Reading Roundup: General Fiction

I am sooooo behind on my book reviews.  I know you’ve all been clamoring for one.  Not really, but I’m going to say that because it makes it sound like I have real readers.  So, without further ado (or needless self-deprecation), here it is.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

This one has been hovering around my Want To Read shelf for a while.  I kept putting it on and taking it off and putting it back on again.  Finally, this summer it stuck.  I love stories told in unique ways and this one is really clever in that it tells its story through a dossier of emails, letters and news stories.  Bernadette Fox is a reclusive genius architect who runs away when her daughter wants her to go to Antarctica on a family trip.  Her daughter is desperate to find her and she’s the only one who doesn’t think her mom’s crazy.  I thought it was amusing and a light read.  I recommend it for squeezing in between those Scandinavian thrillers.  You know the ones.

The Golden Hour and The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams

I’m endlessly impressed by Ms. Williams’s productivity.  Her new one-off historical novel The Golden Hour came out this summer and the follow-up to The Wicked City will be released in December.  I’m lucky if I get a blog post written every two months.  But anyway, The Golden Hour, set in the Bahamas during WWII, was a bit of a disappointment.  We’re following a gossip journalist in the inner circle of the former king of England and his wife Wallace Simpson.  What I didn’t get was that our POV character has the inside scoop, but she doesn’t share it with the reader.  I always felt like I was missing something, and I didn’t like that.  In preparation for the next installment of the 1920’s series, I picked up The Wicked City.  It’s got an interesting main character and I look forward to seeing more of her, but the current day storyline seemed extraneous.  Just because it’s historical fiction doesn’t mean we always have to have two timelines.  Just saying.  It wasn’t the best Beatriz by any means, but I have a soft spot for the 20’s so I’m going to continue the series.  Bottom line, I wouldn’t recommend The Golden Hour because it just couldn’t keep my attention.  I thought The Wicked City ran a little long, but it’s got potential for the series.  If you love Art Deco like me, pick it up.

The Garden of Small Beginnings and The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman

I picked up Abbi Waxman this summer and I’m so glad I did.  She’s hilarious, y’all.  In The Garden of Small Beginnings we meet Lillian, a widow with two little girls.  She’s an illustrator who’s sent to a gardening class to get up-close and personal with her subject.  Not everyone could make a story about moving on from the loss of a spouse funny, but Ms. Waxman does it brilliantly.  She has a wry wit that really speaks to me.  And that wit was on full display in The Bookish Life of Nina Hill.  I loved this book.  Nina is a bookworm who doesn’t like people and has no problem not having any family.  So when the father she never knew dies and leaves her with a ton of relatives and a mysterious inheritance, she’s thrilled!  Just kidding.  I recommend both these books with relish.  You can read Nina Hill without having read Garden but the characters overlap and I thoroughly enjoyed that.

Until next time.  Happy reading!

Reading Roundup

I’m currently in a “book hole.”  You know that place where you’ve finished a book and you just can’t settle into a new one?  It’s frustrating.  So instead of reading, I thought I’d write about the ones that have recently moved to the Read shelf on Goodreads.

The Hiding Place by CJ Tudor

I was really excited to get CJ Tudor’s second book since I liked her debut The Chalk Man.  I picked this one up expecting the unexpected because she seems to do that pretty well.  It started out fine.  I was intrigued by our less-than-truthful narrator and the eerie English setting.  We had a mysterious setup and I was onboard, but I found myself disappointed at the answer to the mystery.  Maybe I was just expecting too much but it just wasn’t enough for me.  I hesitate to recommend it because it didn’t do anything for me, but people are different.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams

It pains me to say it, but I didn’t really like this one.  I know, I know, I sing Ms. Williams praises a good bit on this blog and she really is great, but this one just, well, isn’t.  For starters it’s too long.  There are very few people who have any business writing books that are over 400 pages.  There was a story there, but I think it was just drowning in all the words and descriptions and introspections.  I personally didn’t connect with the narrator and it was never definitively explained why she refused to see her husband for the three years leading up to the book’s events.  Not to mention if you’ve read A Certain Age, you already know the story of her sister and father so you’re stuck treading water for the benefit of all those who haven’t.  I’d say skip it and wait for her new one The Golden Hour coming out next month.  I’ve already pre-ordered it.  I know I have a problem.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper

Book of the Month’s latest offering is a book about death and life and…well, death.  A book about a man who works tracking down next of kin for people who die alone in their homes sounds pretty depressing.  And he lies about having a happy family life while living like the very people he investigates for.  Again, depressing.  Except for the delightfully quirky love interest and the off-the-wall co-workers, right?  Sadly, this book just didn’t come together for me.  It’s one of those that was good enough to finish but not really that good.  Book of the Month has always been hit and miss and I think this one goes in the miss category.

