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
4 Stars
Did You Ever Have a Family?
Did You Ever Have A Family - Bill Clegg

Read this after Fates and Furies when Lauren Groff thanked her agent, Bill Clegg, and I remembered this book on my to-read pile. Have wanted to read this one since the day I bought it, the cover was just so perfect. The book inside, not surprisingly, was just as good.

Review
4 Stars
Fates and Furies
Fates and Furies: A Novel - Lauren Groff

Can't just add this to the read pile without a quick note: I am a fan of Lauren Groff, so this book was one in a string of her books for me - I listened to some of this but then I remembered the giant chunk of a book I already had on my shelf, hardcover, enormous, and I had to prop it on my lap and read the rest myself. Groff's writing, with its odd assortment of characters and warped perspectives reminds me of John Irving and everything I love about his writing. Messy and strange, but ultimately compelling and satisfying.

Review
3 Stars
The Versions of Us
The Versions of Us - Laura Barnett

I chose this book on NetGalley because the premise, that a singular moment could open up three distinct possibilities, was appealing. “The one thing that's certain is they met on a Cambridge street by chance and felt a connection that would last a lifetime. But as for what happened next . . .” Barnett has set the book up in a rotation for each of the different storylines, so you follow the thread of a particular future every three chapters. I think she did this to keep everything chronological; with the three stories side by side you are able to compare the different paths in real time. However, in a kindle format this can be confusing — challenging to go back and find out who’s with who.

 

As a fan of stories about artists and writers, I appreciated the way Barnett wove these elements into the plot. Barnett writes with wit, charm and an eye for detail, but even her eloquent prose cannot overcome a less than captivating group of characters. While these main characters loomed large over everyone else, most of the minor characters remained virtually the same no matter what happened in the different plots, which was a shame, because I liked many of them. While I am not an unbridled romantic, I did find it unrealistic that no couple in this book could remain faithful in marriage. There are all sorts of rationalizations and “higher art” themes to justify this, but I found it annoying, and, in some cases, Woody Allen-esque-ridiculous in terms of highly unlikely pairings. I did appreciate (but also, sadly, unlikely) that Eva was wildly successful no matter which path she followed — so yes, girl power and all that, but still. Some of those comments make me feel silly and prudish, but if none of that would bother you, have at it. I remain hopeful that Barnett’s best is yet to come.

Review
3 Stars
Imagine Me Gone
Imagine Me Gone - Adam Haslett

This book starts with a bang — dropping you into the middle of the action without any information and then leaving you the balance of the book to put the facts together. Kind of like waiting for the other shoe to drop. Not entirely a pleasant feeling, but a compelling device.

 

From the very beginning, most of the characters are in untenable positions, with their lives spinning ever more deeply out of control. This is not the story of a dysfunctional family, but of a family unable to function at all, as father, and later son, face a crippling mental illness. For me, it was difficult because at times I expected some of the characters to make better decisions; but this would have meant making them based on hard facts rather than heart. Obviously, this was not a light read, though there were some lighter moments; Haslett’s writing is lyrical and elegant, and his character’s fierce love of music is conveyed with loving detail. This book was painful at times to read, but it was, nonetheless, a deeply moving story.

Review
3.5 Stars
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood
Red: The True Story of Red Riding Hood - Liesl Shurtliff

My daughter encouraged me to read Rump, also by Shurtliff, as soon as she finished it. I loved that she chose that book, because it looked like the big chunky books I always love, that invite a long stay on the couch under a cozy blanket (its gloomy and cold as I write this). While Rump is still on my tippy to-read pile, I picked this from NetGalley when it was available, based on that earlier recommendation.

 

So, I will admit it, my daughter was right. Shurtliff’s newest tale did not disappoint, so I really need to think about moving Rump to the top of the pile. I love the overlapping fairy tales, and the many ways Shurtliff adds depth to a character who typically seems to have none at all. I especially liked how she seamlessly wove characters from the other tales into the plot as if we could watch the forest from a high tree and all the stories were really only one epic tale – it reminded me a little of the forest in Shrek. I did not really love Goldilocks in this version, but that is a minor complaint in an otherwise completely enjoyable read. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot. I also read this one first, so I could recommend it to my daughter.

