Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Book Reviews December 2019

Eileen by Ottesa Moshfegh.  At first I strongly disliked this novel.  Everything was so ugly!  By the end, however, I felt a slightly grudging admiration for what Moshfegh had achieved.  The narrator, Eileen, is writing about a time in her early adulthood when she was stuck in a horrible home with a horrible job and a horrible mindset.  Things come to a head and she escapes, but oh!  The ugliness!

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos.  This was an interesting nonfiction book about an intense love affair. Febos is a good writer and the book reminded me of a modern day version of Marguerite Duras's The Lover.  I do recommend.

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.  I loved this novel.  It takes place way in the north of Russia and each chapter focuses on a different woman in the city.  All have links in various ways and in each chapter there is a reference to the events of the first chapter in which two sisters are kidnapped.  Phillips's writing is really impressive and it was a fascinating read.

The Problem With Everything by Meghan Daum.  I generally really enjoy Meghan Daum's writing.  She's two years younger than I am and always seemed to me to be a smart voice of generation X.  I thought she was a little "off" in this book, however -- a little grumpy and a little wrong.  She's writing about the #metoo movement and thinks that people need to buck up.  I think she willfully misconstrues the point and that we perhaps need to temporarily pass though an extreme to reach an equilibrium.  I don't quite agree with her slant, and found it an odd topic on which to base an entire book of essays.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Windgate.  This was a fun read although not hugely nuanced.  It goes back and forth between a family in the 30's who lived on a houseboat and whose kids were kidnapped by a state agency and adopted out to wealthy couples (a true story), and a modern day southern political family who discovers the truth about these origins.

The Bird Boys by Lisa Sandlin.  I read this on the recommendation of the New York Times's Marilyn Stasio, but I didn't like it.  It's about a detective, Phelan, and receptionist, Delpha, who have an agency in Texas in the sixties.  They get hired to find a missing brother and solve a few crimes in the process.  The writing is good and the story interesting enough; it just wasn't my style.

Too Much and Not The Mood by Durga Chew-Bose.  People love this book of essays, but I did not.  Her style is very stream of consciousness and veers from subject to subject in a way that I found frustrating.  It was simultaneously too personal and too random, and to me an unenjoyable read.

The Second Sister by Claire Kendal.  My response to this was similar to the Wingate novel above:  a good read if a bit improbable and a bit under-developed.  Ella's sister disappeared ten years ago leaving an infant behind.  Ella has spent the last ten years raising her nephew with her parents and searching for her sister.  The story involves two serial killers and a sudden confluence of events.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Book Reviews November 2019

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney.  I had heard much hubbub about this book when it came out a couple of years ago, and I must say, the hubbub was very much deserved.  The main character, Frances, is 21 and a college student in Dublin.  She and her ex-partner, but still current collaborator, Bobbi, meet Melissa and Nick, an author and actor married couple when Melissa is doing an article on Frances and Bobbi’s spoken word poetry performances.  I thought I wouldn’t find the book very interesting, not being hugely invested in the conversations and inner monologue of 21 year olds, but it was so well done!  And charming and wry.  Rooney does such a good job with Frances, and even if she is a flawed and self-centered person in the way that everyone is at 21, it was a really interesting book.  I recommend.

The Honeymoon by Dinitia Smith.  This is a historical novel recreating the life of George Eliot.  It begins with her “second” marriage when she was sixty to a much younger man, John Cross, concentrating on their honeymoon in Venice when Cross apparently tried to commit suicide by jumping from a balcony into a canal!  I had not known about that tidbit of info:  apparently it was written about in Venice newspapers but the connection to Eliot the writer was pretty well masked.  Anyway, the chapters go back and forth from the honeymoon to Eliot’s entire life, and it was an interesting read.  She was so smart and successful, and really had to fight her way to the life she achieved.

The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds With Common Birds by Julie Zickefoose.  Julie Zickefoose is a bird artist, a writer, and a songbird rehabilitator.  In this book she writes of all the different birds she has interacted with over the years – many of whom were giving to her as fledglings in distress.  She nurses them, raises them, and then in most cases sets them free.  The drawings were beautiful and the stories fascinating.  I read it slowly over months and enjoyed it very much.