The Huntress by Kate Quinn

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking “Does this girl like anything?”  Yes, actually, I do.  I loved Kate Quinn’s new historical fiction novel The Huntress.  If you have the least bit of interest in historical novels and WWII, do not miss this one.  Like I said, very few can write a 500 pager, but Ms. Quinn is one of those few.  Intriguing characters, Nazi hunters, unorthodox love affairs, and female bomber pilots.  What’s not to love?  No one writes a battle ax character better than Kate Quinn.  I was enthralled by Eve Gardiner in The Alice Network and now Nina Markova.  I’ll be pre-ordering her next one for sure.  I do not need an intervention.

Happy Summer reading, y’all!

A Year in Reading

It’s that time of year again.  When we start looking back at the events that shaped the last eleven and half months and if you’re like me, the books that delighted us during that time.  I’ve been pouring over my stats on Goodreads and marveling at how many thrillers and mysteries I read.

When I was in Taiwan earlier this year hanging out with Rhonda, the lady of the missionary household, she asked me what people are reading right now.  I raddled off some names, you know, Ruth Ware, Tana French, the new Paula Hawkins.  It was only after the words were out of my mouth that I realized she meant church people.  What are they reading in Christian self-help, Kim, not the latest in chick thrillers.  Oh.  No wonder she was looking at me funny.

The year saw my introduction to historical fiction thanks to Beatriz Williams and her marvelous novel The Summer Wives.  I have a huge author crush on Ms. Williams and I’m current delving into her Schuyler Sisters series.  I admit it, I’m addicted.  I also enjoyed The English Wife by Lauren Willig and The Alice Network by Kate Quinn.  I had high hopes for The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton but it was disappointing.

This was also a big year for true crime.  I recently read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara.  That’s an incredible story made even more remarkable that the Golden State killer has been caught and Ms. McNamara is not here to see it.  It’s a sad story all around and one I’m going to watch as it develops in the news.  Other well-done true crime was The Dark Heart by Joakim Palmkvist and the Bloodlands series by Harold Schechter.

Memoir was down this year.  I usually have several under my belt by this time but in 2018 only two made the list, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D Vance and Cheryl Strayed’s beautiful story Wild.  I recommend them both.

A highlight in general fiction was Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove.  It’s a delightful story that strikes that difficult balance between poignant and amusing.  I also enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.  She’s at once off-putting and relatable, making for a page-turning romp that’s also like watching a train wreck.

Here’s to the great reads of the past year and all the great ones yet to come.  Merry Christmas, y’all!

Bridge to Nowhere

Have you heard about Markus Zuzak’s new book Bridge of Clay?  You probably have because the whole world loved The Book Thief and have waited forever.  No really, it’s been thirteen years.  That’s the first red flag.

When I heard Mr. Zuzak was publishing a new book I was excited because I loved the writing of The Book Thief.  I thought the plot wasn’t that original or exciting but the style was awesome.  I also loved I Am the Messenger because the story was so off beat and interesting.  If we could have a book that married the amazing prose of The Book Thief with a charming plot like I Am the Messenger, we might have a contender for Favorite Book.

But it was not to be.  I read an interview on Goodreads where Zuzak said he had been trying to write this book since he was really young and he agonized over everything, making sure it was perfect.  Uh-oh.  Red Flag number two.  Something that personal does not usually translate.  Mostly it’ll resonate with, well, you.  Despite this reservation I gave it a shot.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.  I read about half of the book and I have no idea what we’re supposed to be getting from it.  We start out with five boisterous teenage boys taking care of themselves with a bunch of animals running around.  That was actually the part I liked.  They were interesting, I liked the way they interacted, each with his own unique personality.  Enter the deadbeat father who asks them if they’d like to come with him out to the middle of nowhere and build a bridge.  Um, okay.  So one of them decides it’d be a good idea to quit school and go to the middle of nowhere with a man he hardly knows to dig holes in the hot sun so they can put a bridge over a mostly dry river bed.  Um, okaaayyy…

Most of the 250 pages I read didn’t even have anything to do with Clay or his brothers.  It was all about their mother’s childhood behind the Iron Curtain and how she got to Australia and their father’s childhood and how he married one girl and then got divorced.  Why do I care?

