Blah, Blah, Blah, Book Blog

Blah, Blah, Blah, Book Blog

I'm not a fan of summarizing, so get that from the publisher, and then we can talk. Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult, Middle Grade, Picture Books. I'll read it all, and, if I like it, I'll make you want to read it too!

 

Review
3 Stars
Juliet's Answer
Juliet's Answer: One Man's Search for Love and the Elusive Cure for Heartbreak - Glenn Dixon

I found the premise of this book engaging—a High School English teacher from Canada takes a journey to heal his broken heart to a place famous for its literary romantic roots. But Dixon's real-life story of unrequited love did not feel genuine to me; the friendship so far from a romance that it almost seemed invented for the sake of the story. While I especially loved the idea that there are people who write letters from Juliet, I wondered why they would let someone so inept in a relationship offer advice to anyone. In contrast, the other letter writers seemed so thoughtful and sincere, their carefully crafted notes proved they were really just sounding boards for the letter writer, while Dixon seemed to revel in his own awkward responses. I kept thinking I would be disappointed if I took the time to write a letter and got a response back from him. The classroom scenes that are interspersed with the ones set in Italy follow the arc of Dixon's tale too neatly; honestly, I would have preferred the entire story told in Italy, since the people Dixon meets are lively and fun, and far more interesting than the bland woman he is pining for back home. His description of Verona, though, is terrific, the city came alive for me and truly made me want to experience it myself.

Review
3.5 Stars
Coming to my Senses
Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook - Alice Waters

I decided to listen to this book because it is read by Alice Waters. While she cannot really compare to the many wonderful, professionally-trained actors who read audiobooks, I still enjoyed hearing the story from her. She is in her 70s now, I think, and there is something mind-blowing about hearing someone that age talk about how she payed for the building that is now Chez Panisse with the help of parents, friends, and some "un-named dope dealers." How she came to be such a culinary legend is a truly roundabout and fascinating story, and you should listen to it just to hear the names of all the people who dropped by before they were famous. Also, in perhaps the biggest understatement of the book, she admits turning down a dinner with her friend John Kott while she was living in London - he was in town to interview John Lennon (in 1967 or so), and she was too overwhelmed by the thought to join them for dinner. She admits, "in hindsight, that was probably a mistake." Her love of food is contagious, and her rapture about garlic and fresh-picked lettuce made my mouth water — has your mouth ever watered for the taste of lettuce? That's impressive. Her kitchen is a legendary rite of passage for some of the biggest names in the Slow Food movement. If you are any kind of cook or foodie, you will love this story.

Review
4 Stars
A List of Cages
A List of Cages - Robin Roe

I'm not going to lie; this book will break your heart. To be honest, it knocked me flat every time I returned to it until I finished, but the writing was beautiful and there were plenty of characters to love (and hate) in this wrenching story. I'm not sure what was more overwhelming, the emotional or the physical, but be warned, there is some very graphic violence. But don't be dissuaded by this, it is a compelling story, and sadly, probably not all that far from the truth of some people's stories. It is not all angst and violence, though. There are beautiful relationships and strong bonds and people who are willing to stand up for what's right, which is comforting. Especially around here, lately. Read it and weep.

Review
4 Stars
A Little Life
A Little Life: A Novel - Hanya Yanagihara

This book was brilliant, but brutal. There are some very graphic parts, and an overwhelming sadness, akin to how I felt reading Khaled Hosseini's books, pervades the story. But if you can take it, it is totally worth your time. Apologies to the people in the NY coffee shop with me when I finished—ugly crying in public is not usually my thing.

Review
3.5 Stars
Little Heaven
Little Heaven: A Novel - Nick Cutter

Why, why, why, does someone like me, who is terrified of horror movies and books, keep choosing these books from NetGalley? To be fair, I have not chosen a lot of them, and they all have one commonality — they were all written by Nick Cutter (or Craig Davidson, who uses this name as a pseudonym.) I don't know what it is about these books, but I've said it before (here) and (here), I just find Cutter's writing completely compelling. This time, I didn't even tell my husband about it, I just went ahead and read it without the horror-shaming that usually comes first from him. And guess what? I loved this one too, more than The Deep, and a teensy-bit less than The Troop. Maybe next time I'll try a Davidson book, so I won't have to sleep with the lights on for a week after I finish.

