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
The Best of Adam Sharp
The Best of Adam Sharp - Graeme Simsion

When I saw this title available on NetGalley, I immediately requested it, based on having read Simsion's other books. In retrospect, I should have known that this was different, especially with the summary including the part about Adam Sharp, "on the cusp of turning 50", which, in my experience, never bodes well for the unsuspecting wife and the seemingly happy marriage. I think what I missed was the charm of Simsion's other novels, which were appealing in their breezy way, and not at all affected, as Adam Sharp seems to be here, caught up in what can only be described as a mid-life crisis fantasy. Simsion doesn't do any favors to the women he depicts here, either. Despite all this, I kept reading; because I am weak, and I needed to know what happened in the end. And no, I'm not really proud of that. The music aspect appealed to me, invoking Nick Hornby themes, but it couldn't overcome my issues with the often creepy-feeling plot twists. I still think Simsion is a terrific writer (I wouldn't have been able to finish it otherwise), so I will try to keep an open mind about whatever he comes up with next.

Review
4 Stars
The Leavers
The Leavers: A Novel - Lisa Ko

This was an amazing book, on a difficult, timely issue. It feels truthful, since it represents many points of view and the complexities of immigration, without candy-coating anything. There are no heroes in this story, and most, if not all of the characters are flawed in some way. There were parts that made me ambivalent when I did not feel empathetic enough — Polly enters the country owing $50,000 to a loan shark and pregnant, which hardly seems like the better life she longs to give her unborn child. When this better life includes a trip for her son back to China to live with family for years, I wondered why she didn't let him stay where he was loved and settled. Instead, her son suffers a return to an unfamiliar land (and parent), and we begin to see that the life Polly imagined for him will only be achieved once she leaves him for good. This new life is far from perfect, and, while Polly's son Deming struggles with his own identity, Ko brings into focus the many small hypocrisies of a privileged white mindset that, despite more liberal leanings, often reinforces old stereotypes.

 

I don't usually quote other reviews, but I have to agree with this perfect one-sentence blurb from the New York Times Book Review, "Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives.” 

 

Despite any misgivings I had, this was a moving, though-provoking debut, and sets the bar high for Ko's next work.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Witchfinder's Sister
The Witchfinder's Sister - Beth Underdown

In case you've noticed, I'm a little behind on my reviews. Not because I haven't been reading, just that if it's a choice between reading and posting, I usually choose reading. Which puts me on track for my reading year, but regretfully behind here.

 

So enough about that, let's pretend it's the end of January, when I read this book. Brrr! It's freezing! Perfect time to sit in a cozy chair with a hot cup of tea and a warm blanket and read a scary book about witches. But really, if you're like me, there's no bad time to read about witches. This book, though, was a little different for me. For one thing, it was based on the true story of "Witchfinder General" Matthew Hopkins in Essex, England, 1645. Underdown spins a compelling tale based on his investigations, that are every bit as cruel, gruesome and unethical as you might imagine.

 

Alice, newly back in town, has her own troubles to deal with even before she starts to unravel the mysteries surrounding her brother, the now-famous Witch Finder. There is a lot going on in this otherwise sleepy town, and everyone seems to have a skeleton (or a witch) in their closet. The author leaves some things a little vague, but she does not spare the reader. This was an uncomfortable story for me to read; I really longed for a little bit of goodness in this world. I think that in her debut, though, Underdown has crafted an intense, often frightening, but ultimately well-told story.

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I am reading like crazy but so behind in my posts... can't even begin to list all of the excuses I've been saying in my head. But I never stop reading, it's just the tricky bit about the posting. But I'm no quitter, either!

 

Please enjoy this in the interim.

Review
3 Stars
Heroes of the Frontier
Heroes of the Frontier - Dave Eggers

This was tough for me. I love Eggers' work, and so much of this is what I would expect from him, but there are parts that just left me irritated, confused, or extremely stressed out for this unprepared, ill-equipped, mother of two, who displays an almost stunning lack of judgment when she takes her children on an inspired but completely unplanned trip to Alaska. The children, of course, are perfectly sweet, beautiful, wise little Yodas, who manage to charm even when they are at their worst.