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell.  This was a great read!  I highly recommend.  Lucy is a down and out mother of two, living a somewhat homeless existence in the south of France.  The book switches between her and Henry, her brother, a very unreliable narrator who tells the story of their childhood, when their once wealthy socialite parents welcomed into their home a man who became a kind of mini cult leader.  Meanwhile, another main character, Libby Jones, has just discovered that she has inherited a mansion in Chelsea where all the events described by Henry took place years ago.  It’s a fun and very fast-paced thriller.

Grocery:  The Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman.  This is a book about grocery stores in the US, how they have changed over the years, and what the business is like now.  He focuses in particular on Heinen’s, a small grocery chain in Ohio.  It was interesting, at times, although Ruhlman loves a list and used way too many of them.  On the whole, an essay about this topic would have been enough for me.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Book Reviews October 2019

Salt Lane by William Shaw.  This is the second mystery of his that I have read, and it focuses on detective Alex Cupidi from the previous book.  It’s another mystery set on the Kent coast, and the land there plays a central role.  It was very well written, and I liked that he continued on with Detective Cupidi, who is still dealing with her teenage daughter, as well, in this book, as her mother and a past lover.  It is suspenseful, and Shaw has a great eye for detail. I recommend.

Bloody Genius by John Sandford.  I can never pass up a new Virgil Flowers mystery:  they are always so well paced and quietly entertaining.  This was a good one.  Instead of getting sent to the outer bits of Minnesota, in this one Virgil is in Minneapolis at the University, trying to solve the mystery around the death of a professor in the library.  Virgil is as methodical and laid-back as ever, and slowly, eventually, puts all the clues together.  It is fun.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.  I loved the first Olive Kitteredge book, and was so happy to discover that Strout was writing another one.  Like the first, it is really a book of short stories based in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine.  Some are directly about Olive, but in many she just makes a brief appearance.  I think Olive is such a brilliantly conceived character.  She is always completely Olive, and always a delight.  In this book, Olive is aging and dealing with the infirmities that come along with.  She’s trying to fix her relationship with her son, and continues on doing her quiet good deeds while never thinking a thought that goes unsaid.  It was delightful and beautifully written, and soon I will read it again.

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow.  I finally submitted to the buzz and got this book, and it was a much more enjoyable read than I thought it was going to be, based on the subject matter.  Farrow wisely chose to make the book about his pursuit of the Harvey Weinstein story, rather than the story itself.  Of course the story is worthy, but focusing on how he investigated it, the interviews he got, and how he was stymied at almost every turn by NBC was really fascinating.  Not to mention disheartening.  It is a fast, smart, and astonishing read.

Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver.  I really enjoy Barbara Kingsolver’s nonfiction voice, and I hadn’t read this collection of essays, so was looking forward to it.  And it was good – and many of the pieces I quite enjoyed – but she wrote a lot of them in response to 9/11, so they are very much from that specific time period.  Her quirkiness can get a bit preachy at times.


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Book Reviews September 2019

Reasons To Be Cheerful by Nina Stibbe.  I love Nina Stibbe’s books.  She has a quirky, wonderful sense of humor and a great eye for character.  Like her first two, this novel stars the wonderful Lizzie, who is now done with school (and done with her job in the nursing home) and has now found a job working for a horrible English dentist.  Lizzie’s mother is still as loose a cannon as ever, but Lizzie is beginning to spread her wings and move away from her family.  Although the dental work scenes can be hard to read if you are dental work sensitive, Stibbe is just so funny and makes Lizzie even more so.  Lizzie’s desire for a sexual relationship with her somewhat boyfriend, who also might perhaps be her mother’s boyfriend, is so real and poignant.  I enjoyed this throughout.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I got three of Adichie’s novels after reading an article about her in The New Yorker.  This one was her first and it was a good story.  She immediately draws the reader in and sets the scene well with a young girl, Kambili and her brother, Jaja, two wealthy kids in Nigeria with a controlling and abusive father.  That was actually my problem with the novel:  that an abusive father is kind of an “easy” plot twist.  It’s a cheap thrill in a way.  I do look forward to reading her second novel next.