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The Most Beautiful Libraries in America
The Most Beautiful Libraries in America

The Library at Rutgers University, NJ, was modeled after a 4th-Century Roman Church

 

Of course we support our local library - but now you can tour across America with THIS LIST of amazing libraries in every state.

Review
3 Stars
The Art of Not Breathing
The Art of Not Breathing - Sarah  Alexander

This is one of those YA books that makes me wish I was not a parent when I read it. I know, even as I react to events, that I am thinking like a completely annoying parent — ooh, that’s too dangerous, should she be doing that? — and not a young adult. So yes, I understand, I am reading books I probably shouldn’t read anymore, but sometimes I need to, in order to see what’s out there for my own writing, and to pretend I am previewing it for my daughters. That last part is a story I tell myself, as my daughters no longer value my opinion about their reading, and have in fact taken to believe that they have superior taste in books to me.

 

In any case, I am trying to be less wordy in these reviews, because really, who has the time to hit that “Show entire post” when you’re scrolling through the feed late at night? This book has everything a YA should — thrill-seeking teens, edgy romance, complex problems at home, and long-buried secrets — but I did feel that the myriad of serious problems presented here were explored in only a cursory manner. Alexander serves up a lot of angst, and, despite my mixed feelings about the book, she gave me some cringe-worthy moments realizing that I have teenage daughters who may someday want to date a bad-ass surfer boy.

Review
4 Stars
I Let You Go
I Let You Go - Clare Mackintosh

This book begins with heartbreaking tragedy, then smooths the sharp edges into a gentle story that lulls you very quietly into a sense of complacency, right before ripping the world apart once more. The reader experiences what at first appears to be the complete story — two equal halves in alternating chapters — but understands later that parts are missing, deliberately omitted and carefully concealed. This unknowing gives the story its edge, it’s elusive feel, and kept me reading even though at times I wanted to scream at some of the characters. (Not just one, either. But mostly because I liked them, and I was trying to keep them from screwing up, so there’s that.)

 

It’s hard for me to give a sense of this book in a short space, but I don’t want to talk about it, I want you to go ahead and read it yourself. I am pretty sure Mackintosh left no genre unturned here, there’s a little something for everyone — fierce drama, crime fiction, light comedy and romance, thriller, and a beautiful setting with a sense of timelessness and history. The year is just beginning, start it off with a jolt.

Review
4 Stars
Read this book, no matter how old you are. I won't tell if you pretend it's for your kids. (But let them read it too, just to be safe.)
The Girl Who Drank the Moon - Kelly Barnhill

I read a lot of incredible books in 2016, but I have to say, this was one of my favorites. It is the kind of book that you just want to put in someone else’s hands the minute you finish it, because you want to talk about it with someone you care about as soon as possible. This was an almost grown-up kind of fairy tale, so perfectly imagined and wondrously told that I am hesitant to say too much about it.

 

I might have wanted to listen to this book, if only to know how to pronounce the characters’ names correctly, but that was a minor distraction in this otherwise joyful book. Of course, there is treachery and deceit — all proper fairy tales need a villain or two (and there are quite a few here) — and there is the mandatory clash with evil and the ultimate victory for the side of the good, but knowing this still does not take away from the dramatic tension or suspense. The publisher’s blurb is not hyperbole — the lyrical language, the moving story and the truly unique and imaginative characters all combine to make this a modern classic.

Review
4 Stars
The Girl in the Well is Me
The Girl in the Well Is Me - Karen Rivers

Ok, I am going to do a few different things with this review.

 

First, I am going to cut any suspense and tell you straight out, I loved this book. Now love is a weird thing, because this is a very sad, moving, terrible story, and for the most part, a lot of it is not enjoyable to read. But, Rivers tells this story without being heavy-handed — if someone told me it was about “bullying” I might have skipped it as a hot-topic issue kind of book.

 

Also, I am going to say that it is not a book for everyone — you can tell that by reading even a couple of other reviews. But here’s the thing, the “dark” humor some people fault is really what helped me through what I found to be a compelling, beautifully told, tale. Kammie is a survivor, and she got that way by having a sense of humor in the face of grave circumstances. I laughed out loud at her wild imaginings while trapped, each ending with a version of, “but I can’t, because I’m stuck. In a well.” Her sarcasm especially appealed to me, and I know my daughters will appreciate this as well when they read it.

