Choosing a book to spend time with is a very personal commitment. Are the characters compelling enough to care about their journeys? Is the POV a voice I like to hear; a psyche I want to share (even if disturbing)? Does this book keep me referring back to scenes or a character’s plights and resolutions in the days, weeks, or longer that follow the last page read?
Like most people, at different moments, I read for different reasons. Sometimes it is for entertainment and escape; to disappear into someone else’s world. Other times it is to gain knowledge, enlightenment, or inspiration. And often it is to just marvel at the ability of a string of words that lead my own mind into places it’s never before ventured.
As is often said, life is short. I have the utmost respect for readers’ time and as an author I am honored when a reader chooses to spend their time with me. I hope you find my reviews of other authors helpful as you make the choice of books to read.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Narrated on Audible by Jim Broadbent
If you are looking for a fast-paced, plot twisting and turning mystery, suspense, or action-filled novel, this is not for you. Don’t get me wrong, those kinds of fast reads can be quite entertaining and just what a reader needs. But UPOHF, with its preposterously long title, is a delight to read, and probably best enjoyed by the older reader with a cup of tea. It is a tenderly written tale of an otherwise ordinary retired man, Harold Fry, who begins to take a short walk to mail a letter, but finds himself (almost accidentally) continuing on a long journey by foot to visit a dying friend in a distant town. His pilgrimage, like many, is both physical and psychological as he ponders his life, the modern world, and his relationships with family as well as strangers. His character arc is fabulously crafted by this talented author as our protagonist allows his thoughts to wander and explore ideas and feelings that have been closed off to him for years. His discoveries are propelled at times by the situations he encounters on the road, but at other times by just allowing himself to tolerate the quiet. This book requires one to slow down with Harold, to ponder one’s own life, and to bathe in the experience of self-discovery.
Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Narrated on Audible by Cassandra Campbell
This one started off with such interesting characters, especially a bright, but punky 15 year old and his family, so I had great hopes. It is a story of grief, survivor guilt, depression, and ultimately hope and the development of a sense of purpose…all the makings of a good tale. But I struggled with certain very important, but preposterous details. The mystery in this book is the cause of the plane crash, and there is a long build-up to this reveal. But it turns out that the cause is the most ordinary and boring (at least dramatically) manner of pilot error, so was quite disappointing. Additionally, the shift in the protagonist’s character, his trajectory into finding a purpose to his life, came only as a result of coming into large and unearned amounts of money, which, now that I think of it, doesn’t seem like a character arc at all.
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Narrated on Audible by Barrie Kreinik
Migrations was chosen by my book group and to a person we struggled with this one. There are so many interesting premises about a future in which global warming has drastically eliminated both animal and plant life, but the fallout of those losses (except we don’t see birds in the sky, etc.) are invisible and therefore this story requires the reader to accept a contrived reality of extinction yet the world just marches on. The world-building did not ring true for me, it should’ve been more dystopian. The story is of one woman, the wife of a scientist, who sets out to follow the last migration of Arctic Terns. But the consequences of reaching that goal were never clear.
Some people are bothered by the flashbacks in time, but personally this didn’t bother me as it seemed like we learned of background information about the protagonist when we were appropriately curious. Nonetheless, I struggled with the protagonist for other reasons. Her ability to convince others to put themselves at great risk for her seemed to contrast her likability and therefore seemed preposterous. Additionally, she had a potentially homicidal/suicidal sleep behavior disorder that she was well aware of, but never sought treatment, which made her particularly unappealing. I didn’t hate the book, finished it, but don’t highly recommend it.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Beautifully narrated on Audible by the author, Hope Jahren
Absolutely one of the best and most enjoyable books I’ve read in years (and I read a lot of fabulous books). It is a truly beautiful memoir that reads like a novel. I enjoyed every minute of my time with Hope Jahren as she recounted her life as a scientist, but most entertaining was her literary talent to weave together botany and philosophy in thought provoking and delightful prose. For those of my friends who, like me, are science fans, I can see the rolling of the eyes. Let’s face it–those of us who studied chemistry, physics, biology, or even the social scientists, invited botany students to our tailgate parties in order to convince ourselves that we were not the most nerdy and boring students at the university. And yet, I am overwhelmed by this book about botany, about the world of science, and about people who engage with our planet at a depth not visible to most of us. It is stunningly engaging and I highly recommend Lab Girl.
Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Narrated on Audible by Susan Denaker
An epic-like novel of two young sisters who immigrate to Boston from Ireland, like so many before and after them, in search of a better life. The characters, both sisters and the various central character that make up their lives, are very well developed and engaging. It is slow-paced and therefore best read when the reader is in the mood to exist within a different time and place, become absorbed in this immigrant culture, and see the world through the eyes of others. It is also quite austere and the oppression is palpable, both in what is said in done, but possibly more vehemently in what is left unsaid and undone. This leaves a kind of sadness and heaviness to the story and I found the ending somewhat wanting of a better and more gratifying resolution.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Narrated on Audible by Rich Orlow
This is my first William Kent Krueger novel and I found the pace, the plot, the mysteries and secrets and the depth of quiet emotion, extremely compelling. It is the story of a Minnesota family during the summer of 1961, told through the eyes of a 13 year old boy. It is in one sense a coming of age story, but also much more. It is also the story of testing of the faith of his minister father and the tenacity of his mother and siblings as a series of tragic events unfold around them in their small town. It is a story of prejudices and biases that appear and recede as a town struggles to find answers for their trauma. It is a beautiful book and is read with just the right tone by Rich Orlow.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Narrated on Audible by Shayna Small
The Vanishing Half is a fabulously written and wonderfully narrated story of twin African-American girls raised in the south who struggle with issues of race, adolescent rebellion, and family secrets as it conflicts with sisterly love and personal desires. It is captivating for its complex characters, captivating plot, and masterful writing. It challenges the reader to re-think what we might believe about racial identity, privilege, and difficult choices that once made, head us into unforeseen and irreversible directions. Highly recommended.
My Sisters Keeper by Jodi Picoult
Narrated on Audible by Richard Poi, Julia Gibson, Barbara McCulloh, Tom Stechschulte, Carol Monda, Jennifer Ikeda, and Andy Paris.
This Jodi Picoult novel gets wonderful reviews, and her writing is, as always, well-orchestrated and her theme was characteristically thought provoking. This, however, is not my favorite Picoult due to some plot issues. The love story, seemed unnecessarily mysterious– seemed to be just a ploy to add some mystery to this subplot and therefore felt contrived. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out two mysteries, in fact– why the attorney left his young beloved so many years ago, and why this attorney has a service dog without any noticeable impairment. And then when the reveal occurs (the answer to both questions are the same), I had a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders.
But more important is the main plot, a fabulous moral dilemma (what Picoult is famous for). Do parents have the right to use one child in the service of another? The problem I had was that I found the mother quite unlikeable, which is unfortunate, as her position could have been equally compelling as the daughter’s if only her character was less self-righteous. This possibly could’ve been a function of the audible narrator whose voice I found annoying, and possibly reading hard copy would be different. Nonetheless, that variable does not fix the ending which I also found contrived and extremely disappointing. Leaving alone the issue that people with epilepsy are not allowed to drive (for obvious reasons), the whole court case focused on the right to self-determination. To win that case only to have it ripped away at the end, was very unsatisfying to me. I think a better title would’ve been “The Donor,” as that is all our lovely protagonist was ever meant to be, and all she ever becomes.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
Narrated on Audible by Joan Walker
It’s clear– Backman is the king of awkward, quirky, and ever lovable characters. This novel, published in 2016, is delightful, engaging, and highly recommended for readers who want both to equally get lost in thought and laugh out loud.
I can’t tell you how many friends, acquaintances, or patients tell me specific definitions of who they are as if it is a fixed and immutable state. (Full disclosure: I’m a Psychiatrist, so often curious about how people see themselves.) Sometimes it is a way to define their own boundaries of being, finding safety in not having to consider alternatives–it can be the warm comfort of the familiar. Other times it is a cage of their own unconscious making–a wall that they attempt to press against, but don’t push particularly hard for fear of what may be on the other side. This is Britt-Marie… until it isn’t.
At 63, in the midst of a new and economically challenged community, amongst people the likes of whom she has never encountered before, and struggling with the deterioration of her 40 year marriage and sheltered life, Britt-Marie slowly finds her very rigid definitions to no longer serve her well. She doesn’t set out to do this. She has no reason to seek change. But Britt-Marie’s new world presents her with challenges and conflicts that allow her to expand in ways she never could have dreamed. Britt-Marie’s character arc is beautiful to behold.
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Audible narration by: Rebecca Lowman, Abigail Revasch, Kathe Mazur, and Mark Deakins.
When I want to be assured of being able to engross myself into an engaging story, compelling characters, and a type of writing that leads me to periodically put down the book to let my own thoughts wander into a subject beautifully presented, I always return to Jodi Picoult, and here she doesn’t fail my expectations. Interestingly, her entry into the mystical in Leaving Time did not bother me. I say “interestingly” as typically I’d be immediately turned off by a character claiming to be a psychic and events that clearly enter into the spiritual. Yet, for me, Picoult pulls this off and I was delighted to be pulled out of my usual comfort zone. The real wonder of this book and what drew me in to the lives of these characters, is the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the scientific. Much of the story takes place on an elephant sanctuary in New Hampshire (although we also get some wonderful chapters in Africa). One of the main characters who is an elephant researcher specializing in the grieving process for elephant allows the reader to understand on a deeper level these wonderful mammals, but begin to understand the relevance to humans as well. The parallels are woven masterfully into this story of attachment, love, loss, and grief. I highly recommend this fabulous novel.
Mio Fratello Rincorre I Dinosauri da Giacomo Mazzariol
Questo bellissimo libro, consigliato dalla mia brillante insegnante di italiano Martina, è un vero tesoro. L’arco caratteriale del nostro protagonista è una meraviglia da vedere. Tutti possiamo comprendere le pressioni sociali dell’infanzia e dell’adolescenza: il desiderio di andare d’accordo con i nostri coetanei, essere popolari e non sembrare insoliti. Ma Giacomo ha una sfida speciale. All’inizio è molto eccitato quando scopre che sua madre è incinta di suo fratello, il che significa un equilibrio di genere nella sua famiglia con le sue due sorelle. Ma quando si scopre che il piccolo Giovanni è diverso, ha un cromosoma in più, il nostro protagonista lotta con le implicazioni. Il fratello minore è vissuto come una delusione, un imbarazzo, qualcuno da nascondere agli amici di Giacomo. La storia è raccontata in modo tale da far piangere il lettore un momento, per poi ridere forte quello successivo. Ma lentamente e inesorabilmente Giacomo cresce per capire il profondo impatto delle lezioni che apprende dal suo fratello speciale: lezioni sull’amore e su ciò che è veramente importante nella vita.
Grazie a Martina per questa raccomandazione. E grazie a Giacomo Mazzariol per questa bellissima storia.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Audible narrator: Marin Ireland
So you all know by now that I love spending time in Fredrik Backman’s books. I love his stories, his characters, his pithy observations. This one was no less of a joy. In Anxious People we meet more than our usual share of characters, all well differentiated, all charming (or cantankerous and irresistible) in their own right. The story is a hostage taking by an unusual and quite inadequate bank robber. The hostages come each with their own story and charm. Marin Ireland does her usual fabulous job of reading this fun story. I just loved it. It is simple to enjoy, heart-warming without being sappy, a warm bath with bubbles.