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw.  I liked this mystery.  It was surprisingly subtle and good.  William South is a police officer in a coastal town in England.  He is an everyday policeman, but gets involved in the solving of a murder, because it was his friend and neighbor who was killed.  The book switches back and forth from the present day case, to the death of Billy’s father in the troubles in Northern Ireland when he was young.  He also befriends the lead detective on the case and her teenage daughter.  The strange landscape is a main character of the book and the whole thing was smart and well done.

Even If Your Heart Would Listen by Elise Schiller.  This is an account of the addiction and death of Schiller’s daughter, Giana Natali, from a heroin addiction.  Schiller’s study is mainly about how the existing rehab programs failed her daughter, relying as they do on the format for alcohol addiction.  Most of the many rehab programs Giana went to also emphasized moral failure (re the 12 steps), instead of treating opiate addiction in the ways that are proven to have the best chance:  via inhibitor drugs.  It was a sad and eye-opening read.  Schiller is honest about what she and Giana’s father failed to notice and do, and has gone on to advocate for better options for others.  

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke.  I got the second book in this series and was about to read it, having heard the author and enjoyed her on NPR, when I realized that there was a first book.  So I got it but did not really enjoy it.  It is about Darren, a Texas Ranger, who is estranged from his wife who wants him to return to law school.  Darren has a love/hate relationship with his job and badge and can’t leave it yet.  He starts to work on a case involving two murders in the backwoods of Texas, that are probably aryan brotherhood related.  For me, the book got off to a very slow and sometimes confusing start.  Halfway through it began to pick up a little, but on the whole, I wasn’t hugely enamored with it.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Book Reviews August 2019

Lady In The Lake by Laura Lippman.  I really enjoy Laura Lippman’s novels, and this was a good one.  It takes place in the sixties, and the main character, Madeline Schwartz, is on the verge of exiting her marriage and housewife life.  She had always wanted to write, so finagles her way onto the staff of a Baltimore newspaper, more or less as a secretary.  She becomes involved in the discovery of a dead body, and pursues the case even though – because the dead woman was black – the police want to write it off as a suicide.  Maddie investigates and annoys people on all sides of the case.  She is interested in the truth, and in setting herself free with it.  It’s a good read.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani.  I did not like this at all.  It’s a fictionalization of the horrible case in NYC where a nanny killed two young children.  I don’t think Slimani adds anything of interest to the story.  Her nanny lives in France, and slowly unravels, but since you know the outcome from the beginning, it is a painful slog.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner.  I loved this novel and thought it was brilliant.  First, it is a compelling read, despite the fact that the characters aren’t hugely likeable.  In the first two-thirds of the book, you follow the newly separated Toby, a hepatologist and father of two young children as he navigates his new life as a divorcee.  Toby is angry at his ex, Rachel, and the reader is treated to explanations of all she has done wrong.  Meanwhile, he is also dating with apps and, as the parent with a more flexible work schedule, taking care of his children.  I should add that Toby’s tale is being told by an old college friend, Elizabeth, who is going through a midlife crisis of his own.  Even though Toby is a bit of a jerk, it is still a really compelling read, but when Brodesser-Akner gets to the Rachel section, the structure of the book was so amazingly conceived.  When you read of what Rachel is going through, it totally changes all that you learned from Toby in ways that I think are really specific to women’s experiences.  Elizabeth’s situation adds to this too.  It makes you realize all that women are still up against, and it is done so cleverly.  It really seemed to me to be a modern day Mrs Dalloway, and so poignant when you take into consideration who is doing the telling and why.  I highly recommend.

Last Child In The Woods by Richard Louv.  This is a book about how children today are so much more separated from nature (in the U.S.) than at any time in the past.  He writes of how children used to have a lot of wandering time in nature, and how now – because of development and safety and electronics – this has changed for the worse.  He investigates connections between ADHD and lack of time outdoors, and explores the idea of “nature deficit disorder” in children today.  It was interesting, if a bit long.  It’s already over ten years old, so he doesn’t address climate change issues, which definitely have an impact on his topic.  I was hoping it would be more along the lines of parenting advice, and it really isn’t that kind of book.  He does do a good job at examining the programs people are starting to try to fix the issue, including outdoor classrooms and nature perserves where kids can dig and play, etc.  

