Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Girl in Snow” by Danya Kukafka


I’d never heard of this book (and haven’t heard anything about it since, come to think of it) before Sam gave it to me for Christmas. He liked the image on the cover, and the similarity of the author’s last name to Kafka; and the endorsement by Paula Hawkins on the front cover didn't hurt.

Girl in Snow is definitely in the same category as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and not just because it has the word "girl" in the title). All three are well-written, tightly plotted mystery/thrillers that are definitely fun and worth reading. If I had to rank them I think I'd say this one isn't as good as GG but is slightly better than TGotT. (Is Gone Girl inflated in my memory? Because no thriller seems to quite compare to it anymore.) 

The story here is a murder mystery told from the perspective of three different characters. Two are teenagers who attend the same school as the girl who was killed, and one is a cop who was with the phalanx who first responded to the murder scene. There's a little bit of Northern Exposure going on here, as all three characters are almost a little bit too quirky to be true . . . or maybe everyone is really that quirky on the inside, and we just don't have the opportunity to realize it the way we do when we're reading someone's innermost thoughts?

Lots of parallels were drawn between characters (art, ballet, people with fathers who are were policemen--maybe there were more similarities than this, but I'm too lazy to search for others) which was *almost* (but not quite) enough to make things a little confusing sometimes, but was definitely enough to be interesting and make me think about the connections between people and how similar situations can affect people in different ways. 

I have only one complaint, which isn't really much of one. Once again I guessed the solution early on. I first wondered on page 50, first suspected on 142, my suspicion deepened on 299... and the actual revelation wasn’t until 305. At least this wasn’t a case where all the characters were being stupid because the clues were too obvious, or a case where it was annoyingly easy to guess the killer. It was both satisfying and frustrating to crack the case early. Maybe I’m just too good at it! I guarantee you, though, I would NOT be good at solving real-life murders. I’m sure the criminals would never be as accommodating in handing out clues as authors are. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

“The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman


This may sound like a stupid thing to say, but I love books that I enjoy reading. And I really enjoyed this one.

The Imperfectionists is marketed as a novel, but it’s really a book of short stories. (Don’t let that put you off, though! That makes it great for taking it in small bites and reading one chapter at a time.) This book did not reach critical mass (I assume because of the format, or maybe my one-chapter reading habit?) but my reading experience was better without it. 

Though there is a tenuous narrative arc (the stories are tied together by a fictional newspaper based in Rome; each chapter is about someone who works there, and people who are featured in one story often make small appearances in others) the relative lack of plot is a benefit rather than a detriment. What really shines in this book is the characters. 

The characters weren’t necessarily lovable or impressive (more often the opposite), but they felt real and true. As I read, I don’t remember thinking “Wow, these characters seem like they could be real people,” which is a good thing because that would have taken me out of the story. And that’s always annoying. (Though that would have been better than if I’d been thinking, “Wow, I totally can’t imagine any of these characters as real people.”) But looking back now, after having finished the book, I’m definitely thinking “Wow, those characters seemed like they could have been real people.”


Saturday, April 7, 2018

“In the Orchard, the Swallows” by Peter Hobbs


This is a beautiful little book, through and through. I mean, look at that lovely little cover! And what’s inside is even better. I actually finished reading this book several weeks ago, and I hate that I put off writing about it, but I think that’s because I was afraid I wouldn’t do it justice. That’s still true, but the longer I wait the worse it will be.

Which is unfortunate, because reading this book was rewarding, and I would really like to savor that feeling. The story is told so calmly and peacefully, almost a Zen experience, but it has strength and a quiet passion too. It’s the story of a young man who returns to his village in Pakistan after years of unjust imprisonment . . . and that sentence right there would NOT interest me in reading this book. But the writing is subtle and taut, the story offered in sweet but tart nibbles, so that reading it was almost like eating one of the pomegranates that grow in the book’s orchard. The plot gently shifts between the man’s adolescence, his imprisonment, and his following convalescence, slowly revealing the series of events that brought him to the present day. 

