Category Archives: Books

A Round Up of My Summer Reading

My blog has been quiet most of the summer, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. These days my reading is driven by whim. Since the death of my sister in March, my concentration has waxed and waned. I’ve needed time to nurture my soul. I’ve tried to streamline my life a bit so I don’t feel overwhelmed. For a long time, I couldn’t read. I just had a hard time sitting down with a book and concentrating. But sometime in the middle of the summer, I got a little bit back in the groove and being spontaneous has helped.

So with no further ado, here are some of the books I read and my thoughts about them. First the ones I loved and can recommend:

NatchezBurningNatchez Burning by Greg Iles (Harper, 865 pages)

For once the stone hits the surface of the pond, the ripples never really stop. The waves diminish, and all seems to return to its previous state, but that’s an illusion. Disturbed fish change their patterns, a snake slides off the muddy bank into the water, a deer bolts into the open to be shot. And the stone remains on the slimy bottom, out of sight but inarguably there, dense and permanent, sediment settling over it, turtles and catfish prodding it, the sun heating it through all the layers of water until that far-off day when, whether lifted by the fingers of a curious boy diving fifty years after it was cast or uncovered by a bone-dumb farmer draining the pond to plant another half acre of cotton, that stone finds its way back up to the light. – from the Prologue of Natchez Burning –

Set in rural Mississippi, Iles’ dense and satisfying novel centers around Penn Cage, the son of doctor Tom Cage who stands accused of murdering his nurse who worked for him in the 1960s. Iles weaves his story by moving back and forth in time. Part historical novel and part contemporary thriller, Natchez Burning held my attention with themes like family loyalty, racism, and the corruption of power. This is the first in a trilogy and I have the second novel (published this spring), The Bone Tree, waiting on my bedside table. 5stars

payingguestsThe Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books, 566 pages)

And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening- Frances could think of nothing to compare it to save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that.  -from The Paying Guests-

I have read pretty much everything that Sarah Waters has written and so it was a no-brainer to pick up her latest novel set in 1922 London. Financially struggling Francis Wray and her widowed mother find themselves forced to accept boarders. When Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances finds herself drawn to the lively Lilian in a way she could never imagine. The Paying Guests engages the reader with romance that results in tragedy. As with her previous fiction, Waters explores the themes of sexuality and the impact of war on her characters. She spins an atmospheric tale that examines societal pressures on women during the early part of the 20th century, a fascinating exploration of of time and place that resonates with current issues we are facing today. 5stars

Spool of Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 358 pages)

“The trouble with dying,” she’d told Jeannie once, “is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.”- from A Spool of Blue Thread –

Anne Tyler is another of my favorite author. In her latest novel, she once again takes on family dynamics with the Whitshank family beginning in 1959 Baltimore and moving through the decades as they share laughter, disappointment, celebrations and tragedy. The Whitlocks are hiding secrets and jealousies which are unearthed as the novel progresses. Abby, the matriarch is the central character, a loving mother and wife who has her own private secrets that she holds close to the heart. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with its quirky, lovable characters…until the end. As with many Tyler books, this one leaves the reader with some loose ends which I felt oddly unsatisfying. 4Stars

LittleLifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 720 pages)

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return. – from A Little Life –

How do I even begin to review this richly rendered, profoundly affecting novel? Hanya Yanagihara has created a modern classic which begins in Massachusetts and moves to contemporary New York City. The characters, four male friends, are deeply complex – Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a painter who can sometimes be cruel; Malcolm, an architect who struggles with his racial identity; and Jude, a damaged attorney who somehow anchors and connects all the others. A Little Life takes the reader through decades of these characters’ lives – their triumphs, tragedies, disappointments and joy. It goes to very dark places, and then lifts the reader into the light. It is a story about friendship, identity, and the very real struggles of living life day by day. Jude is a brilliant character with a bleak past who manages to survive his nightmares and connect with others against all the odds. A Little Life is a tribute to love and survival. I should alert sensitive readers that Yanagihara explores difficult themes and there are graphic descriptions of certain events which might upset some. But her writing is so pure, so extraordinary and so transcendent that this novel comes highly recommended. Loved it. 5stars

Although I read some great books this summer, there were two I did not finish and therefore can not give a strong recommendation:

PenumbraMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Picador,  288 pages – I read 100 before quitting the book)