Normal People, A Novel by Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney is an acclaimed young Irish writer. I enjoyed the book, and finished it, yet felt that maybe I wasn’t exactly the right audience. Her style and engagement may be aimed at a younger audience. The characters didn’t fully pull me into their plight. There were however some lovely observations about life and class as evidenced by these quotes and I think they kept me in:
“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”
A great epic, literary saga that begins with the above paragraph. Need I say more? This is a story about endearing, but flawed characters whose passions and struggles span seven decades keeping the reader glued to the page until the very end. We begin in Ireland in the forties with a teenage pregnancy, a small town, the cruelty of the church, and a young girl who is sent out on her own with nothing but her tenacity. It is the story of that girl’s child, turned teen, and later adult who struggles with finding a place himself in a world that requires him to hide his true self. Boyne is masterful at intermixing humor, wittiness, and snappy dialogue with tragedy, self-loathing, and shame. Friendships are complicated, family nearly impossible, and sexuality is dangerous. Honestly there were times in which I wanted to scream at our dear protagonist, wanted him to rise up against the chains of his secrets, yet the character arc is well-paced and deliberate. Boyne’s work deserves all the critical acclaim it has received.
Noi Siamo Tempesta da Michela Murgia
“Michela Murgia ha scelto sedici avventure collettive molto famose o completamente sconosciute e le ha raccontate come imprese corali, perché l’eroismo è la via di pochi, ma la collaborazione creativa è una superpotenza che appartiene a tutti. Una tempesta alla fine è solo milioni di gocce di acqua, ma con il vento giusto.”
Mi è piaciuta molto questa raccolta di storie e lo consiglio a tutti i lettori di libri italiani. Le storie si basano su verità storiche, ma i personaggi sono immaginari o, anche se sono reali, i pensieri ed i dialoghi sono immaginati da una ottima scrittrice. La scrittrice assume una posizione meno comune rispetto alle storie che abbiamo dovere ascoltare da bambini in cui siamo stati abituati alle storie di eroi, molto bravi, molto forti, ma soli. Queste storie si basano su eventi storici ma ci mostrano come un gruppo di persone che lavora insieme, fidandosi l’uno dell’altro, può cambiare il mondo in modi grandi e piccoli, ma in modi molto importanti e di grande ispirazione.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover
Audible read by: Julia Whelan
A fabulous book, a remarkable author, this story had to be told, had to be heard. I have seen other reviewers who are shocked that this is a current reality in the US. As a psychiatrist, sadly I am not. At times it was difficult to read– the psychological, religious, and physical abuse difficult to enter into, yet Tara’s strength and fortitude kept me glued to the story. At times, when she was on the brink of returning to the prison of her family life, I would want to scream at her, the screams coming from a very different upbringing. Tara’s description is neither self-pitying nor self-aggrandizing as she attempts to make sense of her history, her family, and her world both inside and outside that family. What a wonderful and brave book.
My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman
Another great novel by Backman. This one is very, very sweet and it is a pleasure to spend time with these characters. The story of a beautiful relationship between a socially struggling odd, but brilliant young girl the absolutely quirky and cantankerous grandmother who adores her. The world through these two character’s eyes is at the same time both familiar and novel. Highly recommended.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Narrated by Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons
I don’t know how I missed this when it was first published in 2012. Maybe it was the strange name, but I am so happy that it came up again on a must-read list, because it is exactly that. Backman writes beautifully– prose that make you just want to stop and take in his words, his phrases, the beauty, and the humor. Described as a story of a curmudgeonly old man and his quirky way of seeing the world… well, I honestly thought it might be just too sentimental for a seasoned cynic, but there I was, totally swallowed up in his world and one of the most compelling character arcs. I can hardly believe this is Backman’s debut novel. I think it will be one of my favorite for all time.
Additionally, I’d like to add that listening through the audible version, read by J.K. Simmons was wonderful. It was brilliantly read. I haven’t seen the movie, yet. Might do that one day. But need to feel the warmth of the book for quite awhile before venturing into the film.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Audible narrator: Marin Ireland
Loved it! Really loved it. What a fabulously written novel that truly captures small, rural town living, the importance of local sports in such venues, and a cast of characters so vibrant and believable that the reader can easily forget this is a novel and feel more like they are watching a real drama unfold before their eyes. When this town, who’s lifeblood is centered around their hockey team’s success, finds themselves in a moral quandary between loyalty and truth, the lines get drawn and true character is tested. Backman is an astoundingly talented writer. His ability to understand characters of all ages and depict them on the page is inspiring. His talent at writing about the complexity of human dilemmas in this novel which is partly a coming-of-age story, but much, much more.
I usually don’t comment on the narrator, as it is my typical belief that the narrator needs to be almost unnoticeable. But the audible version read by Marin Ireland was extraordinary. I was so impressed by her ability to capture the sentiments of these characters, their lives, their struggles… I truly enjoyed listening to her voice and her interpretation of the voices of this very rich cast.
Us Against You by Fredrik Backman
Audible narrator: Marin Ireland
Sequels, right? Never as good, always a disappointment. This is the enormous exception to the rule. Because I loved Beartown so much, I almost passed on this one. Same characters? Same town? How many times have you told yourself that a novel is so good that you just want to stay with the characters longer, only to be disappointed by what the author does with sequel? “Us Against You” is truly as fabulous as “Beartown,” but I do recommend reading them in order (Beartown first). Although Backman does a fabulous job appropriately filling in the backstory that you would’ve gotten from the first, he also does it in such a way that it does not feel boring or repetitive if you have read Beartown, and I still suggest you read the first story in its original glory. But don’t be fooled. This is not just a follow-up of those characters, in the ‘what ever happened to…?’ kind of way. It is an entirely delightful, beautifully written novel on its own with a plot that expands in ways that could not have been predicted. Again, one of my all-time favorites. Again, wonderfully read by Marin Ireland who brings her sassy, but brilliant voice to each scene.
After the End by Clare Mackintosh
This novel shows Clare Mackintosh’s range. It is different from both I Let You Go and I See You in that it doesn’t call for her extensive knowledge about law enforcement and criminal investigations. This is a very different novel– a deep, heart-felt story about a very likable, mature couple who find themselves in the most impossible conflict. What is the kindest decision regarding their dying son? The novel leaves the reader agreeing with each party, and Mackintosh is brilliant at presenting the no-win situation without simplifying the characters into heroes and villains, she lives in the gray zone. Then, in a wonderfully provocative twist, Mackintosh continues the story with a sliding-door structure– following the scenario of what would happen if each parent had gotten their way. This attends to the oh-so-familiar situation of so many of us– a pivotal moment occurs, a decision is made, an outcome results, and yet a shadow of doubt continues, gnaws at us…the what if? And what I really loved about the way she followed these different scenarios out to their likely consequences, is that the ultimate conclusion was that it all ends the same, or at least with very little difference. So marvelously satisfying and so relieving for those of us who struggle with the….what if?
The Vacation by T. M. Logan
Publication date: July 20, 2020
I was pleased to receive this latest novel of T.M. Logan from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. I had read his previous novel, Lies, and had enjoyed it immensely. I have heard that 29 Seconds is also fabulous, and may give that a try soon.
Unfortunately Logan did not hit the mark for me with this latest novel. The characters seemed more superficial and petty than in his previous book and they spent more time feeling sorry for themselves than trying to work out their problems with life-long friends. The writing also did not seem as tight as his previous novel and I found myself internally re-writing certain parts (now, that’s a distraction!) like the way he dealt with telling us the protagonist’s feelings instead of showing it with much more depth. I was also bothered with what seemed to be cheap writing devices to obtain tension, like having the protagonist find something that surprises and disturbs her, but the author leaves us hanging without knowing what the object or event was, and ends the chapter. We then find out later, usually that it was a misunderstanding due to terrible communication, but the tension fell flat. You didn’t end up with “Oh, wow, that’s what it was!,” but rather, “Well, now, that was annoying.” Similarly, we go quite a distance knowing the protagonist feels quite guilty over having something to do with the death of a friend’s fiancé, only later to learn her part in this event was minor and unintentional. Again, “oh, that’s it? Hummm….”
All that being said, I did finish the novel to find out the mysteries that were numerous, and ultimately satisfying. I may try Logan’s 29 Seconds in the future as I found that reviewers who felt similarly to me with this one, touted 29 Seconds in the same manner as Lies. But I’ll give it some time. Once an author has disappointed, one needs time to recover.
You Are Not Alone by Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
This is another fabulous psychological thriller by Hendricks and Pekkanen. There is no way to summarize this novel without giving away the surprising and twisty plot, so I’ll refrain from doing that, but suffice it to say that these authors have again produced a story that has the reader working hard (and loving every minute of it) to figure out the mysterious relationships of the characters– this time of a group of women. Are they the wonderfully supportive longed-for friends that they seem, or is something else going on? And if so, what? And for what ultimate purpose? This is a far from predictable– a wonderful read for the lover of psychological thrillers.
Shay Miller, lonely and bored, suddenly finds herself a witness to an event that will change her life– disturbing event, yes, but a small little lie opens a door to whole new gratifying social life, friends of glamour that she never thought would ever be interested in her, a complete and fabulous make-over– until all is not as it seems and this new life turns dangerously dark.
What I love about Hendricks & Pekkanen’s books is that the reader is absorbed in the mystery and the anticipation of what may occur, without being terrified that some over-the-top disturbingly violent scene is going to be thrust upon you and give nightmares. You can trust these authors to keep you on the edge of your seat, without feeling bludgeoned. This is a rare talent and therefore these authors’ novels are great for teens on up.
I want to thank the authors, St. Martins Press, and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
Audible narrators – David Thorpe and Julia Barrie
This is my second Clare Macintosh novel– a fabulous suspense-thriller author with an exquisite insight into law enforcement and the minds of those who end up on both sides of the ledger. This particular story was powerfully engrossing with the necessary twists and turns, and even when the reader can figure out the “who done it,” there is still the burning question of how it will resolve itself. A horrible hit-and-run accident has left a young boy dead and a mother grieving, but the witnesses and perpetrators have their own twisted story to tell as do the detectives and their neglected families. The characters are clear and complex, the plot is compelling, and additionally, the narrators were spectacular. Fun read!
The Woman In Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
Audible narrator – Imogene Church
Unfortunately, I found this one somewhat disappointing. It was compelling enough for me to finish, possibly because its best-selling acclaim convinced me that there must be more here. But frankly, I found the main character, Laura “Lo” Blacklock, annoying. She drinks too much, complains incessantly, makes terrible decisions, does not prepare for her job, and gets into cringe-worthy, petty arguments, making her the kind of protagonist that you don’t actually go as far as root against, but you’re also not thrilled to be in her head for an entire novel. I also found the pacing too slow and plodding for a suspense thriller. The writing is above average, but the constant use of “a little voice in my head,” that serves as her internal doubt and criticism is an annoying way to take the reader into the protagonist’s thinking. When the protagonist is as big of a mess as Lo is, she needs to be more likable.
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
I loved spending time in this book. The story and the characters were so artfully developed that I felt like I was wonderfully swimming in their world. I read this after having read Moyes’ more recent book, The Giver of Stars (LOVED that one as well!), and again found the writing superb. There is so much complexity, depth, and nuance in this novel even in the simplicity of the story.
I know there is a sequel, but have lots of trepidation about moving on. I like wondering about the main protagonist’s future and am not sure I want it to be concretized in finding out. In fact, I think it is best left unsaid. Her character shift as a result of the plot of Me Before You is so profound that it seems like it would cheapen the impact to follow the story further. I might change my mind on this, but for now, I have to sit with leaving this as a highly recommended stand alone novel.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
I had very mixed feelings about this one. Obviously Patchett writes well. I “read” this through Audible, narrated by Tom Hanks. First, I found Tom Hanks a bit distracting. I realized (through this book) that having an anonymous reader is important unless it is the author who really knows the voice of their character. I kept picturing either Forrest Gump or the Tom Hanks’ character in Philadelphia! Not quite right for this one. I’m sure Patchett was very happy to get Hanks, but I just don’t think it worked.