 

Kammie’s story is important because it is difficult and filled with despair, but there is (literally) a tiny light at the end of the tunnel. And her ability to see that light, despite all the muck that rains down on her (literally and figuratively), is a triumph of human spirit, and a lesson in perseverance and hope for the rest of us.

Review
3.5 Stars
Miller's Valley
Miller's Valley - Anna Quindlen

I have been a fan of Anna Quindlen’s writing for a long time, back to her days as a New York Times’ columnist, once sitting outside in the hallway when she gave a talk at a nearby college, because despite standing in line for quite a while, I did not make it into the packed lecture hall. Despite her finesse and attention to telling details, I always have the feeling that her novels are closer to truth than fiction, and I felt that way reading this book in particular. I think it had more to do with the relationships between Mimi Miller and each of her parents, but of course this is me projecting my own impressions. In any case, I enjoyed reading about Miller’s Valley and it’s battle to tame the water surrounding it, especially since we spend our summers on a lake whose waters cover what was also once a town.  

 

I love Quindlen’s writing, but I honestly think I prefer her personal stories to any she imagines, and I’m not sure why. She brings the people in Miller’s Valley to life with clarity, depth and focus, but there is something distant about them, and I feel detached from their dramas. I would have liked to learn more about what went on between Mimi’s mother and her estranged sister, who lived on the property alongside them, but not with them. This storyline, hinted at and then startling in the end, seemed much more interesting to me than anything happening to the other characters.

 

There is no doubt Anna Quindlen can tell a compelling tale — and her worst attempt is just so much better than so many best efforts. So, no, this was not my favorite, but that bar is high, and reading this was still a pleasure.

Review
5 Stars
2016 - My Year of Fredrik Backman
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

This is how you end a year of reading great books. I started this one a while ago, but my audiobook expired and I had to get back on the waiting list, so I was eager to finish when I finally got it back. Having read the three of these slightly out of order, I probably liked this one even more, because there is insight into the character of Britt-Marie that made me much more sympathetic to her than I would have been had I not read her story first.

So no surprise here, I admit, another heart wrenching, gentle, lovingly told story. Highly recommend listening to all three of these books - it will calm your commutes, and, I think I said this before, make you a better person having heard this story. 

Review
3 Stars
The Quality of Silence
The Quality of Silence - Rosamund Lupton

This book was very well written, but extremely painful to read, and I mean that sincerely. If you are like me, you will read this book wrapped up in a warm blanket in front of a fire, cupping a mug of hot chocolate — even if you read it in the summer. It’s winter in Alaska, with icy roads, mountains of snow, debilitating blizzards, white out conditions, and Jasmin needs to get to her husband, missing (likely dead) from a small town near Deadhorse. Honestly, the destination alone was enough to give me pause. Oh, and yeah, Jasmin is driving, and she’s never driven a truck. This is no ordinary truck either, or ordinary roads, and there is tremendous skill required to navigate them. Impossibly, someone is following them, intent on sabotaging their journey. Despite all this, she hurdles desperately into the unknown, dragging her innocent deaf daughter along with her.

 

Did I lose you yet? Shockingly, despite the almost wholesale unbelievability of this plot, I was compelled to finish the story. Jasmin is strangely sympathetic, despite the fact that I loathed her rash actions and the unnecessary peril she placed her daughter in. But I cared what happened to them. I thought the storyline with the mystery person following them was at once ridiculous and comforting. After all, the roads were supposed to be impassable, and yet here is this guy, following them. In the end, too many loose ends were tied together, and the plot was thin at best, but it is a testament to Lupton’s strong writing and character development that I would recommend this book, but perhaps to a heartier sort than me. Nevertheless, I would say I learned a few things along the way, in spite of myself.