Clay Jannon is a former web-designer who comes to work at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore because he is desperate for work. The bookstore is unusual – hardly any customers come to buy anything, but those who frequent the store borrow huge books in the back stacks which are written in code. What begins as a simple job turns into a mystery for Clay and his friends who decide to unravel the secrets behind the store. The writing in this book was okay, but I quickly grew bored with Clay and was not motivated to uncover the mystery. There is a bit of a fantasy element in the book, and perhaps this was where it lost me. Readers who enjoy the digital, fast paced world of technology will probably find much to like. It just wasn’t for me. 2stars

MountainStory The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens (Simon and Schuster, 312 pages, I read to page 100 before putting it aside)

Wolf Truly is a displaced kid who decides to climb the local mountain and commit suicide on his 18th birthday. But his plans are interrupted by a trio of woman who are also on the mountain that day. When the four hikers become lost, it is clear they must depend on each other for survival. I was excited to read this book as it seemed to have all the elements I enjoy: a natural setting, transformation, getting lost and being found…but I quickly lost interest. The characters felt cardboard to me – I just could not relate to them and ultimately stopped caring what happened to them. Despite my complaints about this book, it seems that many readers have enjoyed it. So perhaps this one will work for you! 2stars

I just last week finished reading Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – an amazing, spare little book that explores aging, love and taking risks. I loved it and will write a review on that one soon.

Good Kings Bad Kings – Book Review

GoodKingsBadKingsI got a plan to run away. I’m gonna go right before they’re set to ship me out of here. I been figuring it out but there’s still a few details that need a little work. I know how I’m gonna sneak out, that’s easy, but I’m not sure where I’m gonna stay at. The plan has to be perfect so I don’t end up in a place even worse than this place. – Teddy Dobbs, from Good Kings Bad Kings, page 37 –

Teddy Dobbs is only one character who speaks to the reader in Susan Nussbaum’s novel about a group of teenagers living in an institution for juveniles with disabilities. There is also Yessenia Lopez who is still reeling from the loss of her tia Nene, and the tragic Mia Oviedo who is hiding a secret. Staff members also narrate this novel: Michelle Volkmann,a recruiter for the institution; the compassionate Joanne Madsen who is herself disabled, and the concerned Ricky Hernandez to name a few. Nussbaum alternates her characters’ voices chapter by chapter, revealing a community bound by necessity and challenged to survive in a world where they have little to no control.

I requested this book from the Library Thing Early Reviewers program because I thought it would resonate with me. I have worked as a physical therapist consultant for adults and kids with developmental delays. I love my clients. I appreciate their spirit and courage, their ability to live in the moment, and their open personalities. I have seen some of the sadness as well – the individuals who have been raped, or institutionalized in facilities that are no more than holding pens for people unable to care for themselves. I chose to work for a company that provides consistently excellent care in a clean, family-oriented setting (a home, not an institution) and so many of my clients who came for bad environments are now enjoying life in a much more independent and caring setting.

That said, I found myself feeling so sad as I read this novel. I do think Nussbaum is doing a service to the disabled community who are still living in institutions and finding their lives completely controlled by outside forces – some which are destructive. But I really had a hard time getting through this novel. It was painful for me despite some humorous voices. I ached for these characters.

Those readers who enjoy literary fiction will appreciate the honesty of the prose, and the careful development of the characters. But it is also a heartbreaking read, one that found me taking many breaks just to regroup.

This book was awarded the Pen/Bellwether Prize for fiction.

3hstars

FTC Disclosure: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Review program.

In Wilderness – Book Review

In WildernessShe will remember this moment all her life, she is sure of it. – from In Wilderness, first sentence –

The year is 1966. Katherine Reid is sick. She thinks she is probably dying. It seems as though her happy life has completely unraveled. And so, she leaves society behind and heads to a cabin in the Georgia Appalachian Mountains. She brings very little with her – a sleeping bag, a loaded gun, a tin plate. She expects to die soon – alone in the woods.

But Katherine is not alone. Not by a long shot. Twenty year old Danny, a troubled Vietnam Vet, has discovered Katherine. He watches her. Stalks her. Fantasizes about her. Danny’s past suggests violence – especially towards women. As winter gives way to spring, Katherine is still alive and Danny is getting closer.

Diane Thomas has penned a novel that is a psychological thriller about obsession, desire, and the healing powers of nature. Katherine finds that isolating herself seems to make her feel better, while at the same time she is living on the edge of terror.

