaving the reader feeling manipulated.  It’s excellent!

One and Only:  The Freedom of Having an Only Child and the Joy of Being One by Lauren Sandler.  This was an interesting look at the stereotypes of being an only child – that only children are self-centered and/or awkward around their peers, etc.  Sandler, herself an only child who mostly enjoyed being one, first locates and pinpoints the original studies done in the fifties of the negatives associated with being an only child.  Such studies generally started with a thesis that it was bad to just have one child, and then supported that thesis even if the stats did not.  And the stats did and do not:  there is no discernable difference between only children and children with siblings when it comes to social skills.  The main difference between only children and siblings is that only children tend to be more successful and happier in later life.  When Sandler researched and wrote her book, she had a daughter who was around 4 or 5, and was in the process of deciding whether or not to have more kids.  So many people told her that she needed to have another kid “for her daughter,” and this made her want to investigate the notion.  She interviews only children, and did come across some who hated not having siblings; however, most of these people had unhappy childhoods or were in odd situations to begin with.  It was an interesting read.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub.  The Vacationers would be a good vacation read, unsurprisingly enough.  It’s a light, relatively entertaining novel about a family who goes to spend two weeks in Mallorca and once there deals with all the many underlying tensions that confront them.  The parents, Jim and Franny are trying to decide what to do after Jim had an affair with an intern only a few years older than their daughter; their son, Bobby, is there with his older girlfriend, with whom he – and certainly his family – do not have much in common.  Sylvia, the daughter, is about to embark on her college career at Brown and is ripe for an affair with a young Spanish man.  And then there are two family friends along for the vacation, a married couple, Charles and Lawrence, who have been trying to adopt a baby for several years and might just be about to get their wish.  It’s a fun enough read – each of the 14 days has its own chapter –and on the whole seems like it would be a good film.  I was underwhelmed but amused.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas.  I found this novel very moving.  It is about three-generations of an Irish-American family, and begins by concentrating on Eileen Tumulty’s childhood in Queens with alcoholic parents.  Eileen has drive and wants a better a life for herself, although she feels that as a woman her options are limited, so becomes a nurse.  She meets and marries Ed Leary, from a similar background, who is a scientist who studies the brain, yet remains teaching at a community college in the Bronx to help students from poor backgrounds.  They have a son, Connell.  In midlife, things begin to go wrong with Ed, and the reader figures it out long before Ed and Eileen do – that Ed has early-onset Alzheimers.  He is in the full throes of it by his early fifties, and the novel shows how Eileen deals with it, and her rigorous care of Ed, and then how Connell backs away.  I think Thomas gets Ed just right; Eileen doesn’t always ring true to me.  I don’t think he was able to make her as human as she should have been—she wants to do the right thing and help Ed keep his dignity, but Thomas isn’t able to really portray her in the depth that the novel deserves.  I also didn’t like Connell so much and was always a little exasperated when I got to a Connell chapter.  But perhaps that is me—I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for teenage boys.  It’s a sad book but also very well done.  And towards the end Connell finds a letter from his father which will turn you to mush.  It is a novel that is well worth reading.

Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman.  I came late to Lippman, and I’ve never read her much-praised “Tess Monaghan” mysteries, although I have vague plans to do so.  I’ve read her last seven or so mysteries that aren’t part of that series, and she was really the writer who made me realize that a good mystery is a good novel.  She is a really good writer, and her mysteries are all over the place scenario-wise; well, most take place in Maryland, but you never know what kind of person she is going to create, and all are so realistic and interesting.  In this one, the main voice is that of Lu Bryant, a newly elected state’s attorney who is presented with her first murder of this job.  The chapters are interspersed with the present day and her work on the case, to first-person chapters of Lu growing up in a single-parent household with her father and brother.  Eventually the past and the present intersect, and Lu has to figure out what to do with the collision of personal and professional.  There are several incidents in her past which become relevant to this investigation, and my one criticism of the book is that at times I had trouble keeping them straight—but that is in part because Lu, who was 8 years younger than her brother, didn’t understand things that are clear to the reader.  It’s a layered mystery and a good read.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Ellington said...

As an only child who is also the mother of an only child, I am all for only children! Truly, the only time I ever wished for siblings is when I spent time with you and Martha, and then I thought hmmm, sisters are rather nice. But otherwise, I don't see what the problem is with onlies. I have been tempted by that book before but then thought I'm already converted, so why bother? You are always recommending such interesting sounding mysteries. I will look for the first in Larsson's series. Sometimes in 2005ish, I read all of Lippman's Monaghan series and was surprised at how good they are. Yes, a good mystery is simply a good novel!