 

Despite this, I was rooting for Josie. I bookmarked my audio-book and listened to one part several times — describing how we went from 4 parent visits a year at school to 46-hours' worth of recommended involvement (in a month). So, I cheered for Josie, even when she did some super questionable things (did anyone besides Josie not figure out the jumpsuits immediately?). And I almost made it all the way through. With about an hour or so left, Josie composes some music, and the story went from completely unrealistic yet kind of sweet and brave, to you have got to be kidding me. I considered Josie's musical scoring a charming affectation, a cute little character trait, but this was completely bizarre and almost offensive (to all musicians, everywhere, and I am not a musician). It went right off the rails for me after that.

 

There are some awesome, radical, refreshing ideas here about parenting and life, and it would have been so great if the rest of it had measured up to that great promise. Based on some other comments, I am guessing the geography is not well-researched, which seems a shame, and also easily avoidable. Any Eggers fans out there? Curious to know your thoughts.

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Ridgewood Public Library Author Lunch
Ridgewood Public Library Author Lunch

Time for a quick Public-Service announcement...

If you are in the northern NJ area, come to this fabulous annual event in support of one of Bergen County's best libraries! Nicole Krauss will be speaking and her books will be for sale and signing. Take your chance in a raffle, or bid on something at our amazing auction, featuring essential objects for the home, luxurious vacation packages or must-have tickets to Taylor Swift, Hamilton, and the grandstand at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade!

 

BUY TICKETS HERE

Review
4 Stars
Anything is Possible
Anything Is Possible - Elizabeth Strout

I will preface this, in an attempt at full disclosure, by admitting I am a fan of Elizabeth Strout. I heard her speak at our library lunch after Olive Kittredge came out, and at the time I was not sure if she would be able to top the success of that book. At the event, I grabbed copies of Amy & Isabelle and Abide with Me, which I greedily read not long after. There is something soothing and almost intoxicating about Strout's writing; she draws you in effortlessly, lulls you into complacency, and then shatters it all with a painful reality you might not have even imagined. Her characters are, at first glance, nondescript, often eking out a meager existence; but in her caring hands, they are stalwart, earnest, and beautiful. When Lucy Barton reappeared in this book, it was like catching up with an old friend, and I'm sure I judged her siblings harshly because I defended her. And that is the heart of it, really. I care about these characters. Strout pulls away the curtain, and we see what makes these people tick; we care about them because she makes us care, her words inspire empathy. And, given the state of things around here right now, we could all use a little more of that.

Review
3 Stars
Sympathy
Sympathy - Olivia Sudjic

And now, for something completely different. This debut novel, which I agree evokes the writing of Haruki Murakami (in a good way), among others, was one of those where I'm not too sure if I am actually too old to read it. (answer, yes, that's correct) When I find myself relating more to the poor decrepit grandma dying, wholly ignored, on the couch than to the 20-something protagonist, I have to figure that maybe this one wasn't meant for me. Having said that, I thought the writing was strong, I just didn't really care about the characters all that much. To be fair, they didn't care about a whole lot either, except for some over-the-top obsessive longing that never really feels honest. "Tormented efforts to connect" from the summary, though, seems apt, the idea that there are connections of any kind here seems grossly overstated.

 

Based on the fact that the book was compared to Murakami, I expected a different dimension to the book (not quite literally, though certainly his stories go there); I felt like the plot sort of teased the edges of a line I expected to be crossed. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, but I think that is kind of how I feel about this — sadly, I didn't have a lot of sympathy. But I will say that it is still an impressive debut, and I wouldn't hesitate to read what comes next.

Review
3 Stars
My Last Lament
My Last Lament - James William Brown

Ok, so I'm back on the "World War II books from rare perspectives"... is that a genre? This novel was not what I thought it was going to be, given the title, and the concept that the main character is one of the last remaining "lamenters" hired to mourn and celebrate a life in Greece. I was drawn to this idea, and the fact that attending a funeral and offering a eulogy is a paid position in some cultures. But this book's focus is not so narrow, and Aliki's lament is much longer than a funeral and more complicated. Telling her tale into a researcher's cassette recorder, Aliki describes an amazing journey, that is, in turn touching and almost barbaric. This is not the sweet tale the cover would have you imagine, there are events recalled here that are disturbing and decidedly lamentable. Aliki's voice is strong and her story is compelling, though the plot dragged at times and I didn't care about some of the characters I was probably supposed to be worried about or cheering on. But reading it, I could imagine I was in the company of an old soothsayer: wise, thought-provoking and perhaps a little controversial.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Night Ocean
The Night Ocean - Paul La Farge

This is the kind of story recommendation that could go either way. For me, this quirky, well-told tale was a thumbs-up, but I am guessing that the same reasons I liked the story might not compel another reader. I knew next to nothing about the real-life figures written about here — H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Barlow, and others — so I have no problem with the way they were represented, and I will take the author's lead regarding Lovecraft's own skills as a writer. I was a willing reader, with a little Wikipedia on the side to keep La Farge honest. I couldn't even begin to discuss the plot of this one, I think that even if you read the summary on amazon or goodreads you will be no closer to having an idea of what it's about than if you open it cold. So do that. Enjoy the often-beautiful language and even the meandering bunny trails of the plot. This is something new, and different, and I want you to like it as much as I did.