I’m sorry, but you introduced a whole group of really interesting characters and then left them for half a book to talk about their parents’ pasts?  What does that have to do with anything?  Not to mention this is supposed to be a first person narrative.  The narrator is the oldest brother who isn’t seeing any of this first hand and yet writes like he has intimate knowledge.

To me, this book was a mess.  I think this is what happens when a story marinates too long in the writer’s head.  He gets too close and loses perspective.  Zuzak wanted to convey some awesome family saga with great points about healing and forgiveness but really it’s just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think Mr. Zuzak missed the mark this time.  I would give this one a wide berth.

Book Reviews: Non-Fiction

Ok, another round-up of book reviews.  This time we turn to non-fiction.  I love a good true crime but I also love biography and memoir, so this is a bit of all three.  Enjoy.

Blood Lands Series by Harold Schechter

I thoroughly enjoyed these short works by Harold Schechter.  Each one focused on a lesser-known true crime story in American history and only took around an hour to read.  I especially liked the one about the family of murderers living across the prairie from Laura Ingalls Wilder.  It was aptly titled Little Slaughterhouse on the Prairie.  The other one I liked was The Pied Piper about a young man in the 1950’s who committed Manson-style murders by holding other young people in thrall.  I would suggest this series of short reads for anyone just getting into true crime.  They get in and get out and don’t have time to get dull and repetitive like so many I’ve abandoned over the years.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Before I traveled to Taiwan I felt that I needed to read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail alone.  It was well-written and quick and deeply poignant.  There’s something about solitude that really centers us.  One thing that stood out to me was the mental toughness it took to do something like that.  It wasn’t just physical.  It took a lot of “mind over matter” to get through it.  That idea of pushing through and overcoming really spoke to me.  I definitely suggest this one even if, like me, you have no intention of hiking anywhere, alone or otherwise.

In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

I realized recently that while Frankenstein is a masterful work and is still relevant today, I knew very little about the woman who wrote it.  So I read In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson.  It was a little long but it kept me engaged throughout.  I think it’s amazing that Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen.  People have mocked Shelley for being obsessed with death but death was all around her.  Her mother died at Mary’s birth, her half-sister committed suicide, her husband was killed in a boating accident, and only one of her four children lived to adulthood.  I think Mrs. Shelley can be forgiven for having a preoccupation with death.  Frankenstein is much more than a monster story.  It goes to the heart of what it means to be human and what happens when humans attempt to create life.  In Search of Mary Shelley is a good read and I recommend it for biography lovers.

The Dark Heart by Joakim Palmkvist

This is the best true crime I’ve read in awhile.  Set in Sweden, it follows the missing persons case of Goren Lundblad in 2012.  An interesting twist to the story was the role of Therese Tang, an investigator with non-profit organization Missing Persons Sweden.  Though not law enforcement, Therese blows the case wide open.  But the best thing about this one was the dramatization of scenes without straying into fiction.  I never thought Capote was successful in mashing up true crime and fiction in In Cold Blood.  This seemed to be much more fluid and engaging, without crossing any lines.  I recommend The Dark Heart for true crime buffs and anyone looking for a good whodunit.

That’s all for now.  Happy reading, y’all!

Book Reviews: Historical Fiction

I realized recently that even though I’ve been reading a lot I’ve neglected to do any reviews on this blog.  I don’t normally read a lot of historical fiction but recently the thriller choices on Book of the Month have been lacking so I’ve been opting for something different.  So here are a few that I’ve devoured lately.  Enjoy.