It’s a very short book, but it’s the kind that any Goldilocks worth her salt would close with a satisfied sigh. 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

“Riding in Cars with Boys” by Beverly Donofrio

I only got this book because I’d heard of the movie. That’s not a good enough reason. It's a nice little I-was-a-teen-mom-and-lived-to-tell-about-it memoir, with the added twists that Donofrio grows up to be a published author, and the baby who seemingly ruined her life grows up to be her best friend. So, kind of like a fairy tale. But I do appreciate the sentiment expressed at the end. Many people have limitations... but it’s up to the individual to decide whether to stew about those limits or whether to learn from them and find them enriching.

I haven’t seen the movie, and now I probably won’t. That’s mainly because I totally can’t picture Drew Barrymore playing Beverly. I was thinking of someone more like Leah Remini as I read (dark hair, looks convincingly Italian, and is a sharp sarcastic talker who has perfected the eye-roll). I expect that Barrymore did well with the scenes where Beverly got high (admittedly that’s probably almost all of them) because she’s good at the dreamy, slow-speaking, happy-go-lucky characters. Maybe I’m underestimating her range, but I just don’t think Barrymore could successfully “be” Beverly as written in the book.

Or maybe I’ll have to watch the movie just to find out if I’m right?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

“The Couple Next Door” by Shari Lapena


AAAGH. UGHHHHH. I can't believe I read the whole thing. (Actually that's not true. I can hardly bear to not finish a book, no matter how bad it is.) I feel as if I just ate an entire mega-sized bag of peanut M&Ms: a little bit sick, and full of regret.

I suffer a slight twinge of guilt when I slag off a book by a living author, mainly because I imagine how the author would feel if they read my blog post (however unlikely). In this case I will assuage my guilt with the knowledge that this book was a NYT bestseller, so surely Ms Lapena won’t care if one lowly little blogger didn’t love her book. Or even if one lowly little blogger hated her book. 

I can understand why readers (including me) find the idea of this book intriguing. The Gone Girl-esque cover draws you in, and then the blurb piques your interest: Anne and Marco’s perfect little family suddenly begins to unravel after “a terrible crime” is committed while they are at a dinner party. And there is the promise of many secrets, and a shocking truth. 

But OMG, the writing was awful. Gone Girl it was not. It was pretty bad all the way through, but it certainly wasn’t helped by the resolution of the plot that was so explain-ey... and then there was that last part at the very end. It was just so stupid and pointless and unnecessary, existing purely for shock value, and not even doing a very good job of that. 

In fact, this book was so bad that I refused to read the selection from the author’s next novel that was tucked in at the end of this book, which is totally out of character for me. (Ms Lapena, if you are reading this, console yourself with the thought that I probably couldn’t have done any better if I had tried to write a book myself. Not to mention the fact that you HAVE written books, and I haven't.) There was a plot, and it wasn’t boring, but I can’t think of any other positive things to say. Other than the fact that the book was short. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

“Grendel” by John Gardner

I’ve always been curious about Beowulf, but never quite curious enough to attempt to read it (yet . . . and even if I do read it someday, I won’t reach for an original Old English version). But I have never familiarized myself with the plot. When I picked up Grendel (at The Wild Detectives) I was hoping it might be a Cliffs Notes-cum-Gregory Maguire version of Beowulf.

Unfortunately I found Grendel was more obscure and less accessible than I’d hoped. I think someone familiar with Beowulf wouldn’t describe it with either of these adjectives, but alas, we’ve already discussed the fact that I am not familiar with Beowulf. Thus, obscure and inaccessible it was.

