Monday, October 1, 2018

Book Reviews September 2018

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell.  This is a well-written thriller that I couldn’t wait to read on my train ride every day.  It’s about a girl, Ellie, who disappears one day at 16 when she is walking to the library.  We get Ellie’s point of view in the beginning, along with warnings she gives herself –it’s an interesting technique.  Then a decade passes and we see Laurel, Ellie’s mother, trying to live her life without knowing what happened to her daughter.  Ellie starts dating again, and the man she dates, Floyd, has an ex-partner who used to tutor Ellie for her exams.  This connection starts to seem sinister.  It’s all quite well-done:  Jewell introduces more points of view, and does an amazing job with Laurel, showing how her life fell apart and how she tries to get it back together, and what happened with her relationships with her other children.  She also begins to suspect Floyd and the tutor –it’s a great read!

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.  This is a long epic novel about China under the cultural revolution of Mao and his cronies, and then all about the Tiananman Square massacre.  Thien begins in Vancouver with a young girl, Marie, whose family takes in a student, Ai-Ming, who is on the run after Tiananman.  Marie’s and Ai-Ming’s families have connections which go way back, and Thien basically leaves Marie to elaborate on the long story of Marie’s father and many branches of Ai-Ming’s family, who were musicians in Shanghai.  I haven’t read many novels about this time in China, so in that regard I found this novel an interesting read.  Structurally, however, it was more of a mess than I would have guessed from the raving reviews.  Thien returns to Marie and her search in China for Ai-Ming every now and again, but the shifts in time are awkward.  There’s also a symbolic novel within a novel that people try to save during the cultural revolution when all books, etc., were destroyed (as were the people who owned and read them).  I get what Thien was trying to do with this inner novel, but it just got confusing.  You basically have to read for the story and the well-done portrayal of a horrific time, and give up trying to make the overall structure and all the parts into a coherent whole.

Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.  I kept hearing good things about this novel, but was not impressed with the writing.  It’s about a “marsh girl,” Kya, who grows up on her own in a shack in the North Carolina marsh after being abandoned by her mother and siblings.  Kya learns how to eke out a living and evade the truant officer, and grows up with the marsh as her friend.  I really enjoyed all the descriptions of the marsh, and its bird life, but the overarching story is sort of silly.  A local ex-football star is found dead below a water tower, and the sheriff begins to expect that Kya had something to do with it.  We then get Kya’s life in long flashbacks, with the novel switching from her life growing up to the present day of 1970, when the sheriff is trying to figure out what happened.  Kya, of course, is a quiet genius, and ends up the author of several books on marsh wildlife.  A young local lad teaches her how to read, and – you’ve guessed it – romance ensues.  It’s not a bad read – it just was not for me.

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson.  I borrowed this from my parents this summer after reading in The New Yorker that it was one of her best books.  It is good, albeit a little slow-going.  She’s a scientist writing about the formation of the seas from the beginnings of earth to the 1950’s when the book was written.  It is hard to write poetically about the sea floor, I would think, yet Carson manages to do so.  It has made me realize how much I do not know.  Some of what she writes about is dated; there’s a chapter in particular in which Carson gets excited about the rising of the seas, thinking it was just the cycle of things, when of course we now know it is global warming.  Also, when she was writing there was still so much unknown about the sea floors (and sea life) and instruments uninvented.  We had yet to discover the blobfish!  Yet still, I enjoyed reading this book and stretching my mind.

Cooking For Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser.  This is a part memoir part cookbook, or memoir with recipes – a genre I love and don’t read enough of.  Hesser writes about her courtship of her now husband, but is really writing of food and her vast relationship to it.  She writes well, she knows a lot about food and cooking, and although I haven’t come across many recipes I actually want to try, I like reading through them.  My favorite chapters are the ones that feature her grandmother, Helen, who is almost always cooking crab while lecturing.  She’s a pip.

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