Beyond that, I confess that I often had the sarcastic thought: “poor little rich boy.” I just didn’t find his or his sister’s troubles very compelling. Maybe it was the way Hanks read it, or maybe I just can’t read about the ‘troubles’ of the wealthy class right now given the state of our country. Or maybe I got it all wrong and the book was really about the house…which seems weird…or the return of the mother (who I had no compassion for), or the sibling relationship which was nice, but obvious.
I have seen all the many raving reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, so I am reminded of what as is true of all art forms– people’s tastes are quite different and my ho-hum response to this novel is in the minority of reviewers.
The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
“A thing can be true and not the truth.”
“Like all fairy tales, theirs was filled with thickets and dark places and broken dreams, and runaway girls.”
Written in the beautiful and thought-provoking way so typical of Kristin Hannah’s work, I highly recommended this novel. It is one of those books that has one thinking, worrying, and hoping every time it is put down between reads and long after the book is finished. But beware, it is not for the faint of heart. In addition to immersing the reader into the beauty and wildness of Alaska (you are truly swallowed up in Hannah’s setting), the novel deals with the intensity of a difficult family drama. Love, loyalty, and devotion are intertwined with obsession, fear, and the shame of domestic violence. Hannah does not shy away from the ugly. The highs are high, the lows are dark, all insightfully told from the point of view of a coming of age teenage daughter in the 1970s who is one of the most likable characters you will find.
The audible version is very well-read by Julia Whelan and includes a very interesting author’s notes at the end.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
I’m still swimming in the prose and beauty of this deservedly acclaimed novel that equally absorbs the reader in place, in plot, in character, and in the kind of sisterhood that starts from a wary suspiciousness and develops into deep bonds that warm the soul.
Moyes takes you into the heart of rural Kentucky in the late 1930s, a place many of us might find it hard to imagine ourselves loving and appreciating for both its beauty, its hardships, and its rugged determinism. But there it is. I’ve spent much time recently in books that take place in historic Europe, that show the depth of place and culture in that continent. As Americans, we tend to demur to our cross the pond ancestors and their much longer heritage. This novel reminds us of our own uniquely American past and especially of the difficult roads traveled (literally and figuratively) by the women of this country.
After several chapters, I phoned my closest high school friend (yes, decades ago and 1/2 way across the country) to tell her she just had to read this one. That is the impact of Jojo Moyes most recent novel. Coincidentally, my teen-twin/sister-friend had just started it herself and I can hardly wait for the post-read discussion.
New England Soup Factory Cookbook by Marjorie Druker
I know, I don’t usually review cookbooks, but this one I really love and want to share.
Sadly, I lost all of my cookbooks when we lost our home in the California wildfires– many of which were out of date and could not be replaced. So, my sons sent me this soup cookbook, having remembered their childhood during which I loved making warm soups for winter nights, or even taking 4 different soups up to the mountains when we skied so everyone could have their favorite! Well, this cookbook is absolutely wonderful!! I have tried many of the recipes in this cookbook and they are easy to make, yet the quality for dinner parties. We keep at least 3 in the freezer at all times. I’ve just ordered 3 more copies, to be sent this holidays to my boys so they can enjoy them in their own homes. What a fabulous find!
Short Stories in Italian, Volume 1 and 2 by Olly Richards
Two excellent books by Olly Richards for Italian learners. His chapters are just the right length as are each short story (3 chapters for each short story). After each short story there are vocabulary words, a summary and a few comprehension questions at the end. I bought the Kindle edition which allowed me to highlight words or phrases to study later. This is an excellent series for Italian language learners. I’m on to the Intermediate level as well as the Spanish editions…thanks Olly!
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
Short stories are not my usual preference as I like to stay with characters longer than this format, but they can be perfect for confined periods of time like plane rides, or listening to Audible while working out (which is how I enjoyed this particular collection). It probably goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway– some stories were more delightful to me than others, as is likely to be true for any reader. Nonetheless, the characters are well-developed, relatable, and flawed in that believable human way. The stories are of love, regret, and mis-understandings that we’ve all experienced in ourselves or others, in a way that leaves the reader relieved about the universal nature of such events. These are wonderful stories.
Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell delivers his typical quirky and thought-provoking view in this latest book that covers a wide array of topics related to human interactions with people we do not know. His research and stories are delightful as well as quite concerning about the assumptions we erroneously make. Interestingly, he explains the evidence against even the most highly trained individuals (police, CIA, heads of state) that also over-rate their instincts on others, and why those mistakes get made often to horrific outcomes. This book will help you question your own assumptions, your default to accepting false truths, that get made in everyday life.
Gladwell reads this book himself on audible, which is how I ‘read’ Talking to Strangers. It was an added plus to hear the words read by the author himself, with the intonations and emphases intended.
A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles
Absorbing, witty, beautifully written, a pleasure to immerse oneself in– the prose are just stunning. In this era of fast-paced, plot-driven block buster, A Gentleman In Moscow is an instant reminder that the well-versed sentence, the cleaver observation, the delightful turn of a phrase, has not been lost and does not cease to inthrall the reader.
My only complaint is the Towles spent 20 years as a professional in Manhattan prior to writing his first novel– such a loss to the discerning reader. I look forward to other novels by this talented author.
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
Let’s face it, well-done courtroom dramas are always fun, clever, mysterious, and satisfy a certain sadistic ‘got ya’ desire for the reader. Yet Kim’s Miracle Creek goes far beyond what one might expect with this genre. It is intensely complex, not in plot — despite the gratifying twists and turns, it is easy to follow — but rather the complexity lies in the psychological depth in which she portrays her characters and their relationships with each other. Bad things happen, terrible things happen, and yet there is no simple bad antagonist, no one person who is easy to blame or hate. Good people have private bad thoughts, even secretly share them, and when they get exposed it leads others down a rabbit hole of easy answers and self-satisfaction until one is confronted with the commonality of such thinking. Kim’s ability to take the reader into ever-increasing depths of human nature — its desire for easy answers and buttoned-up solutions, its compulsion to do the right thing despite personal danger and pain, the inevitable sadness that comes with deep empathy, and the conflicts that all these states can produce — is at once beautiful, pleasurable, and intensely sad. Yet beyond the sadness, there is something quite gratifying that the reader takes away from this novel– a knowledge that one’s own complex life, relationships, and decisions are not easily reduced to a binary of right and wrong, good and bad, heroic and tragic.
I ‘read’ this novel through audible.com, brilliantly narrated by Jennifer Lim ,and highly recommend it in any preferred modality.
The ACBL Bridge Series by Audrey Grant and Betty Starzec
As these were written as an instructional series, I will review them together (Bidding, Play of the Hand, and Defense). As a beginner bridge learners, my husband and I started with these three. They are well written, easily followed and quite instructive. I especially enjoyed the first two, but got bogged down by the third (Defense) and couldn’t finish it (a rare thing for me). I wonder if it would be better read after much more practice and playing of the game to pull the quite detailed explanations together. I would have also liked it if each had a well-organized index in the back to allow one to find concepts more easily in these reference books. The back appendix is a definition of terms, but there is no organization of the concepts and we found ourselves having to work hard to locate for review parts that were relevant with our play. Nonetheless, the authors are clearly good instructors and I’d recommend these to new players.
How Soccer Explains the World by Franklin Foer
Having sat on the sidelines of more games than thought possible, this ‘soccer mom’ had to get this book when I saw a young economics graduate student reading it in a waiting room. For those of you who have evolved from cheering on youth soccer, or playing it yourself, to watching and studying the big leagues, this is a delight. The political and social interplay into the most beautiful game as played by the pros is quite insightful. It also makes a great gift for friends and family members who are also absorbed by this game watched and played throughout the world.
Man Of The Year by Caroline Louise Walker
“You can measure people’s privilege by how much shit they disturb for fun.”
This wonderfully written debut novel is told primarily from the point of view of Dr. Robert Hart, a physician, husband, and father, who is slowly broken down psychologically by suspicions, clues, and mis-direction about his family. Dr. Hart, who seems to have it all — a successful career, a beautiful wife, the admiration of his community — finds his brilliant mind slowly unraveling when truth, suspicions, and frank lies become indistinguishable, and he descends down the rabbit hole of bad decisions. Initially the story unfolds at a reasonable pace to allow the reader to become fully engrossed in these flawed but compelling characters. Then mid-way the pace begins to gather speed with the convolutions of Walker’s plot until it is impossible to put down. The twists and turns are wonderfully orchestrated and the final ending is both surprising and gratifying to even the most discerning reader of mystery novels and psychological thrillers. I particularly enjoyed the insights Walker brings to the page as envy and revenge consume several of these cleverly written characters.
I highly recommend Walker’s Man of the Year and thank NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing me with ARC in exchange for an honest review.
We Were Killers Once by Becky Masterman
First, a big thank you to the author, Becky Masterman, the publisher, Minotaur Books, and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I couldn’t put this one down. This is a brilliantly thought-out story, a “what if” in regards to the Clutter and Walker family murders in the late 1950s, memorialized by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. But with so many unsolved pieces to those crimes, Masterman has brilliantly brought in a fictional 3rd character to sew it all up. The research and creativity involved in this is very impressive and I was loathe to put it down. In addition, the thriller-suspenseful movement is appropriately dotted with little, thought-provoking gems like: “…marriage is about repeatedly forgiving the other person for not being us.” These little philosophical musings, not only made one stop and think, but added to the reader’s understanding of these characters.
I did, however, find the writing somewhat inconsistent, with unnecessary repetitions and too much explaining that felt a bit condescending to the reader and broke up the pace. The author at times violated the ‘show don’t tell’ rule and I would find myself disappointed because otherwise the plot is fabulous and I highly recommend this for anyone, but especially those who are fascinated with one of the biggest crime stories of the 20th century.
The Color of Water by James McBride
“I felt frustrated to live in a world that considers the color of your face an immediate political statement whether you like it or not.”
“The way Tateh treated her, they’d call her an ‘abused woman’ today. Back then they just called you ‘wife.'”
One of the problems for me with raising children and working simultaneously was that I missed a good twenty years of having sufficient time to read excellent literature. So you miss a few. Fortunately, free time returned and I went back to read this 2006 National Book Award winner. The writing is fabulous, the story timeless, and the characters (especially his mother) are quirky, brilliant, and lovable. It is an intense story of trying to be who you know yourself to be, to feel entitled to live the life you choose, to move beyond your history, and to dodge the expectations and prejudices of society. McBride’s mother in this story holds her head high, despite all odds and circumstances, and is an inspiration for her children, her community and the rest of us.
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
I have been on a streak of fabulous books lately, and this is likely to be one of my all time favorites by a brilliant author. It is a story that stays with, teaches you, makes you think, and challenges your unacknowledged (or possibly unconscious) assumptions about the raising of a non cis-gendered child. But it also makes you laugh– no heavy handed lecture as can be so common on subjects about the marginalized in society. And, amazingly, this is not a tragedy. The writing is tight, the characters smart, witty, and it is a thrill to watch the story unfold as this family struggles to understand and support a child who is different.
Now at times the characters seem idealized, maybe a bit too insightful, too clever, too non-neurotic as they navigate their love, their ambivalences, and their pain. Yet why would I want to be inside the mind of those whose thinking is as ordinary as mine? No, this story challenges us to be out better selves, and for that I will always recommend this book.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
This recently released debut novel by Alex Michaelides has been called a psychological thriller, but I think the more appropriate term would be a psychological suspense, and a fantastic one at that. The reader is not anxiously awaiting another attack from an unknown villain, but rather sits in page-turning anticipation of understanding the ‘why’ of a known killer. Since the murder takes place in the very beginning of the book and we are pretty sure (with occasional moments of doubt) that we know who the murderer is, the brilliance is how the author takes us through numerous twists and turns as we follow the mystery of why and how this event occurred.
The writing is tight, the characters engrossing in a macabre sense, and the darkness so well orchestrated that the reader is left with the sense that one can really never know oneself, let alone someone else…or what we/they are capable of. Bravo. Great debut novel.