 

Honestly, that's all I'm going to say about this, you don't need anything else from me. Get the book and read it for yourself. You will not be disappointed. Freaked out, confused and sleepless, but definitely not disappointed.

Review
4 Stars
The Nix
The Nix - Nathan Hill

This was a terrific book, but it is, I thought, way too long. I am a fan of John Irving's quirky, sprawling novels , and this reminds me of them. However, listening to it (a 22-hour audio book!) I thought there were many times that descriptions, while wonderful, just went on and on. For example, while in the airport, the protagonist passes what is likely a Brookstone - I got that with the first four or five items listed, didn't need the almost complete inventory provided by Hill. Still, if you have the patience, the writing is lively, the story is interesting, and the ending was untidy and wholly satisfying.

Review
3.5 Stars
To Capture What We Cannot Keep
To Capture What We Cannot Keep: A Novel - Beatrice Colin

I admit, I judge a book by its cover. As a graphic designer, it comes with the territory, and a habit it's too late to change at this point. Having said that, I will also say that this habit has only rarely let me down. This book had the tremendous advantage of 1. featuring the Eiffel tower on the cover (compelling for me after staying within feet of it in Paris last summer), and 2. bearing a remarkable resemblance to the cover of All the Light We Cannot See, a huge favorite of mine. While I don't condone knock-off covers, this one, with a similar type layout to Doerr's book, subliminally convinced me it was going to be good. Normally I might feel manipulated, but Colin was able to follow through on the promise I felt when I first laid eyes on this cover, so I'll forgive her (and the cover designer).

 

I am a fan of historical fiction, inspired by real events with larger than life characters and their creations. Before I visited the Eiffel Tower, I didn't know much about the controversy surrounding its creation, and the fear of it being an eyesore is surprising knowing what an icon it has become for the city, many years after it was supposed to be dismantled. There are a couple of plotlines going on here, and of course a little romance thrown in for good measure, but the true story does not require a whole lot of embellishment to make for an interesting tale. The politics of the drawing room and the social scene in Paris provide a backdrop for what becomes a compelling story with a surprisingly satisfying untidy ending.

Review
4 Stars
Born a Crime
Born a Crime - Trevor Noah

I was not really familiar with Trevor Noah when this book became available on NetGalley, but the title stood out. Later, when it was still on my to-read pile, I got a "you should read this" note from my sister-in-law through Goodreads. Since this was unusual, I moved it to the top of my list.

 

I was at the University of Maryland during the height of the Anti-Apartheid protests, and I was a (very small!) part of the protests outside the South African embassy in DC. Nevertheless, my concept of life in South Africa was very limited. Noah's essays provide a unique perspective of a life on the fringes of so many different cultures. They are at turns heartbreaking and hilarious, for every outrageous thing Noah does there is an equally outlandish story about his mother. Mother and son are almost, as they say, two sides of the same coin. I agree with Noah when he describes the book as a love letter to his mother, it is all that and so much more. A must read, sure to move and inspire.

Review
4 Stars
Faithful
Faithful: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

This, for me, was not a typical Alice Hoffman story. Having read several of her other books (including her middle grade novel), this one, ironically, seems lighter, despite the weight of serious, complex themes. I appreciated that Hoffman tackled a conventional subject from a new angle — the car crash described at the start of the novel does not take lives in the literal sense— but both of the girls involved, and their families, cope with the "life" they each have left. Shelby has been dealt what may seem like the better hand (her friend Helene is comatose), but her guilt for the circumstances related to the crash, her experiences in the hospital after, and the fact that she has managed to build a life beyond it, all overwhelm any relief she might feel.

 

Hoffman is at her best rendering the finer details of ordinary life; here, even the minor characters provide transcendent moments with simple acts of kindness and compelling stories of their own. At some point, I found I was almost more interested in them than with Shelby, but that is not a criticism, Hoffman's powerful writing ensures each character is a fully realized, compassionate individual, worthy of our time and attention.