She should leave immediately, run as fast as she can into town and catch a bus back to Atlanta. That’s the only sane, sensible thing to do. She knows this, and at the same time knows she will not go, knows she would not have gone even the other day. In this wilderness, and only here, she feels as if she isn’t dying. Dares not carry this thought further. Dares not hope. And dares not go. – from In Wilderness, page 94 –

Katherine is experiencing a clash of emotions that is elevated by a raw desire for something she has never known before. She sees the danger, but cannot stop what she is doing.

I was totally engrossed in this novel. I feared for Katherine. I longed to know more about Danny’s past. I wanted to see how this tale of two damaged people driven by erotic desire and something unnamed would end. Thomas weaves together the protagonists stories against the stunning backdrop of the wilderness. Beautiful, frightening and hauntingly compelling, this novel will resonate for readers who enjoy both literary fiction and thrillers.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

*FTC Disclosure: I received this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

The Master Butchers Singing Club – Book Review

MastersButcherSince she had known Eva Waldvogel, and also traveled here and there with Cyprian, she had started to understand how a woman’s attention could succeed in making sense of man’s blind chaos, and yet women needed their own wildness. It was here. All ran riot. The garden and weedy yard would wax fuller until it turned into a jungle of unhitched vines and rusty birdbaths made of ham tins. Eva’s dog, the white shepherd, Schatzie, dug up old bones the former dog had buried and refused to rebury them. It would be awful, Delphine felt, when the leaves withered in the fall, to see the litter of femurs and clavicles, the knobs and knuckles. As if the scattered dead, rising to meet the Judgment, had to change and swap their parts to fit. -from The Master Butchers Singing Club, page 109-

Fidelis Waldvogel manages to survive the horrors of World War I, then returns to his German village and marries Eva – the pregnant widow of his best friend who was killed in action. The newly married couple set out for America and end up in Argus, North Dakota, where Fidelis opens his butcher business.

Delphine Watzka returns home to Argus, North Dakota with her boyfriend, Cyprian after years of performing as a traveling act. There she discovers her alcoholic father and the bodies of a man, woman and child in his basement.

The lives of these two characters merge when Delphine and Eva meet. The two forge an instant friendship and become inseparable.

Louise Erdrich’s rich novel about a German immigrant and his family is tender, thoughtful, funny, and deeply emotional. As with all Erdrich novels, there are many sharply developed, often quirky, characters. Erdrich never rushes the tempo of her story, carefully setting her scenes and building the relationships between the characters.

Fidelis is a complex man with simple needs. Delphine mourns the mother she has never known and longs for a deeper relationship with a man. Both characters take center stage without diminishing the impact of the other, more secondary characters.

This book is, at its heart, a family saga with a bit of a mystery at its center. Erdrich is exceptionally talented and able to make all the pieces fit, integrating the characters into the community they inhabit and providing a deep understanding of life in twentieth century, small town America.

I have yet to read an Erdrich novel I have not loved and The Master Butcher’s Singing Club is no exception. Erdrich writes with a mix of poignancy and humor, meticulous detail, and vivid imagery. I did not want this book to ever end.

Readers who love historical family sagas and literary novels will embrace this book.

Highly recommended.

5stars

The Girl on the Train – Book Review

GirlOnTheTrainI can’t do this, I can’t just be a wife. I don’t understand how anyone does it—there is literally nothing to do but wait. Wait for a man to come home and love you. Either that or look around for something to distract you. -from The Girl on the Train-

Rachel has turned into a drunk, lost, lonely and obsessive…and completely unreliable since she and Tom split. Tom has found Anna, and they’ve started a family…something Rachel has always wanted. So on her daily train commute to and from her job in London, Rachel allows herself to fantasize about a couple who live near the train tracks, in the same neighborhood where she and Tom once shared a home (and which he now shares with Anna). Rachel nicknames the couple Jess and Jason, and in her mind they are perfect and completely in love.

But are they?

Jess is really Megan, and Jason is really Scott…and their real life is not at all like the life Rachel has imagined for them. When Megan goes missing, Rachel inserts herself into their story and the “facts” become even more in question.

Swirling with secrets, innuendos, partial truths, and unreliable narrators, The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller in the style of Gone Girl. Paula Hawkins is adept at developing her characters and keeping the reader guessing as to what is truth and what is not. Hawkins omits key details which slip by unnoticed by the reader until the end – which is sure to surprise most readers.

I loved this book for its careful pacing and suspense. The confusing pieces of the plot are woven together to create a mystery which gradually is solved, revealing the real truth beneath the misconceptions.