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It is beautiful in so many areas– love, innocence, loneliness, survival, tenacity, and brilliant observation. I am usually one to focus on depth of character and a compelling tale (or not), and both those things areas are executed fabulously, don’t get me wrong. But the setting that Owens immerses the reader in is unforgettable. You are there, and you never want to leave. I fell in love with rural North Carolina (quite a feat for this California girl) through the eyes of the “Marsh Girl” whose keen insight, observational skills, and appreciation of nature reminds one that true biologists are not those who study biology, but rather those who see nothing else as valuable. The New York Times called this book “…painfully beautiful… at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative, and a celebration of nature,” and I couldn’t agree more. I heard this novel as beautifully read by Cassandra Campbell and highly recommend it.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I am not sure why I didn’t like this book as much as so many other reviewers have. Maybe it is the expectation that strong accolades can set me up for, maybe. But like so many YA books, I felt myself lectured to. (Why is it that we think we’re going to turn adolescents on to reading by lecturing them about the “should”s of life?)
This is the story of the horror of violence that the African-American community experiences (both at the hands of the police, as well as their neighborhood gangs) and the struggle that a young female teen has in speaking out as a witness. So far, so good. My problem was that I found the writing uneven, the thinking simplistic and ordinary at times, and, as I said, I felt lectured to. I was reminded of Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson which my kids read when they were teens about a girl who cannot speak up about her rape until the very end. Again, a story to tell teens to speak their truth against a society that prefers they shut up. I thought it was an important message, then watched the sighing reaction of my teens as they felt more instructed by the book than inspired, enlightened, or challenged. I just think these same messages, as important as they are, need to be written in a way that engages the reader more fully in the legitimate struggle against silence. Instead, I felt like screaming at the protagonist to do exactly what she eventually does. But maybe that’s just me.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
A wonderfully executed fiction about love, and its limits. A newly wedded couple has their struggles, like most, but when the man is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not do and he is sent to prison, their relationship is stressed beyond what most could imagine. We hear the strain from both sides, with an added love triangle to complicate things further, as the wrongly convicted man finds his life and future cut completely off from the trajectory that he had been working so hard to achieve. Jones puts us squarely in the head of the three main characters, sometimes uncomfortably so. But it is well worth this discomfort as we know there are no good answers for these characters, they are victims of life’s fate through no fault of their own.
This is the kind of book that stays with you. We all have had moments or events that leave us struggling to find the right answer, a desire to find the decision that won’t leave us second guessing years down the road. This book challenges one to look at your own life and the times when life’s fate has dealt ambiguity and unclear choices. Through this touching story, one might find just a bit of empathy for the tough questions with no good answers.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
What an engrossing read! Gail Honeyman has nailed the art of storytelling with humor, wit, struggle, angst, and love, all told from the quirky point-of-view of our very troubled protagonist, Eleanor, as she navigates a world in which she does not fit, or at least initially. In this way I am reminded of Ignatius Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces or Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time– characters that are unforgettable, and entering their worldview is nothing short of delightful. Eleanor’s voice, her astute observations, her ability to look at the mundane in a new, refreshing, and with a curious but discerning perspective leaves the reader chuckling page after page. Gail Honeyman’s ability to write this odd character with consistency and tenderness is truly awe-inspiring. Highly recommended.
Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Beautifully written, engaging, and touching– I loved this historical fiction about a dark time in American history when children were treated as a commodity to be traded and, worse yet, profited from, over a 30 year period from 1920 to 1950. And yet this is also a story about tenacity and attachment, survival and strength. Lisa Wingate masterfully brings these characters, both young and old, to life with all the complicated dimensions one hopes to find in such a novel. She takes us into this heart-breaking experience from the perspective of a twelve-year-old girl who makes it her purpose to protect her younger siblings. We see her successes and her failures, her pain as well as her power to be her best self despite others around her. In this well orchestrated fiction, Lisa Wingate gives the reader a very vivid experience. I highly recommend this novel.
A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult
Another fabulous novel by Jodi Picoult in her well-known style of fabulous character development, beautiful prose, and a compelling story on a timely and controversial topic. This time Picoult takes up the complex emotions behind the fervent debate over reproductive rights when a pro-life father storms into a women’s clinic that performs abortions in retribution for what he thinks he’s lost. Hostages are taken and innocent people are wounded or killed with each individual having their own story to tell, secrets to keep, and history to wrestle with. As usual, Picoult’s research of her topic is superb as she weaves the myths and facts into the fabric of her tale.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
Literature, like any other art form, is judged by the idiosyncratic eye of the audience. For me, Small Great Things is the literary equivalent of a great sculpture or painting– if created with current social themes consisting of the depth and subtly of masterful strokes, intricate scenes that can be stared at for hours like paintings by the masters, powerful figures that make us question even our deepest held beliefs, and not one to shy away from engaging and understanding the ugly.
This is truly a brave work by Jodi Picoult, and although known for her handling of controversy with aplomb, I was mesmerized by this particular novel. As a white author, one who describes herself as benefitting from the wind-at-your back white privilege that is both ubiquitous and invisible in our society, she stepped into the forbidden abyss of a novel that takes on the complexity of race relations in America. The story is compelling, the characters complex, the prose exquisite, and the themes haunting in a way that elevates ones thinking. It ultimately results in the gratitude one feels when we see something obvious for the first time in a deeper way. I cannot give a higher recommendation than for this amazing novel.
Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Science Fiction at its best. Engaging characters. Intriguing science. Suspenseful. Fast-paced. Unexpected twists.
“Are you happy with your life?” A provocative question that is asked by the abductor of our protagonist, Jason Deesen. A question that deepens as Jason explores all of the millions of decisions that get made in life, forks in the road that lead to opportunities gained, but also just as many opportunities lost. We all have them, the ‘what if”s that can plague even the most satisfied soul. But Crouch takes us much further on this torturous mind game into the area of quantum physics and alternate universes that continue on with the consequences of decisions that never got made. His story of Jason Deesen is a thrilling, well-written page turner, but the reader will find themselves pondering in their own life the questions raised by Crouch well past the last page.
The Girls by Emma Cline
The subject of Cline’s novel, the young women of the “Manson Family” cult, is one that has mystified and intrigued thousands ever since their famous murders in 1969. This is a daunting subject for a debut novel and Cline shows herself to be a talented young author. Cline writes this fictionalized account in the first person POV, through the eyes of a fourteen-year-old teen struggling with her identity and fascinated by the close camaraderie of the Manson’s girls. She joins them for a summer. Our narrator leads us through the initial free-love, anti-establishment, hippy phase of the cult, Manson’s messiah-like command, and then to the eventual murderous events.
I found myself turning page after page to understand what led up to that fateful night. First, who were these young women? At the time, they seemed so ordinary in the papers. One was even a homecoming princess. Second, why was Manson so compelling, so mesmerizing for these girls? After all, in his photos he appeared grossly unappealing and scary. And third, what turned this hippy commune into a murderous cult?
Although I very much enjoyed Cline’s writing and subject, I finished the book frustrated and wanting more. I found her change of the cult members’ names annoying and never understood why that was necessary. It is possible that her re-named fictional characters represent combinations of several real-life cult members and therefore attaching just one of their names to that character would’ve been historically inaccurate, but I wished she’d found a better solution for that problem. Additionally, although I learned a lot about the cult, I never got good answers to the above three important questions that gnawed at me throughout the book. In fact, the third question– what turned changed the Manson Family mission–occurred when our narrator wasn’t there. She returns from being away, and it’s different. I felt she could’ve gone further in this novel. Nonetheless, Cline is talented and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of her work in the future.
The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib
Publication Date: February 5, 2019
This is a smart, tender, heartbreaking, and insightful novel that takes us into the world of eating disorders–the denial, the dangers, the suffering, the treatment–touching on both hope and despair. It is masterfully portrayed with just the proper amount of realism for the lethality, the camaraderie that often occurs in such settings, and the chronicity that can be draining for patients and their families.
As a psychiatrist who has spent many years in the past few decades working with these disorders, I was initially reluctant to read this novel — after all, for me this is work and I read to escape. But Zgheib miraculously wove a story that took me completely out of that mindset and instead staying up late in the night to turn page after page, engrossed in this novel. I really have no idea how she did it except to say that the protagonist is compelling and insightful, and it is a true delight to spend time in her head despite (or maybe because of) her struggles. Zgheib’s pacing is perfectly executed and the writing is tight.
Prior to reading this debut novel, I knew nothing about the author. But when I later discovered that Yara Zgheib is a Fulbright scholar with a Masters degree in Security Studies from Georgetown University and a PhD in International Affairs in Diplomacy from Centre D’études Diplomatiques et Stratégiques in Paris, the intelligence, kindness, and insight with which this novel is written made perfect sense.
I want to thank NetGalley, the publisher, St. Martin’s Press, and the author, Yara Zgheib for providing me a complimentary copy of THE GIRLS AT 17 SWANN STREET in exchange for my honest review.
The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
Oh, this one is fun in so many ways. First and foremost, Quinn shines in her historical research and the ingenious way she weaves that information into the story. I found myself right there, effortlessly emerged in the two time periods (During WWI and right after WWII) that she flips back and forth between– like two different historical fictions in one. And most importantly, the story Quinn tells of the importance and dangers of this female spy network is so intriguing that this novel is difficult to put down. It’s truly like being there without risk of life and limb. Additionally, this novel offers hours of pondering. It lead to thinking about the risks I would (or wouldn’t) be willing to take and the awe inspiring bravery of these young women.
If there is any drawback, it is in the editing. There were times when the writing could’ve been tighter, where repetition of phrases occur within paragraphs, or when pieces the reader already knows get repeated with no additional point to the re-telling. Nonetheless, I recommend this novel and will read more from this author who does her research and presents it so well.
Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
Highly Recommended. In your typical suspense or mystery, the reader is on the edge of their seat wanting to decipher clues, follow twists, and get to the whodunit. But the reader gets way more than those experiences with Noah Hawley’s fabulously executed Before The Fall. This is a novel in which readers find themselves engrossed in the complexity of flawed but fascinating characters, pithy philosophies, and brilliant commentaries on modern life. This is a book that is both a fast page-turner and one that you find yourself highlighting parts and reading them out loud to loved ones.
“…isn’t that what marriage is, two people fighting for land rights to the same six inches?”
“This is what memory is, a carefully calibrated story that we make up about our past.”
“Never fight tomorrow’s fight today.”
“…what if instead of a story told in consecutive order, life is a cacophony of moments we never leave.”
“True horror, you see, comes not from the savagery of the unexpected, but from the corruption of everyday objects, spaces.”
The theme of the randomness in life — the chance coming together of people for no apparent reason, the events that unfold with unexpected outcomes, and the fates that get sealed in a moment — will leave the reader both satisfied and disturbed, it is what we know and yet don’t want to know.
I am grateful to friends who recommended this book (now passed on to my husband, a private pilot, no less).
Past Tense by Lee Child
Publication date: 11/5/2018
First, I’d like to thank the author and publisher for allowing me to read this novel through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
There are Lee Child/Jack Reacher fans, verging on obsessionados (made that word up!) and there are the rest of us. But few can claim to be completely naive to the series which is ubiquitous in all airport bookstores and, of course, most have some familiarity with the movies. For Jack Reacher followers, who love to fill out the picture of who this iconic character is, this latest edition (#23) is an added piece to the mystery of Reacher’s past as he attempts to understand his father. For the rest of us, it is a standard, plot driven, fast paced, commercial story of an ex-military police officer who fights the bad guys (with no question on the reader’s part of who will win, despite the odds), and in a non-conformist manner, Reacher charms the good guys who find his unconventional style both annoying and inspirational.