Review
4 Stars
The Girl from Venice
The Girl from Venice - Martin Cruz Smith

You might read the description of this book and think, oh, geez, yet another book about World War II. What is it about this particular war, in a long history of ugly wars, that drives people to keep exploring it from every possible angle? I've read about this war from every conceivable front and so many unique perspectives, but when I read a book like this I am stunned at an author's ability to bring something new to the conversation.

 

I was almost surprised to see this book described as a love story — but of course it is; it's just that calling it that seems to belittle it somehow, or diminish the horrors of the war. Instead, the occupied city is brought dramatically to life with breathtaking moments of tension, mitigated a bit with some light-hearted humor and, (ahem), romance, from the fisherman and the girl he "caught", late one night in the murky waters of the Venice lagoon.

Review
4 Stars
Crossing the Horizon
Crossing the Horizon: A Novel - Laurie Notaro

I think I could fill a shelf with all these obscure true stories of accomplished women. Notaro captures a frenzied time before Amelia Earhart was a household name; when scores of people were literally racing to be the first to cross the Atlantic, and many were dying in the attempt. What I love about this book is the three unique women Notaro profiles: the bad girl daughter of an earl, the beauty queen with something to prove, and the glamorous scene-stealer who I kept imagining as Lina Lamont from Singing in the Rain, for some reason. (If you remember who she is, you will hear that screechy voice say all of her lines as you read, sorry!)

 

In any case, this is part thriller, part slapstick, and always riveting drama. Why have I not heard of any of these women before? Why does this keep happening? I feel like I literally learned "the history of men" in school, and people are just now realizing our mistake. Let's hope they keep making up for it with compelling stories like this one.

Review
3 Stars
The Heart of Henry Quantum
The Heart of Henry Quantum - Pepper Harding

This book was compared with A Man Called Ove and Love, Actually, a book and a film the blurb refers to as beloved. And that is a big reason I chose this book on NetGalley — because I did love both of them.

 

Unlike Ove, this story does not feature a loveable character; in fact, only one of the three main characters, featured in different parts, was one I would consider compelling. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the story revolves around a couple who has, for the most part, given up on love, where Ove's story was one of a love lost and mourned. This is a more cynical story, with an edge to it; Ove is a curmudgeon where Henry, despite being described as socially-awkward, has managed to have an affair that inspired a woman to leave her marriage. In Henry's long day's journey into shopping for his wife's Christmas present, I was reminded of Harold Fry, (in a good way) but at the same time I wanted to scream at him to just buy the damn perfume and get back to work. I understand the point wasn't the perfume, but still, it was aggravating given that the premise involved such an easily accomplished task as opposed to a complex journey.

 

I saw in some reviews outrage that the story contains offensive, inappropriate language regarding mental health, among other things, and I agree — there were several cringe-worthy statements made by the main characters. This is not a matter of being true to a character, the statements were gratuitous and would have been better left unexpressed.

 

I would guess that the relatively small number of reviews I've seen has as much to do with that last point as it does the poor comparisons in the blurb — perhaps aligning with something like Shopgirl or Little Children, both of which sprang to my mind while reading, would have helped. Aside from the poor choice of certain lines of dialogue, the book still would have appealed to me, but my expectations would have been very different.

Review
3.5 Stars
Cruel Beautiful World
Cruel Beautiful World: A Novel - Caroline Leavitt

This is a painful, heartbreaking story about expectations, disappointments, love and secrets. When Lucy leaves her already fragmented family to run away with William, her 30-year-old high school English teacher, she has no idea how isolated her life will become. (Time out a second - What is it with students and their high school teachers? I loved mine, but I never wanted to run away with them. I know they were nuns, but still.) While the story is primarily Lucy's, Leavitt gives vibrant life to each of her characters, who face their own demons and regrets with grace and dignity.