The Safest Lies by Megan Miranda.  This is one of Miranda’s many YA novels, and it was good, if a bit overly action-packed.  Kelsey is a high schooler with a mother who is paranoid because of a kidnapping incident in her past.  She has been raised to always expect the worst and to know how to react when it happens.  And the worst keeps happening!  From car accidents to home invasions to spending time in a panic room:  Kelsey experiences all, and most with the help of the boy she is interested in from her math class.  It was a suspenseful read and I’d recommend it to those in the mood for some suspenseful YA fiction.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Book Reviews July 2019

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson.  Kate Atkinson is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I was very excited to hear that after a few novels’ hiatus, she was returning to write about the detective Jackson Brodie.  She is such a skilled author that reading her books is a treat – you can relax, knowing that you are in excellent hands, and enjoy the mystery as it unfolds.  Jackson has moved to be closer to his ex, Julia, and his son, Nathan, and as per usual, crimes seem to find him.  He is hired by a woman who thinks she is being followed, plus he witnesses a young hitchhiker picked up by a suspicious older man and his wheels start a-turning.  It is a fast, fun, and suspenseful read.  

Crow Planet:  Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.  I first read this a few years ago when it came out and loved it.  I got it out to loan to Sean because I thought he might like it, but then I took it back because I wanted to read it again.  I did and it was just as good as the first time.  Haupt is very knowledgeable about birds, and it is a book about seeing crows in the urbs and suburbs, but it is also about living on this planet amongst birds and animals, the changes to our planet, and life in general.  I don’t always agree with Haupt, but her writing is intelligent and thought-provoking and I highly recommend.

He Said, She Said by Erin Kelly.  This was an excellent train read, except that I got so involved in it I kept almost missing my train stops.  Laura and Kit are a new couple back in the nineties when they go to watch an eclipse in Cornwall and end up stumbling upon a rape in progress.  They help the woman and, as witnesses, later testify in the trial of the rapist.  The book goes back and forth between the events of the past and the current time, in which they are living undercover so that the woman who was being raped can’t find them.  It goes back and forth from Laura’s story to Kit’s, both of whom are keeping secrets from each other.  It is well planned and a really good read.

The Darkness and The Island by Ragnar Jonasson.  I read two Icelandic mysteries by Jonasson featuring a detective named Hulda Hermansdottir.  They were both good, light reads – light not in subject matter but in depth.  They read quickly and don’t have much variety of detail.  In the first, Hulda is on the job, when she is told by her boss that she is being forced to retire.  She has two weeks left to work and is told to pick a cold case to work on.  She does, and starts finding out information about an immigrant whose death was declared a suicide, but who Hulda expects was murdered.  Hulda has many past traumas which are brought to light as she works on the case.  It has an ending which keeps the reader hanging.  Then I read the second book in the series (there are only two books so far), but it begins chronologically many years before the events of the first book.  It’s similar to the first:  an okay mystery with interesting scenery, but nothing spectacular.  A young woman was killed ten years ago and a group of her friends get together to reminisce, when things go awry.

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda.  This was a really fun read and I recommend it.  It takes place in a fictional town in Maine; Avery is a townie who has a career as a property manager for rentals owned by a wealthy family who summers there.  The time swings back between a year ago, when Avery’s best friend, Sadie, was found dead, to now, when Avery begins to find out things about Sadie’s death which she finds perplexing.  It’s a good mystery and very well written.  Miranda is great with detail and she does a very satisfying wrap-up at the end.

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda.  I liked The Last House Guest so much that I moved straight on to another of her books (she has many!  Yay!), and liked this one even more.  Leah is a journalist, who has become a teacher and randomly moved to Western Pennsylvania with an old friend who was relocating there.  The friend, Emmy, has a night job, and it takes awhile for Leah to realize that she hasn’t seen her in a few days.  She is finally concerned enough to contact the police, and when she does so, the police, after investigating, don’t quite believe this person exists.  Leah then sets out to both find her friend and figure out what has happened.  It is so well done and well written and was an excellent read.