There are no character arcs here. Reacher is the same dragon-slaying, hard driving, stoic man at the beginning as at the end. What made this story a bit more intriguing was the fortitude and cleverness of the two main victims in solving much of their own dilemma. This is not literary brilliance and will not leave the reader pondering in new and thought-provoking ways. Nor is it the kind of mystery-suspense that keeps one in the edge of one’s seat not knowing who will win or how…the outcome is known. Yet some days this is exactly what a reader wants, a modern swashbuckler. If so, enjoy!
White Oleander by Janet Fitch
This much acclaimed novel is almost 20 years old and I’m finally getting around to reading it– fortunately, it still reads as quite contemporary. This is a story about the coming of age of a young girl with mommy issues…on steroids…and a story of a mother whose enmeshed attachment to her daughter is both sadistic and addicting for both involved. The toxicity of this familial bond thrusts the daughter, Astrid, into a multitude of conflicted relationships with both the men and the women she encounters in foster home after foster home when her mother, Ingrid, is imprisoned for murder. A murder that young Astrid had witnessed in the making. Yet the prison bars prove no barrier for the dangerous hold this complex mother has on her impressionable daughter who is battling her own demons in the revolving-door world of foster care.
And finally, as has been said elsewhere (everywhere!), Fitch’s prose are a delight to read.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control.
How many times can I say, ‘This is one of my favorite books ever,’ and have credibility? Whatever. This book is fantastic. I entered with trepidation, thinking that Ng could never match the brilliance of Everything I Never Told You. But Celeste Ng has done it again with this deep and compelling family drama that touches on so many relevant themes and is sure to touch the hearts of all of her readers.
I’ve seen some reviews that talk about the slow initial pace. I hate slow pace. I loved this book. Why? Ng’s character development is so engrossing that I, as a lover of fast-paced plot, wanted to just surround myself with her words, her descriptions, as if taking a warm bath that remains always at the perfect temperature. Ng also has the rare ability to move point-of-view from third-person intimate to the occasional omniscient POV in order for the reader to see the characters more fully without that shift being jarring to the reader. She just has masterful technique. The only knock I would have on this one, is the envy for the author’s skill that I experienced throughout…there you have it, my petty side is revealed. All kidding aside, life is short. Put down anything you’re reading that you think is ‘just okay,’ and pick this one up.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
First, I have to thank friends who gave me this book as a distraction after a family tragedy (our home burned down in the California Wildfires of Oct. ’17). What a perfect distraction! Couldn’t have been better, truly. It is clever, humorous, page-turning, and yet deals with intensely serious issues of bullying, false accusations, maternal ambivalence, and domestic violence. How could that be done, you might ask. I have no explanation for the brilliance of this writing. There are so many characters in this small town setting, yet each is clearly differentiated and unique. Their stories are complex and powerful. This is a must read and has earned its place as a Book Club favorite.
Now, I know there are Moriarty fans out there who love everything she writes. I’m not one. Honestly, I didn’t really care for The Husband’s Secret. By the end of that one, I really was tired of wondering what the secret was and found it…I don’t know…a bit ho-hum.
But this one? Fabulous and fun!! The twists are delightful and the turns are unpredictable. I highly recommend it for a wonderful escape for her die-hard fans and skeptics alike.
All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
Giffin’s insightful writing and compelling prose go way beyond what one usually finds in a family drama. She masterfully addresses the influence of social media and exposure on teens, family, and community, class and economic influences on the interpretation and handling of moral indiscretions, and the ability to ‘overlook’ character flaws in the ones we are closest to when the price of noticing feels too high…what more thought provoking themes could a reader want? And yet, the beauty of this writing is that it is smooth, believable, and never heavy-handed.
The story is of a son accused of sending a sexually explicit photo of a fellow high school student passed out at a party, with a racist comment underneath. We see this events unfold through several points of view– Nina, the mother who struggles to understand who her son and husband really are, and therefore who she has become, Lyla, the teenage girl whose sole desire is to fit in at a school where she is economically disadvantaged, and Tom, her brilliantly written working-class single father. For me, the class issues that this addresses could not be more timely. It is a story well told, and a perfect book club read.
Thank you to the author and publisher for allowing me to read this wonderful novel through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman
It is impossible to believe that this is Catherine Steadman’s debut novel. She has truly hit the mark with this suspenseful, and compelling psychological thriller. It is a masterfully written mystery that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end with an unexpected and satisfying twist.
Steadman has written this delightfully macabre tail from the first person point-of-view, which works out perfectly for the reader to enter the mind of a gutsy, if somewhat naive and flawed, documentary filmmaker. We see the plot unfold solely from Erin’s perspective and have no desire to know more than she knows until it is time. We love seeing what she does with the information she gets, the fears and paranoia she experiences, and the miscues that get thrown her (and our) way. We watch, eyes half covered, as Erin, our protagonist, declines many chances to take the safe way out of a risky and potentially lethal opportunity in order to strike it rich in support of her new husband down on his luck. We understand her promises to demure, promises meant when they are made, but ultimately impossible for her to keep as she impulsively projects herself deeper and deeper into the gamble. And why do we know this so well and believe it to be true? Because Steadman has so flawlessly made Erin come alive on the page in a way usually reserved for authors with many more books behind them. I rarely find a debut author with such skill and insight.
Thank you to the author and publisher for allowing me to read this wonderful thriller through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Lies by T. M. Logan
Release date: 9/11/18
A thrilling, fast-paced experience from start to finish, I found Lies by T. M. Logan absolutely satisfied my yearnings for a great suspense novel. Our well-meaning protagonist, Joe Lynch, finds himself returning in his mind to that one moment when everything changed, when he could have just kept on his usual path home—home to his simple, but gratifying life. Yet in that moment he impulsively turns as he happens to see his wife’s car pull into a parking garage. He takes what appears to be an innocent enough detour at the bequest of his young son who wants to surprise his mum with that day’s proud moment of an earned award from school. And in that split second decision Joe’s life begins to slowly spiral out of control— he descends down the rabbit hole created by lies, deceptions, and a betrayal that he never could have foreseen.
We’ve all had moments, haven’t we? Times in which forks in the road change our lives forever, where there’s no going back. And Joe’s moment may bring many to mind for the reader. But Joe’s moment is as extreme in the end as it starts out ordinary in the beginning. It pulls his life and his now vulnerable future into a world of chaos and intrigue that threatens to destroy everything dear to him. It is frighteningly paced saga in which all eyes begin to look accusingly at Joe— he is deserted by his friends, his colleagues, his lawyer, the police, and is suspicious of his wife, leaving him isolated and alone. His ability to unravel this mystery is his only hope to save his fate. It is the moment we all fear.
Lies is a well-written plot with plenty of twists and unpredictable turns, with characters developed to fully engross the reader in the story, flipping page after page to the very end. Enjoy!
Thank you to the author and publisher for allowing me to read this wonderful debut novel through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Snap by Belinda Bauer
This is my third novel by Belinda Bauer and in her style that I find very gratifying— namely a well-designed plot with intriguing characters. Personally, I found the quirky protagonist in Rubberneckers and the endearing young lad in Blacklands quite compelling and was extremely impressed with Bauer’s ability to take the reader into a head very different from one’s own and stay there, delighted, for an entire novel. The main character in Snap was one in which I could easily sympathize with, given his history, but just a bit less engrossing than those of previous Bauer novels. Nonetheless, the plot and mystery behind this boy’s desire to find the truth about his mother, engages the reader to join him on his journey.
Thank you to both the publisher and the author for allowing me this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I See You by Clare Mackintosh
Mackintosh’s second novel, I See You, is not to be missed by the reader who loves a good suspense-thriller. All obligatory scenes of this genre are carried out masterfully– sympathetic victims, the terror of potential future crimes, red herrings, the hero at the mercy of the villain, and a false ending followed by a surprising twist– but with no sense of formulaic predictability. MacKintosh’s profound personal knowledge of life in law enforcement is evident in her writing. But most compelling, is the premise– women on their mundane and predictable daily commutes in London are unknowingly becoming targets as their profiles and patterns are sold for profit. A police officer who has difficulty following orders, and a potential victim who has happened upon an ad with her own photo, find themselves marching faster and faster to unravel the mystery behind this deadly cat-and-mouse game before the another woman is killed. I very much look forward to the next Clare Mackintosh novel.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Absolutely one of my favorite books. Ng’s ability to tell a story from many distinct characters’ points of view is awe inspiring. Her characters are vibrant and complex– their emotions deeply felt by the reader. This is a compelling story about an Asian-American family in the 1970’s in which parents attempt to work out their historical conflicts and disappointments through their children and the children bond tightly to protect themselves from this pressure–and all comes to a head with the sudden death of their teenage daughter. Yet summarizing this plot makes it appear trite and ordinary. Nothing could be further from the truth. The beauty of Ng’s work is in the telling. It is truly a masterpiece.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Never to disappoint, Ann Patchett takes her readers on a complex journey of relationships, conflicts, loyalty, and forgiveness. Many authors struggle to show a well-developed character arc for their main character, but not Patchett. She does this in spades as she takes each and every one of her characters on irresistible personal journeys. In Commonwealth, the reader is introduced to two couples, their complex relationships, and their combined six children, all told in a timeframe that is not chronologic. Yet each character’s struggle holds the reader’s interest tight– their flaws, their growth, their changes, and their resistance to change–a masterful example of character development and depth. The non-linear time jumps serve an additional treasure to the reader as we are given the opportunity to fill in the blanks with what we know to be true about these characters–they are like family to us as well. This is a treasure for readers and aspiring writers alike.
Coma by Robin Cook
Why Coma? Why now? As a classic medical suspense thriller published two years before I started medical school, taking place during the era of my current work-in-progress, I had to re-read this today to see how it weathers time. I also found it fascinating to read current readers’ reviews.
It holds together as all good thrillers should– fast paced, edge-of-your-seat story, compelling, bright, if extraordinarily stubborn amateur detective medical student, a touch of a love story, and sly villains. I loved it from beginning to end. My only concern is that today’s reader (myself included) likes to become a bit more intimate with the inner workings and struggles of main characters, even within this plot-driven genre. Not that most of today’s thrillers do it that well either, but the great ones do. Nonetheless, this definitely is worth a re-read.
I don’t usually comment on other reviewers’ opinions, but I was fascinated by some of the critiques. Some found it “dated” because it mentions transistor radios, $600 hit jobs, etc. I saw this as “current” for its time, which is to say it now plays as historical fiction with scenes that are absolutely true to the era (how else could one write in the ’70’s?…or any contemporary era that is then read 40 years later?). Of course it sounds dated. It must be seen as a period-piece. The other review critique I see is to put today’s values on yesteryear’s characters. What we used to call ‘looking through the ‘retrospectoscope’ in medical school, or commonly called Monday morning quarterbacking. “Why would a smart young female medical student get romantically involved with a misogynistic surgical resident?” is asked. I had to laugh. Were there any other choices back then? The norm of being seen as not a doctor, but a ‘girl doctor,’ and all that comes with it, was so ubiquitous that it would be like pointing out that there was air in the room.
Choosing Higher Ground: Working and Living in the Values Economy by Michael Weisman with Beth Jusino
Weisman and Jusino walk both the seasoned businessman and the novice entrepreneur through an understanding of the elements that create lasting and meaningful corporate cultures. Their analyses of the various successful components are clear, memorable, and dotted with numerous interesting examples that will resonate with the experience of most readers whether you are a business owner, an employee, or a savvy customer. This book helps business leaders grapple with their values and hopes and use these components to build an organization that is not only financially strong, but is sustainable and gratifying at a much deeper level. “Influential values distinguish your company from all competitors, draw a loyal community of dedicated followers, and can change the way people view your brand and your category.”