Readers who enjoy a good psychological thriller, will find much to enjoy in Hawkin’s compelling novel.

Highly Recommended.

4hStars

Principles of Navigation – Book Review

Principles of NavigationFixing the broken had become his theme, personally and professionally, as he’d told Wolf, letting his friend assume “personal” meant his home remodeling and “professional” meant Rolly was back to creative work. But he wasn’t. – from Principles of Navigation –

Alice and Rolly Becotte are married and living in Indiana in 1999, on the cusp of a new century. Alice is a local reporter, and Rolly is an art professor at a small college. They are at a crossroads in their marriage – Alice desperately wants a baby, while Rolly yearns to develop his art and is afraid that parenthood will rob him of his dreams of artistic success. When Alice finally conceives, the faultlines widen, and then everything changes when they must deal with devastating news.

Lynn Sloan’s first novel is a moving portrayal of a marriage unraveling. An accomplished short fiction writer, Sloan knows how to distill a story down to its esssential parts without losing character or emotion. With a talent for exploring psychological tension, Sloan creates a haunting and poignant tale of love and loss, and the difficult choices we face when two people begin to grow in opposite directions.

Principles of Navigation is one of those novels which could easily be overlooked among the best selling genre novels, but that would be an utter shame for those readers who love literary fiction. Published by a small literary press (Fomite), this is a book which reeled me in slowly. I wanted to know how or if Alice and Rolly would sort out their lives. I grew to care about them both. Any writer who can keep me thinking of their characters even after I have finished reading their story, is an author I can highly recommend.

If you love literary fiction, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Principles of Navigation – I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Highly Recommended.

4hStars

FTC Disclosure: I recieved this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Book Review

WeAreAllCompletelyIn 1996, ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared. The middle of my story is all about their absence, though if I hadn’t told you that, you might not have known. By 1996, whole days went by in which I hardly thought about either one. – from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves –

The definition of family has changed and evolved through the years, and Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel puts an extra twist on that definition.

Rosemary Cooke, now a young adult, narrates the story of her life – beginning in the middle and then spiraling back to the year she was six when her family was changed forever. The novel moves back and forth from the present to flashbacks of Rosemary’s past as she reveals her unique family – including a brother who has been absent for a long time, and her sister, Fern, who was removed from the family.

Exploring such themes as post-traumatic stress, memory, family connectedness and the “sameness” between living beings, Fowler takes the traditional family saga and turns it on its head.

There have been a lot of spoilers for this book (which in my opinion wrecks its impact), but you won’t read them here. What I will tell you is that some of the subject matter will be disturbing for some readers (it was for me).

Haunting, poignant and original, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a novel which will appeal to readers who enjoy literary fiction and family dramas.

3hstars

The Last Good Paradise – Book Review

LastGoodParadiseNow their life in tatters, Richard went off diving. Where had that protective, nurturing Richard gone? Amusing himself despite her torment. Ten years, every year since law school, lopped off. Ann worried because she knew from long professional experience that relationships only continued on some basis of parity, to be determined by the two parties. Where was that parity now? – from The Last Good Paradise –

Ann is a lawyer who is disillusioned by her corporate position and eager to support Richard, her husband, in opening their own restaurant. But when their life comes apart at the seams, they decide to empty their accounts. leave responsibility behind, and seek escape in a tropical paradise. Once on a remote island, they connect with a burnt out rock star and his young girlfriend, the flawed owner of the resort who has deep regrets about the path his life has taken, and a seemingly discordant couple who are native to the island and help run the resort.

Tatjana Soli’s newest novel explores the idea of failed dreams, the search for an ever more illusive paradise, and the pull of the technical, fast paced corporate world of computers, high finance, and success.

Richard and Ann seem like the typical all-American couple who are set on a path to success only to have their dreams shattered. When they escape their “real” lives to find freedom in “paradise,” they discover that paradise is not defined by ocean breezes, blue waters and endless sunny days. Rather, the idea of happiness and finding paradise is an inner journey and is linked to the connections we have with others.

Soli introduces some quirky characters and intersperses humor with tragedy to engage her readers in this modern tale of a group of people searching for meaning in a complex and isolating world.

I was prepared to love this novel because I adored The Lotus Eaters by this same author (read my review). But despite good writing, I felt a bit disconnected from the characters who at times felt oversimplified. I wondered if Soli intended to create caricatures to emphasis the outrageous and amplify her characters’ personalities. Instead the novel feel a bit flat for me.