It’s not as if I couldn’t follow the plot and didn’t appreciate the book whatsoever. It’s clearly an old tale told from a new perspective—that of the monster Grendel. To me he seemed bitter and angry, like a sullen teen but with an age-old weariness. The book appeared to suggest (without explicitly saying so) that Grendel was a descendant of Cain—that his kind were once human, but had grown increasingly less so over time. The book follows Grendel as he terrorizes Hrothgar and his people.

An interesting side note: I'd assumed Grendel was a new publication. It wasn’t until I read the bio at the end of the book that I learned the author died 35 years ago and this book was first published in 1971. That changes my perspective. I feel less “Maguire did it better” and more “Gardner did it first.” And knowing the publishing industry finds enough value in it for it to remain in print makes me think I should probably find more value in it than I did. Maybe it’s time to tackle Beowulf...

Monday, February 19, 2018

“I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell


Maggie O'Farrell is a really strong writer, which I first realized when I read and loved After You'd Gone, probably fifteen years ago. Since then I've also read Instructions for a Heatwave, and I have two other O'Farrells waiting in the wings, and now I'm not sure why I haven't gotten around to reading them yet. I think that MO'F and Geraldine Brooks must be my two favorite female authors . . . and I haven't read everything of GB's yet either. But maybe I need to reframe? Rather than berating myself for not completing their canons, I can feel a little frisson of delight at what I have to look forward to. 
I Am, etc, is a collection of short stories bound by a stronger-than-usual thread, as all the stories are tied together by a common theme (made clear in the book's subtitle: Seventeen Brushes With Death). The collection is made even more unique by the fact that each chapter relates a real-life (as well as near-death) experience of the author's. It's basically a morbid memoir. 
Before reading, I found it slightly belief-defying that any one person would have almost died seventeen times during what is more than likely just the first half of their lifetime. In fact, one of the chapters is about O'Farrell's daughter, and (though I must admit I already don't remember many of the remaining sixteen incidents in great detail) I remember thinking at least one of the others had a pretty tenuous claim on belonging in this book. But as I read I found it didn't matter whether the number of experiences defies belief. O'Farrell's writing made me feel, and made me care, and made me understand. 
One passage that particularly resonated with me: towards the end of the chapter about her daughter, O'Farrell lists all of the things that might make the typical parent panic, but are nothing compared to the issues her child has dealt with; issues that have caused O'Farrell to realize, "This stuff is small; life is large." How fortunate for her readers who can come by this wisdom (and, I hope, hang on to it) without the heartwrenching experiences that wrought it. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

“Lullaby” by Leïla Slimani

Released in the US next week, under the title of
The Perfect Nanny 

This one's a definite page-turner, and great to blog about because I don't think it would be possible to post spoilers. I mean, what you would think would be the biggest possible spoiler is right there on the cover of the book. 

Lullaby tells the story of a killer nanny. It's not your typical thriller; the who, what, where, and how are all laid bare in the first (brief but intense) chapter. The rest of the book is about the why.

I think, despite the fact that it's deeply horrifying, the story is also very satisfying. Not, by any means, due to justification or retribution or resolution. It's because we're given the explanation. Think about it—any time something like this happens, what do people want to know? Why. How could she? And this book delves into the gritty details, the complex blend of circumstances that could lead to needless tragedy. 

And explaining why fills an entire book. It's an extensive study of the main characters and their various relationships (but nowhere near as boring as that makes it sound), and not something that could be distilled into a headline. But really, as satisfying as it is to know the back story . . . knowing why never *really* explains it. Knowing why doesn't help as much as you'd think it would. I mean, it's not as if knowing why makes it acceptable. I suspect the same would be true for all of those horrifying crimes you hear about on the news.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