Although it may not have been the intended focus of this book, employees and customers also have much to gain from these principles. Employees often have a vague sense of toxic versus inspiring work environments, but having a structured understanding is helpful in deciding which job to take or which one to quit. As consumers, most of us know that we prefer certain brands or businesses over others, but Weisman and Jusino articulate the why. Choosing Higher Ground has much to enlighten us all and push our interactions with the business community into a more conscious and intentional relationship.
Headlong Into Fury by Ron White
Have you ever attended a family gathering, yours or a friend’s, and impulsively decided to do the charitable thing, and sit next to the elderly man alone in the corner? Cantankerous and un-engaging at first, you immediately regret your decision. Yet you persist and something slowly shifts. Somehow you’ve provided the space for him to speak, to take you on his internal journey to a place and time you’ve only read about in the most banal and sanitized history textbooks. You find yourself mesmerized.
Ron White takes you on such a journey in this compelling novel, told in the first-person, as his step-father’s memoir. The brilliance of this work is the manner in which White captures the voice so common to men of a certain era– the innocent naivety towards women, the understatement of the most dramatic life-threatening events, the need for stoic suppression of emotion to survive.
In addition to the fascinating story of this young pilot, one learns an extraordinary amount of compelling tidbits about this war that bring it all to life– the role of the Coca-cola company in WWII, the impact of racial divides within the military, the life-saving aid brought to our downed airmen by Yugoslavian youth–to name just a few. White’s impressive research is interwoven in this tale to both delight and educate the reader in a manner that is sure to enchant those of us with fathers or grandfathers from what Tom Brokaw called The Greatest Generation.
Desert of This Beauty by Lesa Caldarella-Wong
This is a pre-publication review, prior to the cover being finalized, and I will add the cover when it is available.
I am honored to have received a pre-publication copy of poet Calderlla-Wong’s second book in exchange for an honest review. Truthfully, I had been so taken with her first poetry collection, Real Bread, containing reflections on the author’s experiences in war-torn Africa, that I hesitated to pick up this next collection, fearing disappointment. Fortunately, I had no need for such a fear.
“we wait much too long to tell our versions of truth, squandering our talents and dreams
watching as our intentions and youth slip away.” ~taken from Versions, Desert of This Beauty
Desert of This Beauty is intensely evocative, rich with threads of the wisdom that comes from a life fully lived with all of its beauty, disappointments, secrets, sensuality, hope, and regrets. Calderella-Wong shows the strength that comes from not turning away from the dark, but rather taking it all in with acceptance, noticing what others might try to ignore. The author’s voice comes through as a woman who positions herself ready for love, romance, and passion. Yet she is not such a romantic that she is blind to the hardships of life that present themselves uninvited and need to be faced, grappled with, and ultimately incorporated into one’s life without bitterness.
This is a must-read for poetry readers, and possibly primarily for women who can relate to this diversity of life experience and will be relieved to find themselves on many a page.
The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft
Provocative, intriguing, and impossible to put down, Kathryn Craft’s novel will have the reader fully engaged far beyond the last page. The description gives the framework– the 12 hour ordeal of a family’s experience as their suicidal loved one is holed-up alone with a gun and the police attempt to negotiate outside. But the telling of this story is what makes Craft’s work irresistible. She explores the backstory through their guilt-ridden memories, sprinkled with the glory days of the past, to paint a realistic picture of the complexities of people’s lives and their relationships. The reader’s potential sense of being the uncomfortable, if somewhat voyeuristic, observer of tragedy is placated by knowing that the author is well-versed from personal experience in this story and clearly inviting us in as witnesses. The beauty of her writing is not only in what she tells, but also in her exquisite lack of heavy-handed moralizing or any sense that the reader’s emotions are being played. On the contrary, she shows us the raw truth of complicated feelings as a family tragedy unfolds– full of support, love, loyalty, and devotion, as well as accusations, anger, frustration, and family secrets that get exposed and resolved in this 12 hour drama.
The Truth About Thea by Amy Impellizzeri
Amy Impellizzeri has outdone herself in this third novel about deception, lies, and the complex motives behind tightly held secrets. Many reviewers have raved about the twists, turns, and unforeseen paths this intricate plot takes. All true, and one cannot over-sell this part of Impellizzeri’s writing. But for me, the true joy of reading The Truth About Thea lies in the experience of being inside of Thea’s head. Her perspective on the world, her snarky (yet not tediously so) observations of others, her confidence, her drive– all create a desire to savor this novel from beginning to end. Yes, the plot is fabulous and full of tangled surprises, but where Impellizzeri truly excels is her ability to take the reader on a joy ride of experiencing this story through Thea’s unique perspective.
The Promise Between Us by Barbara Claypole White
The Promise Between Us is a must-read for anyone considering a career in mental health or anyone whose life has been touched by those with anxiety, depression, or PTSD. It is also likely to be a much-needed comfort for those who struggle with these symptoms themselves. Throughout this compelling family saga, all previous notions of motherhood, sacrifice, despair, hope, and love are challenged, and the reader is left with a rich experience beyond the story told.
The respect with which the author approaches her characters is stunning– she shows more compassion for their struggles and flaws than they can initially muster for themselves, and she patiently helps them circle closer and closer to bravely confront their demons in order to become their better selves.
I was also impressed with the author’s ability to tell this story from five well-differentiated points of view, each as intriguing and compelling as the other (in my experience, a rare feat). Characters are deep, complicated, and flawed in ways that draw the reader into the mysteries that lie in each.
I highly recommend this novel as a fabulous book club choice. It pulls for a shared experience and intriguing discussions.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
What a treasure! This was my first book by Pulitzer Prize winning Jhumpa Lahiri, and certainly won’t be my last. Lahiri writes with the beautiful prose so fitting to her subject matter — displacement, melancholy, and the depths of complex emotions that accompany second-generation immigrants as they struggle to fit into a culture that is only partially their own. Her understated elegance gives each short story a richness one usually only finds in full-length novels.
This book was given to me by a dear friend, shortly after my home burned in the California Wildfires. Lahiri addresses issues of displacement and belonging like no other. and it turned out to be the perfect gift. Many a reader can find themselves in her characters and their struggles, their not-so-perfect reactions and thoughts, and be comforted by the respect Lahiri has for it all.
Blacklands by Belinda Bauer
Bauer brings the reader into the minds of her intriguing main characters, not just their motivations and oddly entertaining habits, but the details of their idiosyncratic thinking and philosophies that range from the meaning of desire, to the logic of which half of a diagonally cut sandwich is the preferred half by a twelve-year-old–and rest assured, none of it is tedious or trite. Rather, it seduces one to smile with delight despite the tension of a well-orchestrated thriller. In this way, she nails pacing like no other.
Although this is Bauer’s debut novel, it was not my first Bauer. I had so enjoyed Rubbernecker that I decided to go back to the beginning and see where it all began (at least in her published novels). Questions I ask: Are the characters compelling enough to care about their journeys? Is the POV a voice I like to hear; a psyche I want to share (even if disturbing)? Does this book keep me referring back to scenes or a character’s plights and resolutions in the days, weeks, or longer that follow the last page read? In all of these important ways, with Blacklands by Belinda Bauer, there is a resounding YES!
This was my first book through Audible. I typically like the feel of the paper in bed, or the convenience of Kindle on a plane. I decided to try an Audible read while working out. The results? Not being able to “put it down” leads to more time on the Elliptical than ever before. I had a fabulous read, a well told story, intriguing deep characters in my head, pacing that was brilliant, AND got into shape. What could be better?
Shrill, Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
Having heard Lindy West on a This American Life podcast interview, I was thrilled when her book hit the stands, and it did not disappoint. West is a brilliant, articulate, and delightfully funny feminist who boldly challenges the hidden assumptions and prejudices of even the most self-aware. West is an important voice and my attempts to review her book will not do it justice. Just read it.
Naked We Came by Robert Lane
Naked We Came was my first Robert Lane novel and the 5th in his Jake Travis series. I received this free from the publisher through NetGalley for an honest review, and thank them and the author for this opportunity.
I thoroughly enjoyed this murder mystery. There were several ways that this author sets himself apart from many in his genre.
Twists and turns are typical for suspense mysteries, but Lane’s plot did more than just lead the reader down dead-ends and false leads. Instead of the usual linear sequence of potential suspects that a reader is convinced is the perpetrator, only to learn different and throw that character away for the next, Lane has the reader circling back and forth–alternating strong convictions of the innocence or guilt of several characters. I particularly enjoyed the surprising revelations of the contributions of a few minor characters to the holding of secrets due to their own selfishness.
I was also pleasantly entertained by the occasional addition of the main character’s philosophical musings:
“Who is to judge how heavy someone else’s invisible suitcase is?”
“There are no more answers found abstaining from alcohol than there are from indulging in it.”
Or his struggles with his past:
“The past was like the rudder of the boat: always behind you but directing where you go.”
And later: “The past is like a dog trying to shake off water. You just keep shaking and shaking and shaking. Finally you lie down, still wet.”…It just doesn’t get better than that imagery!
Bottomline: Enjoyable, fun, thought-provoking, and entertaining….and for me, a fabulous diversion (Full disclosure: my house burned to the ground in the California Wildfires while I was reading this novel…loved the diversion!).
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pakkanen
If you are an avid reader of psychological thrillers, this book is for you. The two main female characters are written with a depth and clear separation of personality that the keeps readers moving quickly to understand their plight. The authors write in a style that pulls the reader into the characters’ compulsions and impulses such that even when you’d advise differently–sitting comfortably in your favorite reading chair–you close your eyes and say: “oh, no, don’t do that”–yet, you’re also completely aware of the motivations to do the ill-advised action that are guaranteed to lead to danger and not sure you’d do otherwise yourself. Well-done.
Thank you to the authors, publishers, and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this novel in exchange for an honest review.
The Distance Home by Orly Konig
“Now the daddy-boulder has been lifted from my self-doubt and I don’t trust my legs to know the right direction.”
Emma Metz’s father has died, forcing her to return to where she grew up to face her demons…and be reminded of her passions. Author Orly Konig weaves a complex and compelling story of friendship and betrayal, loss and the power to recover–all centered around a young woman who finds the strength to ultimately challenge the myths of her youth. It is a beautifully written story about discovering secrets and learning to forgive.
I highly recommend this for book clubs as it can lead to so many different discussions regarding aspects of youth, girl-friendships and the power they can hold (for the better and worst), and growing up to let go of the insecurities that keep us from following our dreams.
The Wispering Room by Dean Koontz
…a fun and captivating read!
“In a time when the multitudes of the earth seemed to be dividing into just two categories, prey and predators, it was remarkable how unattuned the gazelles could be to the gathering leopards all around them.”
“Once truth was known, it could not be unlearned, nor could it be forgotten, but lay always in the heart, a darkness for which all the years ahead would be spent seeking whatever light could be found to compensate.”
Honestly, I picked this advanced reader copy from NetGalley as an experiment– I had never read Koontz (despite having seen so many of his best sellers in airports all over the world) and this is the second in a series in which I had (obviously) not read the first. I wondered if this would render me a little lost, and feared that I just wouldn’t ‘get it’ (whatever ‘it’ was). As it turned out, I truly enjoyed this novel. It is an extremely compelling thriller with a fabulous protagonist, intriguing characters throughout, a complicated twisty plot, and Koontz has a wonderful writing style. I have read other reviews by readers who read the first in this series and state that one must read the first to understand this second. Not true! This novel stands alone and is a fun David and Goliath (correction: Jane and Goliath) thriller that is delightfully entertaining.
My experiment question–Can the virgin Koontz reader plop themselves into the middle of a series and come out more than satisfied at the other end?–was answered with a resounding: Yes!
Thank you to Netgalley and Bantam for the ARC, which was given in exchange for an honest review.
Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer
Highly recommended! This mystery-thriller is a one-of-a-kind. The extraordinarily unique perspectives of our main characters kept me glued to this novel for hours. First and foremost, we have Patrick Fort, a young anatomy student with Asperger’s Syndrome, who begins to suspect there is something odd about the death of his cadaver. His way of thinking is so well-written, that readers will find themselves completely in-step with his oddities. A new appreciation of those who think differently will stay with the reader well beyond this novel, not from a clinical, studied, heavy-handed understanding, but rather from experiencing it all from the inside such that it ultimately makes more sense than one’s own perspective. Truly brilliantly written.
Second, we have the astute and entertaining observational skills of Samuel Galen, a partially-conscious, partially-comatose, victim of a motor vehicle accident on a neurology ward. To top it off, we have a gold-digging young nurse, an alcoholic mother, a not-so-innocent suave husband, a brilliantly empathic female medical student, and a host of others that color this clever novel and come alive on the page with Bauer’s remarkable talent. Bauer is certainly an author to follow.
Behind Closed Doors by B. A. Paris
This is my first B.A. Paris book, but definitely won’t be my last. Behind Closed Doors is your classic, page-turning, domestic thriller that satisfies all readers of that genre. At first you wonder how could our bright female protagonist get herself into such a pickle, but author Paris does an excellent job of walking us quickly (and terrifyingly) through that process. Our protagonist has a noble goal: to save not only herself, but also to save her beloved younger sister with Down’s Syndrome from her seemingly perfect yet psychopathically sadistic husband who is very clever to create a world in which she can obtain very little help from others. Of course, you know she’ll make it out, that is never the question. The seduction of this book is to learn how she does it and when, and that becomes the satisfaction of the ending.
Writing the Intimate Character by Jordan Rosenfeld
I have now finished my second reading of Writing the Intimate Character, and it is likely not my last. I first read it cover to cover to get the full impact. Then I returned to go through it slower and do the exercises at the end of each chapter that pertained to my current manuscript. I found it enlightening, insightful, and it certainly helped me think more clearly about my protagonist and other characters. It goes beyond character development to help think about the pace and rhythm of narrative voice, dialogue, and internal monologue as well as to help authors evaluate the most effective point of view for their work. I highly recommend this book and will be buying other books by this author.
Interestingly, I was fortunate enough to meet the author at the San Francisco Writers Conference this year and subsequently took a workshop from her in Corte Madera. I was impressed not only with what she had to say, but with what she brought out in my work and that of the other authors as we worked through some of the exercises (which I usually hate to do in those kinds of settings!…don’t operate well under time pressures, yet…it was fabulous). I just had to have this book…and it surpassed my expectations.
That Existential Leap: a crime story by Dolan Cummings
That Existential Leap: a crime story by Dolan Cummings is the kind of book you just want to be immersed in, hoping it doesn’t end. The two male protagonists, one primarily in New York, one in Scotland, both flawed and engaging, allow the reader a thought-provoking exposure to two minds that stimulate your own existential thoughts as these characters navigate their worlds. Most interesting, That Existential Leap:…does not hit you over the head with heady academic philosophy. Rather these young men of working class roots take you into their insights and struggles with just the right amount of intrigue of character and quirky uniqueness without being annoying—a feat not easily attained.
We are introduced to Siegfried, who seems to be a cross between his idol, Raskolnikov, from Crime and Punishment and Ignatius J. Reilly, from Confederacy of Dunces, through the insightful eyes of his young girlfriend as she attempts to manage her own existential questions of how to enter adulthood. She notes that according to Siegfried:
“The narrow and predictable biography of the average human being is really quite disturbing. What is more disturbing perhaps is that this is no secret. Everybody who has ever bothered to think about it can see that there are infinite possibilities in life, and yet still they plow that same furrow, or at least choose their furrows from the same field, so to speak. Siegfried wouldn’t have objected if they were talking about a good field, but really it isn’t a good field at all. The deliberate choice of a dull and miserable life seemed to Siegfried to be inexcusable, and yet it was the norm, the reality.”
And Alexander, our brilliantly dysphoric detective from Scotland presents his own existential musings that are less heady yet equally intriguing and seductive.
“Alexander realized that his love was dead. But he began to see something new in Laura. Something that suggested the relationship might be worth pursuing after all. Not the promise of happiness that he had never really wanted anyway, but something far more in keeping with his personality, and indeed his ambition. As the love that had become lust turned finally to resentment, it hit him. Laura would make an excellent wife.”
I found that I was highlighting and re-reading many lines or paragraphs, looking up to ponder the narrative, smiling to myself about the places it led me, or reading to whomever was near—this is a sign of a novel that challenges without overwhelming. I highly recommend The Existential Leap: a crime story, and look forward to the next novel by Dolan Cummings.
I received this novel as an Advanced Reader Copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. As you can see from my review, I very much appreciated the opportunity. Publication date is May 26,2017.
The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
It starts off very strong, the world-building is exceptional, and the main character engages the reader. The end is also quite fabulous, and the ambiguity is perfect—it leaves the reader knowing that what is important is the decision, not the outcome.
Unfortunately, the middle drags and the protagonist begins to seem petulant and annoying, and the reader’s empathy for her wanes. The middle is why I can only give this novel 3.5 stars, instead of the 5 stars that the beginning and end deserve. I felt that the motivations of the father character could have been explored (beyond creating a safe place for his daughter as that could’ve been accomplished without making himself such a guru to the others). What this ship-world accomplished for his own psychological needs is left to speculation, but could have been an interesting addition. Also, the middle could have developed more about the other passengers’ willingness to give up the freedom of independent ego states. Why was this given up without resistance? Didn’t any of them have ambivalence, and if so how did they resolve this, and if not, why not?
Overall, a very good book, but with a little more editing and a bit more development in the middle, The Ship could’ve been one of the truly great books of the year. As is, it is still very much worth the read, as the themes of freedom, happiness, and the meaning of our existence as presented in The Ship are deliciously thought-provoking. I look forward to the next book by this very talented author.
I received an Advanced Reader Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.
Dangerous Behavior by Walter Marks
Dangerous Behavior has a fun plot that keeps you guessing to the end. The main character is a psychiatrist who has an interesting perspective and helps you become fully immersed in his world. His world of psychiatric patients in the NY prisons was presented in a unique way. For me, there was some annoying distractions, like the mc/author’s obsession with women’s breasts which seemed to be the only part of the women that was interesting to the men, and that perspective got a bit tedious. It also seemed a bit sophomoric and unfortunately cheapens what would otherwise be very good writing. If one can overlook that, the plot keeps you engaged and the pages keep turning as you are driven to discover ‘who done it?’.
I originally picked this up to see how other writers portray psychiatrists who use their skills to solve a mystery. The author is not a psychiatrist himself, so at times there were pieces that did not ring true, but he does a fairly good job of not following for popular stereotypes. So, for me, this was a bit of a research project and I found myself in the mist of a fun-to-read story.
The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson
The Bookseller creates more than the flipping back and forth between the two realities presented on the page–it beckons the reader to ponder the roads they, too, did not take and find themselves daydreaming about. For me, that is one of the major perks of this novel.
The Bookseller is well-written and the genre is well-executed. It had a few frustrations for me (as all books do), like the husband and parents seem a bit too unrealistically supportive and uncomplicated to believe, the husband too perfect and idealized for depth, but I could easily look past these to gain the many gold nuggets this novel provides. As a psychiatrist, in the end I found the strength of the protagonist’s “dreams” that were ultimately dissociations hard to believe given the inciting trauma and her lack of a childhood traumatic basis for such a reaction.
But the theme has relevance nonetheless. It challenges the reader to think about when and why we might find ourselves daydreaming alternate stories for our lives, based on taking a different course at the no-way-to-turn-back decision points that lead to our current reality.
I highly recommend this novel to individuals who like a good story as well as one that leaves them thinking way beyond the last page, and to book clubs who are looking for a discussion that melts the book’s theme with the personal.
The Marriage Pact by Michelle Richmond
End of Secrets by Ryan Quinn
An enjoyable dystopian thriller may sound like an oxymoron, but Ryan Quinn’s End of Secrets is quite delightful to those who are love to delve into the dark side. This was one of the more difficult books for me to review because the writing is a bit uneven. There could awkward phrases that made me cringe, as if the author was trying too hard… but then I’d come across brilliantly phrased philosophical truisms that I had to highlight and contemplate much after finishing this novel. I ultimately found the later to outweigh the former, and the reader is ultimately swept away with the plot. It is not as fast moving as some thrillers until the final dozen or so chapters when the pace really picks up. The internal plot is one of a maturation disillusionment (much like Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs) and the external plot delivers as a well-constructed thriller with many unique and interesting story lines that kept me engaged throughout. I certainly look forward to reading another novel by Ryan Quinn.
The Patriots by Sana Krasikov
I highly recommend The Patriots by Sana Krasikov to readers interested in smart, well-written Literary Fiction with a unique story, complex characters, and historical intrigue. Krasikov brings the reader into the mind of a young American women, Florence Fein, who chooses to go to Russia in the 1930s to follow her ideals of the socialist vision and encounters love, friendship, hope, betrayal, guilt, despair, torturous imprisonment, and ultimate release with the changing political climates from the 1930s to the 1980s. Florence is challenged to come to grips with the choices she has made and the impact those choices have on loved ones. Juxtaposed to Florence’s story, is her son’s more modern first-person narrative of his struggles to understand the life and decisions of his mother, and grasp the secrets that are ultimately revealed.
Most important is how absorbing it feels to live within the mood and tone of this exquisitely written novel. Krasikov should be applauded for her well-executed debut novel that allures the reader into a world most have very little experience in and she creates an atmosphere in which we gain a new-found knowledge.
I received an advanced release copy of The Patriots from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Sleight by Sloane Kady
Sleight by Sloane Kady is a phenomenally well-executed psychological suspense novel that keeps the reader engaged from beginning to end in order to discover the secrets within this very injured family. The voice of the protagonist, Bryce, is particularly compelling in its unique, sassy, punky style that shows the skill of a very sophisticated author. For a taste, readers should sample the first paragraph in which Bryce’s voice and perspective is brilliantly conveyed with a in-your-face immediacy that promises to take you on a fast and curious ride…and then, importantly, Sleight does not fail on that promise, but pays out with continuous reveals and an inevitable yet surprising ending.
This is the first book I’ve read from this author, but will definitely not be my last as her style is so attractive. I highly recommend it to readers who enjoy delving into novels with unique and compelling voice, suspenseful reveals, and satisfying endings, but not afraid of the dark side of humanity.
From Shoeshine to Star Wars by Walt Jourdan & Lee Jourdan
From Shoeshine to Star Wars by Walt Jourdan & Lee Jourdan is a remarkable memoir of a remarkable man. For someone, like myself, who sees herself as too jaded for inspirational books, this one challenged me to the core. Walt Jourdan’s tenacity and fortitude is truly awe-inspiring and takes the reader through a time and place in history that would be forever lost if it weren’t for such memoirs. What makes this particular story most interesting is the depth of the voice that comes through in the writing. You feel spoken to by a great man looking back at his extraordinary life.
It is a fantastic book to sit down with a warm cup of tea (or brandy, if the time is right) and settle in for a story that at first you might think could be told at a family Thanksgiving dinner by your tale-telling uncle with everyone nodding politely. But soon you find yourself putting down that drink and absorbed in a world with the vicissitudes of ups and downs, good luck and bad, love and devotion, and exceptional talent that far exceeds any family stories I’ve heard. This man’s intelligence, gregariousness, and willingness to step forward with whatever gets thrown his way is truly inspiring. Long after you finish and set this book aside, what remains is the impression that anything is possible through hard work and undaunted motivation. I highly recommend this read (even to my fellow cynics!)
City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson
“People don’t look for revenge to make them happy. They do it because they must.”
City of Saints & Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson is a fast-paced YA book with edgy themes and current relevance. As a murder mystery in the thriller external genre, it also has a strong and compelling internal coming-of-age genre that is perfect both for the YA audience as well as for adults.