Review
3 Stars
We Love You, Charlie Freeman
We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel - Kaitlyn Greenidge

Is it weird that this is not my first book about a family that lives with a chimpanzee as a sibling for research purposes? Yes. I think perhaps it is. I can’t even tell you the name of the other book, because the chimp angle of the story is a spoiler. Luckily, I read a lot of books, so it would be difficult for you to root that one out, even with the best deductive reasoning skills. So, here’s the thing, this new book made me even more uncomfortable than the last one. The topic of race provides the subtext for the book, except for the times when it is addressed directly and without pretense. I think I was supposed to feel uncomfortable reading this (and I was), but I will admit that understanding that made me feel a little manipulated. There are a lot of disturbing things going on in this family, and at times, the chimp in the room is the least of their problems. There is also the issue of selling out by serving up your family in exchange for a position and a new place to live, and then letting work come between you and your family in ways that I cannot begin to get into here.

 

This book begins as a kind of brave adventure, but it quickly degenerates into the unraveling of a family. There is a parallel narrative that provides the backstory and this one is even more disturbing than the one that takes place in the more recent past. The idea of chimpanzees learning sign language is not new or invented for the story – in fact, my quick googling showed research dating well before 1990 proving this was possible, but this only made me wonder why the author chose that particular time for what I thought was presented as a groundbreaking study. In hindsight, this seems odd to me, but maybe I’m overthinking it.

 

I do like quirky and odd stories, and this is certainly both of those things, but I have to be honest and admit I didn’t love this one. A big part of this has to do with the fact that the issue of race in the story was presented with the subtlety of a hammer blow to the head. At times, it read like an old-fashioned morality tale — and yes, there is no defense for the disrespectful, abhorrent way most white people in this story behaved. There is a lot of love out there for this book, so maybe it’s just me, but I’m not feeling it.

Review
3 Stars
Tuesday Nights in 1980
Tuesday Nights in 1980 - Molly Prentiss

I am not sure if this is a book that will appeal to everyone, but for me, it brought to life a particular moment in time with clarity and an intriguing perspective. The story takes place in the raggedy SOHO of early 1980, when it was filled with artist’s squats and struggling galleries, before the upscale boutiques and hot yoga. There are multiple stories here — the art critic, the passionate artist, even the clichéd young woman new to NYC trying to find herself — and of course they all overlap in intentional and indirect ways. But all of their stories are compelling because they have a sense of mystery and even magic. There are a few noteworthy minor characters, but their stories are told in the margins of the three main protagonists.

 

I loved this story and the way it was told. The writing is at times aggressive and choppy, and others minimalist, and deeply lyrical. There are leaps of joy, and plummeting depths of sadness over the course of one year, from New Year’s Eve to New Year’s Eve. The author introduces us to art through the eyes of a synesthetic art critic; shedding light on a condition that usually defies verbal description. The passion of the artist is clear, and we see how he will do whatever is necessary to practice his craft. There are glimpses of politics here — the oppressive situation of the artist’s homeland, the beginnings of gentrification — but it is not a political story.

 

So yes, this may only appeal to a certain reader, but I believe that it has a message for a broader audience. It is not only a story about art, it’s a story where art is a touchstone and a common ground, and all of life is seen through that. It is a reminder of a different time, not so long ago, and reading it makes me wonder about the real cost of all that hot yoga and those fancy boutiques.

Review
4 Stars
The Flood Girls
The Flood Girls - Richard Fifield

Wow, there is a seriously crazy cast of characters all crammed into this tiny town. I am going to just cut the suspense and say that everything the publisher’s blurb claims is true — it is an uproarious and unforgettable cast, and I did not want to leave them when I finished the final page. Their story stays with me despite the books I’ve read since, and I shake my head even now when I think about some of it.

 

This is not highbrow literary drama; this is real life from all angles, taking its punches from all comers. There is a lot of pretty, and a whole lot of despicable. There is hilarious and there is heart-stopping sadness, sometimes in the same few pages. After reading about the author in this extraordinary debut, I couldn’t help but think he was cribbing from his own story, but protecting those townies he left behind. No matter, it is all great. The setting is as much a character as the people inhabiting it — I would love to hang in a bar called, “The Dirty Shame”. It reminded me of a few of my favorite small-town stories, including Fried Green Tomatoes, A League of Their Own, and Cold Sassy Tree. But truly, this book stands on its own.

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