Readers who enjoy novels firmly grounded in our contemporary world, will find this an interesting work of fiction. Read other reviews of this book by visiting the TLC Book Tour page and scroll down to the links.

3hstars

About the Author:

Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was the winner of the James Tait Black Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and a finalist for the LA Times Book Award. Her critically acclaimed second novel The Forgetting Tree was also a New York Times Notable book . Her stories have appeared in ZyzzyvaBoulevard, and The Sun, and have been listed in Best American Short Stories. She lives with her husband in Southern California.

tlclogoFTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog as part of the book tour through TLC Book Tours

 

Hush Hush – Book Review

HushhushThe first note appeared on Tess Monaghan’s car on a March day that was cranky as a toddler – wet, tired, prone to squalls. But Tess did not know the note was the first of anything. There is no first until the second arrives. – from Hush, Hush –

Readers who have been hooked on the Tess Monaghan novels by best selling author Laura Lippman, will be happy that the next installation in the series will be released February 24th.

This is the first Tess Monaghan novel I have read…but I am not a stranger to Lippman’s writing. I’ve read several of her stand alone novels and enjoyed how she mixes literary fiction and the suspense-thriller genre to create memorable characters and edge of your seat thrills.

Hush Hush can be read as a stand alone novel (although I think those who have started at the beginning of the series will be at an advantage in understanding the character of Tess on a deeper level). The writing in this book is a bit of a departure from Lippman’s literary-type novels as there is more emphasis on plot vs. character.

Tess returns in this book as a new parent and she is drawn into a disturbing case of a murder and a manipulative mother. Melisandre was found insane when she murdered her infant, but now she is back and looking to reconnect with her surviving children. As the novel unfolds, there is another murder, mysterious notes, and questionable relationships. Tess, assigned to provide security for Melisandre, tries to unravel the facts behind the public face of the woman who captured headlines. But could Tess be ignoring crucial events that could put her own life at risk?

Lippman inserts interview-style chapters to reveal character motivation which is something I enjoyed about the book as it allows for more in-depth development of some of the characters.

The publisher has set up an interactive website for the book here. The site will be updated weekly with new sweepstake opportunities, character profiles, and audio excerpts from Hush Hush. It even has an interactive map of Baltimore where you can see key events from the Tess series. There is currently a giveaway opportunity on the site (scroll down the page) and there will be ten lucky winners!

Hush Hush is a pretty straight forward mystery-crime novel and will appeal to readers who enjoy mystery series, or who have become engaged in the Tess Monaghan series.

3stars

FTC Disclosure: This advance reader’s edition was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

The Dog Stars – Book Review

DogStarsSo I wonder what it is this need to tell. To animate somehow the deathly stillness of the profoundest beauty. Breathe life in the telling. Counter I guess to Bangley’s modus which is to kill just about everything that moves. – from Dog Stars, page 52 –

The world is not the same. A flu has wiped out 99 percent of all humans. The few remaining are fighting (quite literally) for survival. Enter Hig, a man who has lost his wife and unborn child and now lives in an abandoned hanger with his dog, Jasper, and a rough, gun toting survivalist named Bangley. Hig’s biggest joy is taking flight in a 1956 Cessna with his dog by his side. He loves breaking free of the confines of the airport. When he is not flying, he longs to walk into the forest and fish and hunt. But danger is everywhere. Hig never loses hope that there is more out there – love, friendship and the nature he so misses. So one day, he takes off in the Cessna and flies to the point of no return to try and discover a life he misses beyond all else.

Peter Heller has penned a spare, first person narrative about nature vs. technology, survival, memory and love. Hig is a character who reels the reader into his grief and loneliness…and then shows her there is still hope.

This novel is not simply a post-apocalyptic novel. Heller’s astute observations of nature and his poetic introspection into his characters elevate this book to a thoughtful, heartbreaking literary work. Hig mines his emotional territory with reflections of the past and the memories of those who died. His relationship with Jasper is one of the best parts of the book and demonstrates how love (no matter where it comes) can lift one up and give meaning to life.

The Dog Stars is one of the best books I read in 2014 – calamity, desperation…and finally a burst of hope that promises new beginnings. Tender, brilliantly penned, and a reminder that connection to others is what the world is all about, this is a novel that will appeal to readers who love great characters and literary fiction.

Highly recommended.

5stars