Conviction by Denise Mina.  I love all of Denise Mina’s books, but this one is definitely one of her best.  It was such a good read and a good idea.  The main character is Anna, who begins her day looking forward to listening to a podcast once her kids are off to school.  When she does so, she realizes that the true crime podcast features someone that she used to know.  When her current life situation is upended unexpectedly, she decides on a whim to figure out what really happened to her old friend.  She keeps referring to episodes of the podcast, which are printed out, and then ends up starting a podcast of her own, while now totally mixed up in the mystery featured in the original podcast.  It is really suspenseful and such a good read.  I highly recommend!

Monday, July 1, 2019

Book Reviews June 2019

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.  This book started as one thing, and then at some point became a completely different kind of book!  Completely!  I was so surprised!  I did not see it coming.  The narrator, Rose, is a young girl growing up in California with her parents and brother.  Her mother is a little lost and her father a little clueless.  One day her mother bakes her a lemon cake and Rose can taste all her mother’s angst in the cake.   From that point on, she has to be very careful of what she eats, because she can taste the mood of the cook in the food.  Okay, so it’s quirky, and a little bland, and I was getting annoyed that the narrator was a kid, when all of a sudden, Rose learns something about her brother, which is NOT what you would expect.  And the book completely changes.  I will not say more than that.  I’m not sure Bender pulls it off, and I didn’t love the book, but kudos to her for trying!

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors.  This was a beautiful book and I found it heartbreaking and original.  Sonja is a 40 year-old woman living in Copenhagen and learning to drive for the first time.  She is also at a crossroads in her life, having grown up in the countryside and become a successful translator of mystery novels.  Her interactions with her driving instructors, and learning how to drive become a symbol of all that she is confronting now with what her life has become.  She has a good friend with whom she no longer has much in common, and a sister who does not want much to do with her.  It is a fast read and smart and lovely.

Unfuck Your Habitat by Rachel Hoffman.  This is a Marie Kondo-esque book about not living in squalor.  She makes some good points and has good strategies about how to unclutter your physical surroundings, but it is more a book geared to a young twenty-something (very slobby) audience.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I really enjoy Batuman’s pieces in the New Yorker, so decided to read her first novel.  At first I was a little put off because the narrator, Selin, is a first-year student at Harvard and in love with her first love, Ivan, and Batuman gets it so right, that it is rather painful to read.  It was bad enough to experience that the first time – one really does not want to dwell.  So at first I was a bit grumpy with the book, but Selin – although often infuriating in her inaction – is cerebral and charming and awkward and ultimately very likeable.  She very much tries to live what she learns in her college courses and tries to make sense of her feelings for and interactions with Ivan, ultimately following him to Hungary in the summer where she teaches English in small villages.  It’s a good novel and I felt tender toward it.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou.  This is the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her company, Theranos, which was supposed to change the whole blood testing world, but ultimately ended up a scam.  Carreyrou is the journalist who broke the story in the Wall Street Journal, and it was a fascinating read.  It’s an interesting story and he gets so many great sources, and the whole time I was reading it I just didn’t understand how/why she pulled it off for so long.  So manly people could see that her technology didn’t work, yet she retained a board of political superstars.  Anyway, I recommend the book, and listening to the podcast, “The Dropout” afterwards.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg.  I didn’t love this book.  It is all about one woman, Andrea, the narrator, but each chapter is sort of set up like a stand-alone short story, so you end up getting repeated bits of information that I found confusing.  At first I thought each chapter had a different, yet obviously similar, narrator.  So it took me awhile to work out the form.  Andrea is a 40 year-old single woman living in New York and conflicted about relationships.  She had a turbulent childhood, and a difficult relationship with her mother, yet is very upset when her mother moves to New Hampshire to help out her brother and his wife, who have a dying child.  It is witty and well-written, but ultimately unsatisfying.