Natalie Anderson should be thoroughly congratulated for her accomplishment in this debut novel on many fronts: compelling characters, twisty plots, red herrings, surprises, and most uniquely, she brought the plight of refugees from war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo into the hearts of readers (including those of us from the west). If one of the author’s desires was for the western reader, especially the YA reader, to think of these African characters as having wants and desires no different from their own (family, love, safety, but also troubled by understandable and legitimate revenge fantasies), and then finish the book with the question of “What would I do if…?,” then Anderson was extremely successful without being heavy-handed. Bravo.
Southern Gothic by Dale Wiley
Southern Gothic by Dale Wiley is a smart, masterfully orchestrated, complicated thriller. At first glance, the premise of a book-within-a-book might seem distracting. It is not. Both story lines keep the reader engaged page after page and compelled to stay up much later than planned, as this book is nearly impossible to put down.
Wiley’s character, Michael Black, is a talented but deranged best-selling author. Wiley doesn’t merely tell us that with the response Black gets from his fans and sales, Wiley shows us by having us read Black’s writing. This is a very gutsy move on Dale Wiley’s part— to ‘imitate’ the writing of a fictional acclaimed author and do it in such a way that the reader, too, is awed by the writing—a feat not many could carry off. But this is only one of the ways in which Wiley shows his brilliance.
Black’s writing is also essential to understanding clues to the complex, erotic, and ultimately sadistic relationship Black develops with women, including Meredith Harper, a younger aspiring author in the main narrative. Meredith’s plight is one that is all too familiar and in that way it is most frightening to the empathic reader. In an instant, surrounded by her closest friends and overwhelmed by a golden opportunity, she fails to come clean about a deception. This momentary lapse in judgement leads her into the spiral of Wiley’s well-crafted cat and mouse game, and readers will find themselves fully engrossed to the very end.
This was my first Dale Wiley novel and I have now added his others to my Goodreads’ “Want to Read” list. This is truly one of the best books I’ve read this year.
I received this novel via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the author and the publisher, Vesuvian Books, for the opportunity to read and review this novel.
Reef Fish Identification: Caribbean, Bahamas, South Florida by Paul Humann and Ned Deloach
I have delayed reviewing this book as it requires me to commit to “finishing” it. One never finishes this book. It is a truly fabulous, informative, and beautifully presented reference book that accompanies me to the Caribbean time after time on my dive trips. In group dive trips, I am forever wrestling it back from my fellow divers–so much so that I had to give the dive couple we usually dive with a copy of their own. Humann not only helps you identify the various Caribbean creatures in the usual way of pointing out distinguishing features and identifying marks, he also helps you understand the relationship between seemingly very different fish (like how a pretty little Fairy Basslet is related to those big, impressive Bass). And, of course, I can’t give enough praise to Ned Deloach’s photography–truly amazing work. I had the privilege a few years ago of meeting Mr. Deloach and his talented videographer wife at a lecture at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego and felt like it was meeting the true giants in a very specialized field–quite an honor. For scuba divers, snorkelers, or just lovers of sea creatures, this is a must have.
Kill The Next One by Federico Axat
Kill the Next One is a well-crafted twisty suspense that is likely to strike some readers as quite brilliant whereas other readers will find the unreliable POV difficult to follow. I especially loved the first half of the book in which the reader is taken through the internal experience of a man whose perceptions and memories are constantly shifting. I know other reviewers have found this confusing and annoying, but I found it fascinating and intriguing. It requires the reader to go down each and every rabbit hole; to allow oneself to be absorbed by the perception-of-the-moment without investing in the reality of it, except as it pertains to the protagonsit’s experience and clues about the various mysteries at play.
In the second half, unfortunately I was a bit distracted by the psychiatric hospital scenes that just weren’t believable to me (full disclosure: I’m a psychiatrist and have worked for over 30 years in psych hospitals). But when I was able to set that aside, the plot and the relationships between key characters continued to pull me into this dark and twisty novel.
I would definitely recommend this book and look forward to reading other novels by this author.
Thank you to the author and publisher for allowing me to read this novel prior to publication in exchange for an honest review.
The Things We Wish Were True by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen
Six points of view may seem excessive, and yet I found each and every one of them very separate, distinctive, and engaging. Whalen’s ability to balance who told the story as it progresses, kept me turning pages, anxious to see how this next character resolved (or didn’t) their particular piece of the events of this small town. The first 2/3 of the book were especially compelling. I felt fully engaged with these characters and wanted to know their backstory and the resolution of their difficulties. Unfortunately the resolutions of all of these characters’ difficulties were a bit too predictable and joyful (for me, a bit annoyingly so), with less personal angst, for my taste.
Additionally, when it is stated that a young child who has undergone and (comes out of) a particularly horrendous extended experience is said to now have “a future ahead of her that was as bright as she chose to make it,” I was disturbed by the naivety regarding trauma that this implies- as if trauma victims who have difficulties in recovery can choose to reverse the damages. Yes, this was only one line, but I found it quite troubling.
The good guys stay good, if not heroic, and the bad guys stay bad and are punished. So, if one is looking for a light, enjoyable read, this is a wonderful choice.
Le Chateau by Sarah Ridout
Sarah Ridout’s debut novel, Le Chateau, is a fast, page-turning story that kept me fully engaged to the last page. The premise of a mysterious accident that leaves the main character, Charlotte, confused and unable to trust the people around her and the stories she is told, leads the reader down the path of inquiry with her. One of my favorite things about reading fiction is when a good author takes my thoughts beyond their story. In this, Ridout does not disappoint.
Charlotte has a combination of Traumatic Brain Injury and psychologic repression resulting in a memory loss of the previous 5 years, with full memory prior to that. She proceeds with a slow, steady process of re-gaining hints and clips of memory as she separates from the incident both temporally and geographically. As a physician and psychiatrist (full disclosure) I found this combination plausible and the premise of its evolution and ultimate solution quite interesting. I struggled a bit however with the introduction of a ‘potion’ (tea) that was never fully explained, a hint at powerful psychic powers that some people have genetically, and a forced hypnosis (which is hard to imagine). Nonetheless, the question of how one’s life would be experienced if the previous 5 years were suddenly erased is provocative indeed, and is a fabulous book club discussion.
In the end it became more of a romance than the darker, gothic mystery/thriller I had expected from the description, but in that genre it succeeds.
This is a well-done debut novel from an author with much talent and I think it will appeal to readers of romance and women’s fiction with an added bit of suspense and a thought-provoking plot.
I received this novel via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to the author and the publisher, Echo, for the opportunity to read and review this novel.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
After spending almost a decade working as a psychiatrist in a native clinic, I resisted Erdrich’s work due to fearing that it would be, quite frankly, too much like my work (I read for pleasure!) or fall into one of the two categories I find all too common–namely either an over-idealization of native culture or an oppressive narrative of reservation poverty. This novel was neither. Maybe that is true of all of Erdrich’s novels. I don’t know as this was my first…but it won’t be my last.
Erdrich masterfully envelops the reader into the world of Joe, a 13 year old boy whose mother has been subjected to a heinous crime. She and the family are left with the aftermath of both the trauma and the knowledge that the perpetrator is not likely to be brought to justice. Eldrich’s handling of Joe is truly impressive and it is a pleasure to spend time observing how he navigates the complexity of his surroundings while attempting to grow up. The reader is immersed in the convolutions of Joe’s empathic pain for his mother, his frustrations over her lack of recovery, his struggles with his own adolescent emotions and emerging sexuality, his loyalty to friends, and his coming-of-age development that brings him to taking matters into his own hands.
It is a novel that stimulates much thought long after the last page is read, and I highly recommend it.
I’ve read other excellent reviewers who found the changes in POV and changes in time confusing, but for me they worked quite well. In fact, the story and the suspense wouldn’t have worked without these jumps and I very much liked trying to figure out who thought what when. All 3 female characters (the 3 POVs) have their perspectives, their differences, and their psychological limitations, so being inside each separately adds to the plots tension.
It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel by Paula Hawkins and I look forward to her next. The Girl on the Train is a fast read and I recommend it highly.
Room by Emma Donoghue
This book came highly recommended from an old friend and fellow writer whom I trust, but still I hesitated. I had (horror of horrors) already seen the movie. Normally I wouldn’t have made such an elementary faux pax, but there had been only 4 degrees of separation to the director (my husband’s cousin’s best friend’s son!), so there were no choices, right?
As it turns out, knowing the plot and outcome did nothing to spoil this read. Emma Donoghue is a fabulous author and her decision to write this tale completely from the POV of a 5 year old is quite gutsy as it could so easily have wavered between tedious and unbelievable. Yet her handling of Jack shows a careful study of a real child and not the projected internal voice of an adult. His desire to hold onto the familiar will ring true for any parent who has suffered through 50-odd showings of a child’s favorite DVD (my sons’ was “Land Before Time”) and yet the contrast between my very ordinary example and Jack’s disturbing and somewhat haunting experience stays with the reader for exactly that reason. An ordinary child and a young, traumatized, inexperienced mother who had no guidance outside of her own instincts, normalizes an extraordinary experience in order to protect the psyche. This all gets challenged when everything changes and he has to start all over in his understanding of his new world. He desperately holds on to the comfort he finds in the familiar, struggles with his mother’s rejection of their shared past, and yet holds a cautious child’s curiosity about the new and shiny. In this way, Donoghue shows her expertise.
Wreckage by Emily Bleeker
The plot was compelling enough to keep me reading (voyeuristically) but the depth of character development left me rolling my eyes too much for serious engagement. We must have been told of the beauty of the female protagonist so many times (enough already!) and yet her continued damsel-in-distress position in life became a bit of a yawn. Even when she bravely acts, she collapses quickly afterwards requiring men to comfort and save her. The author seemed a bit compulsed to come to a happy ending instead of a possible edgy ambiguity that would have made this a bit more thought provoking.
El Alquimista by Paulo Coelho
I am a native English speaker, but am reading this with my Spanish teacher (advanced intermediate level). It is a lovely book in Spanish, although originally written in Portuguese, and is a fabulous way to improve your vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation (if read out loud). More importantly, it is a truly excellent and beautiful book. In fact, the story was so compelling that I stayed up all night to finish the book ahead of our readings for class. I look forward to moving on to other books by Paulo Coelho.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Truly literary genius. Nguyen’s voice is mesmerizing, dark yet not morbid, more curious. His story challenges Americans to search deep into their sense of history, their comfort with a simplistic, yet false narrative that we have allowed ourselves to settle upon and that helps us close a difficult chapter. His story requires us to revisit this and become more honest. In many ways this is comforting, as we’ve known all along, and having it said out loud is a relief.
Real Bread by Lesa Caldarella-Wong
Engrossing. Lesa Caldarella-Wong uses poetry and prose to ‘take you there’ with a style and voice that is both mesmerizing and paralyzing. She equally gives voice to the horrors and the heart-beat of a particularly violent time in Africa. She speaks of the children who have been traumatized by the genocide around them, yet also are, as it turns out, still children who play and laugh in the streets despite their histories. She is able to help the reader see it all from the perspective of an outsider on the inside, one who can be horrified one moment, and then amazed at the resilience the next. I am grateful for her willingness to share her vulnerabilities and insights.
The April Poems by Lawrence Wilson
Truly lovely poetry by Lawrence Wilson. I particularly liked the various forms of poetry he included, and not being an expert on this, I was very pleased that his introduction explained what he included so that I could read and learn- a natural teacher in addition to a poet. I hope he continues to share more of these with the world.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
When I decided to read this 1959 classic suspense/thriller, I expected to find it a bit dated, but hopefully worth it. (Okay, there’s no cell phones.) But otherwise Condon’s classic still holds up, continues to be a page turner, and as I read it I felt like I was inside well constructed film noire.