Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book Reviews August 2016

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty.  Liane Moriarty is one of my favorite novelists writing today, and her newest novel does not disappoint.  She’s such a good story teller, and what always impresses me the most about her books is that all of the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional.  She never just has a character that serves to advance the plot; rather, she is able to reveal usually through small but pertinent details just what makes that character tick.  There is no one completely bad or completely good or wrong or right—they are people who you inevitably become quite fond of.  This novel focuses on three couples, and we know right from the beginning that something horrible happens to them at a barbecue.  Indeed the chapters are labeled, one day before the barbecue, two days after the barbecue, etc., so the reader is immediately aware of – and rather dreading – that event.  Clementine is a cellist who is married with two young daughters, Holly and Ruby.  She has a childhood friend, Erika, who was raised by a hoarder and neglectful mother, and so Clementine’s mother took Erika in and sort of forced  Clementine to be friends with her.  Their friendship is rather fraught, and made more so by the fact that Erika is more or less on the spectrum.  Erika and her husband, Oliver, live next door to another couple, the wonderful Tiffany and Vid.  The first half of the book is spent leading up to the reveal of what happened at the barbecue, and I do admit to wondering from time to time if it wasn’t too manipulative.  At some point I just wanted to know what happened and be done with it.  Once we find out what happened, however, Moriarty does an excellent job of showing how all the characters work through it.  It’s a really good, compassionate read and I think one of her best novels.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott.  I think Megan Abbott is a good writer, but I also think her books are not for me.  This is the second one I have read, and whereas I can recognize as I read that what she is doing is skillfull, I still end up feeling claustrophobic and stressed.  Like in her mystery, The Fever, Abbott takes a small group of people and has something run amok – in this case it’s a group of elite gymnasts and one of the coaches boyfriend gets killed by a hit and run driver.  The main character here is Kate, the mother of the best gymnast at the gym, Devon Knox.  The problem I have is that Kate doesn’t get much of what is going on, and her viewpoint is mainly the only one we experience.  So as a reader, we can see and sense that so much is happening that Kate isn’t privy to, yet we are forced to remain in the dark with Kate.   It’s the kind of scenario that stresses me out as I read and isn’t enjoyable to me.  I don’t generally mind a character with limitations, but it just is tiresome to be so closely tethered to a limited viewpoint.  Anyway, Kate begins to suspect that her daughter and her husband and one of the other gymnast’s mother knows much more about what is going on than she does, and starts piecing things together.  It was an interesting peek into the world of intense gymnastics, and Abbott also does a good job of raising questions about the pressures and restraints of having a whole family hitch to the star of one child.  I don’t think I will be in a hurry to read her other books, however.

We’ll Always Have Paris: Trying and Failing to be French by Emma Beddington.  This is an excellent memoir – funny and sad and well written and full of fine cake.  What more can one ask for?  It was so good that once I was a third of the way into it, I started reading it slowly and doling out a chapter a night so I wouldn’t reach the end of it too soon.  Beddington, who is the blogger Belgian Waffle, grew up in York, England while loving everything French.  She went to Normandy after high school and started dating while there a Frenchman, Olivier.  She writes a lot of how her conceptions of France via movies and literature collided with the real place while there.  She then attends Oxford while still dating Olivier long distance.  Cut to when she is in her mid-twenties and living with Olivier in London with one small son and another on the way:  she learns that her mother, to whom she is very close, has been killed in a freak accident in Rome.  Her grief proceeds to take many forms and all entertwined with her experience of Paris.  Beddington is very smart and witty and does a really good job of writing about weighty topics while not taking herself too seriously.  She and her family leave Paris and eventually end up settling in Brussels, where the whirlwind of her grief finally catches up with her.  Whether you have francophone leadings or not (I don’t, particularly, but I do have cake leanings), her memoir is superb.

City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin.  This is the third book in his vampire (of sorts) trilogy that began with The Passage and continued with The Twelve.  I really liked the first book, and liked the second until its ending, which I thought veered towards the silly.  This third book is a bit of a mishmash.  He is a good story teller, and I really liked reading about how people had continued to survive what was basically an apocalypse that ended life as we know it.  However, when you finally find out some of the main impetus for what has ended the world, it just is a bit ridiculous and thin.  Without giving too much away, there is a kind of evil genius who continues the evil just because the woman whom he loved died while he was awaiting her arrival at Grand Central Station via train.  Although a painful experience, it seems a rather flimsy reason to end the world – especially since the rest of the three books have been so serious.  It just came across as being too cartoony or superhero villainy to me.  However, it IS possible to just sort of ignore that part of the plot and still enjoy all that is going on with the characters and the descendants of the characters that we got to know in the first two books.  And much of the accompanying mythology is interesting and well done.  I’m glad I read the trilogy, but feel like it didn’t quite hold up to the promise of the first book.

Still Midnight by Denise Mina.  This is the first book in Mina's "Alex Morrow" series, and it was as good as I was expecting.  Like with her Paddy Meehan series, Mina's writing is excellent and her main character nuanced and strong.  She very much hits the ground running -- it almost seems like it's the second book in a series, as she doesn't load the beginning with any obvious back-story.  This is a good thing:  you learn things here and there about detective Alex Morrow as she works to solve a case that has been taken away from her control and given to her career-savvy partner.  We switch back and forth from Alex's point of view to the point of view of Pat, a man who against his better judgment gets caught up in a kidnapping for ransom.  Pat knows better, and knows that his partners are volatile, and from the beginning tries to get out of what is going on, albeit ineptly.  It takes place in Glasgow and seems like a good first mystery in a series, in that we are introduced to many items of interest that I imagine will appear in future books -- the crime family Tait, Alex's background, her half-brother, who has problems with the law, etc.  I shall read on.

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