“After Alice” by Gregory Maguire


I have always enjoyed stories for children. (Alice in Wonderland is no exception.) And I have read and reveled in a number of books by Gregory Maguire, all of which were unique retellings of beloved fairy tales. So it's no surprise that this book caught my eye. It didn't hurt that it has a great cover (I love the silhouette look, and the font is perfect, but it gets even better--it's hard to tell in the photo, but that's a vellum dust jacket over a map of Oxford). AND it was on sale for less than seven dollars! Can you say no-brainer? 
Unfortunately, the book wasn't amazing. It seemed like more of a Carroll rehash (albeit from the perspective of a new character, and with some additions to the cast) than I've come to expect from Maguire. It's the story of Ada, an acquaintance of Alice, who falls into Wonderland and experiences much of what Alice did, just one step behind her all the way. There were no real surprises, and nothing was new enough to feel clever. And (though I suppose I'm displaying my ignorance by admitting this) I don't understand where Siam went. (Trying to avoid spoilers while also recording my hunch for posterity: I suppose he suffered the fate that Ada and Alice narrowly escaped.) I just wish it were more clear how the three children ended up in their predicament. (No, I didn't miss the suggestion of how Ada ended up there, but what about Siam and Alice?) Nevermind that I'm fully aware I would probably be complaining about the insulting level of clarity, had the explanation been  more plain. 
I don't regret buying the book (it's so beautiful!) or reading it (it definitely wasn't horrible or boring) but the best news is that now I get to read something new! Sam bought me three magnificent  hardcovers for Christmas. My only problem now is trying to decide which to pick up first . . . 

Sunday, October 8, 2017

"Second Life" by S.J. Watson

I picked this book up from the Little Free Library at Bringle Lake Park because I'd read Before I Go To Sleep (which, while not amazing, was an enjoyable read). Second Life tells the story of a woman whose younger sister is murdered. The police aren't getting very far in tracking down Kate's killer, so Julia takes it upon herself to try to do some investigating of her own . . . in a rather unorthodox way. Apparently Kate had made a habit of meeting strange men online and then hooking up with them for casual sex. Julia decides to look for Kate's killer by frequenting the same websites Kate had used, looking for men Kate may have had assignations with. A somewhat uncomfortable and sometimes downright squicky tale of danger and infidelity, I wouldn't call this book any more amazing than Watson's first, but it was oddly addicting and I can't even explain why. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

"Retribution Road" by Antonin Varenne

Ugh, I did not want to read this book. It looks so horribly boring! Yep, I'm a cover-judger. And I'm totally not into Westerns. (Books or movies... Hate me now? I don't care. Or, can we call a truce if I admit I really enjoyed Lonesome Dove?)

Anyway . . . Whoever designed this cover shouldn't quit their day job. Unless their day job is designing book covers. I never would have picked this book up if it hadn't been for Sam's insistence that the inferior cover didn't match the novel itself. And Sam is usually right about books.

So I read it. And Sam was right, of course. I wonder how many other readers were put off by that cover? Maybe more will be drawn in by the next one, as shown on the Quercus website:




This book covers a lot of ground. Originally written in French and published under a title that translates to "Three Thousand Horsepower," it begins in 1852 with Sergeant Arthur Bowman of the East India Company, who is selected for a secret mission in Burma that doesn't end well. Six years later, back in London, he finds himself tracking down the other men from that mission, which eventually leads him to the American West (hence that awful book cover, which made more sense once I got to that part of the story, but that didn't make me like it).

Friday, July 21, 2017

"Confessions of a Fallen Angel" by Ronan O'Brien

Picked this one up in a used bookstore despite not liking the title much (or its font). I was drawn to the premise (Irish boy has premonitions of the deaths of his loved ones) but I think it was Maggie O'Farrell's praise on the front cover that actually sealed my decision to buy it. 
This was a fast read that I really enjoyed, but I don't have much to say about it. It was somewhat predictable, though in a sinister and chilling way rather than in the annoying way that makes it clear the author thinks his readers are idiots. 

However, I don't think I've yet forgiven this book for making me cry real tears. In public, no less. Ever since the movie Fried Green Tomatoes tricked me into crying over a boy's arm I've internally frowned upon shedding tears when It's Not Real.