 

As usual, Leavitt delivers a beautifully written story, moving in its courage, raw emotion, and unflinching hope. William's selfishness and immaturity made me wonder why Lucy, a young, beautiful girl, would stay with him. Then I listened to this NPR interview that someone kindly posted on Goodreads, and I understood it a little better. This is not an easy story to read, but it is moving and thought provoking, and it is worth the effort you will have to put into seeing it through its final pages. Not because it is hard to read, but instead, because Leavitt has created a world so real that you will worry about these people until the very end, and then, maybe even a little bit longer.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Wonder
The Wonder - Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue has the unique ability to place the reader in a precarious, uncomfortable and psychologically fraught situation — it is utterly compelling, and almost equally frustrating. In this story set in the Irish Midlands, Donoghue's characters are perfectly balanced; so that while there are certainly "good guys" and "bad guys" in a traditional sense, many of them cross the line back and forth between the two. There is a danger here in giving away the story with the small details, but I usually try to avoid that anyway. When I first finished this book, I could only comment on Goodreads that it was disturbing, and I needed time to recover. I have had some time now, but I'm not so sure I have recovered. Don't let that stop you from reading this book. In fact, it should make you go out and get it right now.

Review
3 Stars
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa See

It's been a while since I read a Lisa See book. I had a digital copy of this book thanks to NetGalley, but I opted to listen to it when I had the chance. Sometimes, when there are foreign names and places, I prefer this, rather than have the voice in my head stumbling over unfamiliar words. This was a well done audio book, but not my favorite Lisa See book of the bunch I have read - Snowflower and the Secret Fan is probably still my favorite.

 

In any case, I did learn a lot about the ethnic minority Akha people and the tea growing region in China, and the characters were interesting and unique. There were some things that didn't jibe for me, including the fairly open-minded views about sex in the culture, but then an almost complete ignorance of how these actions relate to procreation. Despite Li-yan's age and far flung experiences, she still seemed incredibly immature even as she aged throughout the story. I found the historical aspects and the details of the tea industry fascinating, but there were other parts that were predictable and repetitive that distracted from the story.

 

I was reminded of the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland (I saw the movie, not sure if I would recommend it, unless you need a reason to drink) while reading this book because I had the same shocked reaction to discover that the story took place in the present day. Li-yan's village has barely seen a car in the 1990s; when an actual date was finally mentioned well into the story I was stunned — I thought I was reading about a culture from the 1800s. So yes, Lisa See once again presents a compelling topic and a wealth of information, and for that reason I look forward to the next book she has to offer.

Review
3.5 Stars
Leave Me
Leave Me: A Novel - Gayle Forman

I haven't read Gayle Forman's YA books, but of course I've heard good things about them, so I was eager to read her first book of adult fiction. (I feel weird and grown up at the same time calling it that.) Anyway, while her writing was undeniably compelling, I found the subject slightly too close to home, having myself been a 40-something working mom with toddlers at one time. Happily, I have never had to deal with a health crisis like Maribeth's, but abandoning my children is an idea I could relate to only in theory. My own experience was more of a peculiar longing upon passing hotels — wanting to spend a long, uninterrupted night, and leave late in the morning with the bed unmade and the dirty dishes from a delicious breakfast by the door — but maybe that's just me. A lot has been said of the premise of the book, so clearly Forman has hit a nerve and sparked a conversation.

 

The logistics of Maribeth Klein's departure from her family and her job did not seem all that realistic to me, and the life she led in their absence strained belief, but thankfully Forman's crisp writing kept me reading. I find it hard to lose myself in a story where I do not like the main character, and honestly, I did not really like Maribeth. I can't help but think that despite what she considered compelling reasons to leave (prior to her health issues), most of these were "first world problems". Meanwhile, her husband Jason has to be the most unrealistic character of all, barely fazed by her behavior and eager to accept a good part of the blame for her abandonment. If only.

 

There were many things I liked about the book; many minor characters were depicted with fine detail and clarity. While I liked Maribeth's ultimate search for her adoptive mother, I felt that it should have been more of the point of her leaving, rather than the backhand way she happened upon that search. As a reader, you knew where this was going, there were just some parts along the way you might have wanted to skip.

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