The English Wife by Lauren Willig

This was a good starter for me because it still has a murder mystery at the heart of things.  It’s set in New York during the Gilded Age, which I love.  There’s murder, manners, and mistaken identity.  And a little bit of Shakespeare for good measure.  Though not the best I’ve read, I would recommend it for a light read.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

The next book that caught my eye was The Alice Network.  This one takes us into parallel time lines between WWI and WWII.  It delves into female roles during WWI in the real-life Alice Network, women who served as spies in occupied France.  It also looks at the female role just after WWII.  The world was changed and so were the women living in it.  Though Eve Gardner is driven by hate and revenge, she’s a captivating and sympathetic character.  Her old-age bitterness is tempered by the young woman who comes to her for help.  I greatly enjoyed this one and recommend it for WWI buffs and anyone interested in women’s roles though-out history.

The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

I can’t thank Book of the Month enough for introducing me to Beatriz Williams.  I bought this one as an extra, not sure if it would suit, opting for my usual dark, gritty fare, but I’m really glad I took a chance on it.  Though a murder mystery plays a role in this novel, it’s not the main focus.  It focuses on the relationships and dynamics of a small island in Long Island Sound after WWII.  There’s love, romance, and heartbreak.  And again, a little Shakespeare.  But what really captivated me was the prose.  I’m a sucker for good prose and Ms. Williams is wonderful at using her words to evoke a time and place.  It goes beyond the slang of the time period and creates the atmosphere of Post-War New England a la the Kennedy family.  I was totally swept up and definitely recommend it for those who want an author whose diction is more than hum-drum.

A Certain Age by Beatriz Williams

I admit I was chasing the high of The Summer Wives when I immediately went to Amazon and ordered A Certain Age.  Beatriz Williams’ writing, a love triangle, and the Jazz Age.  I was sold.  Although I must say that I was somewhat disappointed.  It was a good story and the prose was on point, but I think it ran a little long.  I found myself wishing these people would just say what they meant for once.  And the murder mystery felt a bit unnecessary.  If you love the glitz and glamour of the 1920s, you’ll probably enjoy this one but otherwise you can give it a skip.

Until next time.  Happy reading!

I Should Have Been an English Major?

“The Ideal English Majorhttp://chronicle.com/article/The-Ideal-English-Major/140553/?cid=wb&utm_source=wb&utm_medium=en

 

I just read the article above by Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia.  In his article, he talks about the value of studying literature and thinking critically while reading and also taking the time to read the great authors and not just the next Stephen King novel.  These things I agree with.  I try to read and think critically and I’m now writing these kinds of responses instead of just thinking about them.  What I don’t agree with in this article are the somewhat ridiculous claims that all students should major in English and studying literature is really studying “being a human being.”

 The author spends a good bit of his article explaining why English majors are vastly superior to everyone else because they are reading all the time and while they are reading, they are somehow “living more than one life” through these books.  I find the hyperbole in this article somewhat insulting.  I majored in Accounting and went on to become a Staff Accountant at a small CPA firm.  According to the author, spending my time and money on a major I excelled at and using it to become a successful professional was a complete waste because I still don’t know how to be a human being apparently.  Isn’t that what Kindergarten is for?  We learn how to share, how to get along, how to separate from our primary caregiver, and how to respect authority.  Isn’t that learning to be human?  For that matter, our entire lives show us how to be human.  We learn valuable skills that will make it possible for us to survive.  We learn to walk, to talk, to feed ourselves, to drive, to socialize, to work.  It would appear that the majority of people who live to adulthood already have a degree in “Being a Human Being.”

 He thinks that every student no matter their skill set or ambitions in life should major in English.  And what if everyone did, Mr. Edmundson?  Where would you get your teeth cleaned, or buy your groceries, or get your oil changed?  If everyone has their nose in a book, contemplating life and striving to find some new and better way to view the world, how will that world function?   A college education is expensive and time consuming and most people only get one (if they get any at all).  Most of us don’t have the luxury.  We have to get in and get out with a degree and start making money to pay back those loans.  And did Mr. Edmundson consider that not everyone majors in science or business just because they want to make money?  Many genuinely want to improve quality of life through healthcare, research, etc.

 Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not going the other direction and bashing English majors.  And studying literature is a noble pursuit.  It’s one I don’t do enough of.  But this article demeans all other majors and suggests that everyone without an English degree is inferior.  You know, for some, studying English and reading literature really just isn’t their forte.  And that’s fine.  If you want to just read something fun and distract yourself (like I do most of the time), there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.  You know the sayings, “it takes all kinds” and “all things in moderation”?  I think they apply here.  Studying and teaching English are great but so are other professions and people for that matter.