Review
3 Stars
Heart Mountain
Heart Mountain - Gretel Erlich

Maybe this is a personal thing, (but judging by the surfeit of books on this topic I'm guessing it's not) but I find stories on Japanese internment camps an interesting counterpoint to the many stories of World War II that find their settings in Europe. It is a similar instinct to watching a train wreck, I think, witnessing after the fact such an obvious breach of the rights and principles we've come to expect as our own. So yes, I get that, and I am a little ashamed for finding it gripping. Heart Mountain was a real place, and the author, who primarily wrote non-fiction before this novel, researched the topic well. This is a good and bad thing, with some parts overladen with the type of facts you don't really see (or need) in a novel.

 

While I found the topic compelling, some of the characters were barely more than stereotypes, which slowed the story. The tension at the internment site was much more natural and plausible than the accompanying romantic plot line, which I didn't find very credible. I'm not sure how it stacks up against the other books on this topic, but I did think it added an unexplored point of view.

 

One other note: If you are looking for a summary of the book, you'll find one on Amazon - the Goodreads version is oddly vague.

Review
4 Stars
The Refugees
The Refugees - Viet Thanh Nguyen

I read Nguyen's well-received first book, The Sympathizer, so I was eager to read this collection of short stories, and happy to see it available on NetGalley. When I initially selected Sympathizer, it was on my husband's recommendation, but that book easily sold me on Nguyen's ability to compel a reader, especially one who wasn't sure about the subject. Like Sympathizer, the characters here live difficult, often impossible lives. In some cases, I admit, I wasn't sorry the story was short; I was happy to escape to a different place, with new characters and challenges. Despite the slim volume, the characters are fully-realized, and their stories are crafted with care and compassion.

Review
4 Stars
Letters to a Young Writer
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice - Colum McCann

I can't believe it's been so long since I read this book, but I am behind on my reviews and yes, it's a new year, so I am trying to catch up. The lateness, however, has nothing to do with my love for this book; this was a highlight of the year for me.

 

I've enjoyed Colum McCann's novels, so when he wrote a book on writing, of course I wanted to read it. (And I wanted to enroll in his creative writing class at Hunter.) When I look at the book again now, I am kind of surprised I didn't highlight passages. So why didn't I highlight this one? It would have taken all of the pleasure out of reading, what with all that highlighting. There are so many inspiring words here, as evidenced by writers and non-writers alike who rave about this book.

 

I especially appreciated that McCann addresses older writers here as well, and that he credits a whole slew of others with his own writing education. If you are an aspiring writer, this is a book to treasure, and, something I say only rarely — one to read again and again.

Review
4 Stars
Building Better Teams this year
The Best Team Wins: The New Science of High Performance - Chester Elton, Adrian Gostick The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups - Daniel Coyle The Age of Agile: How Smart Companies Are Transforming the Way Work Gets Done - Stephen Denning

Working on my next review for Global Business and Organizational Excellence with 3 inspiring titles that deserve the press they are getting. Told with a nice combination of anecdote, interviews and compelling data.

Review
4 Stars
Believe Me
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens - Eddie Izzard
If you are a fan of Eddie Izzard, I think you will love this book anyway. But if, like me, you are intrigued by the title and have a relative interest in his story, you might also love this as much as I did. Having him read it is sometimes challenging, as he tends to go way off tangent ("extra footnote here, when I wrote this...") and continually updates his story. But it is also intimate, thought-provoking, and highly entertaining.
Review
3.5 Stars
My Absolute Darling
My Absolute Darling: A Novel - Gabriel Tallent

This story is deeply disturbing and brutal, yet also moving and even hopeful. It is a terrific audio book, despite the difficult themes, and at times, feels like an evil voice in your head that you just can't shake. Not for the faint of heart - the book is graphic and explicit, painfully so almost throughout. But then you think, this is surely someone's reality, and you are shamed from turning it off.

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