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!

 

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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.

Review
3 Stars
Stars Over Sunset Boulevard
Stars Over Sunset Boulevard - Susan Meissner

The description of this book intrigued me, especially since it was set in old-time Hollywood during the filming of Gone with the Wind. Meissner populates her tale with a mix of real and imagined characters, as she follows two young women trying to find their way out of the secretarial pool at Selznick Studios. They have come to Hollywood with dramatically different goals, which is at times perfect and at others difficult for their budding friendship. I loved how Violet first discovered Audrey at the studio, how they became roommates, and soon, friends. The details were just right, the setting vivid and the characters, alive. I think Meissner worked hard to get me to dislike Audrey, a relentless schemer determined to get her break as an actress, but instead, I found Violet far more sinister, because she pretended to want nothing, but wanted everything.

 

Once the story is well under way, and Violet has committed what she acknowledges as a treacherous act, I had the relentless feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. But for me, it never really does. Meissner introduces characters from the present day, adding, for me at least, an unnecessary, almost jarring sidebar. It seemed as if this was the only way Meissner could accomplish the “twist” alluded to by Violet earlier, but the characters here are barely sketched in, and their relative importance to the earlier story seemed weak.

 

In any case, there are definitely things to like about this book, especially if you are looking for a story that takes place in this time period but is not a story about World War II. I have not read Meissner’s other books, but Secrets of a Charmed Life was a Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Historical Fiction in 2015.

Review
4 Stars
Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Everyone Brave is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

It happens every once in a while, that I find myself reading a bunch of books set during World War II. These seem to come out in groups, never just one random book on the topic. To be fair, I chose them all, but I don’t always plan well in spacing out the reading. That is how I found myself listening to one book while reading another, both of them taking place during the war.

 

What I found odder still is that as a topic, this one would seem to be exhausted; and yet here I am, impressed with Cleave’s ability to show yet another perspective. This novel is almost an examination of manners and the class system in London, with war as the setting that allows certain lines to be crossed. I listened to this book and I was glad I did, besides the fact that everything just sounds better with an English accent. There is so much clever banter between the characters in this book — the naïve young teacher and her clever students, the soldiers coveting each other’s personal stores of food and letters, and the lovers trying to make the most of time and circumstances — the audiobook captured these moments with charm and grace. When it was at it’s sharpest, I was reminded of the very best scenes from the television show, MASH; particularly when the men practice teatime conversations while crouched in a fox hole or on a long night’s watch. While it did not move me to the extent of All the Light We Cannot See, (that’s a high bar in my opinion) it was still a beautifully written book. And though the plot was sometimes a bit slow and predictable, I found it comforting, because I enjoyed these characters, and I wasn't eager to give them up too soon.

Review
4 Stars
The Secret Chord
The Secret Chord: A Novel - Geraldine Brooks

I should preface this review by saying that I am not a fan of all historical fiction, but I will read anything Geraldine Brooks writes. And honestly, she picks some themes that make me wonder about my blind faith in her. The plague. The first Native American to graduate Harvard. The Sarajevo Haggadah. These are not your run of the mill topics, and not what I would typically go to a bookstore or a library to request. As I write this, I am thinking, geez Geraldine, I think you are beginning to take advantage of my good will.

 

I am thinking that, but at the same time I am thinking, how the heck does she make these obscure topics so relevant, so vivid and so riveting? As a Christian, I can say that I have a certain level of familiarity with the characters represented in The Secret Chord, but Brooks truly brings this story to life from the moment she begins, providing context for a story I knew more of in broad-stroked outlines. This has all of the elements I’m looking for in contemporary fiction — a charismatic yet flawed protagonist, a compelling plot with plenty of tension, and well-detailed, realistic characters.

 

To be fair, this was not my favorite Brooks novel, but then again, the bar is high in my opinion. So take my fandom with a grain of salt — if you are already a fan, you will like this book. If you have never read a Brooks novel, this may be an interesting place to start. If you are wondering why you would ever want to read a book about King David and all of those old bible stories, I’m with you. I totally understand. But do it anyway. This is not a candy-coated made-for-tv movie, this is an epic tale, and you should not miss it.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Sympathizer
The Sympathizer - Viet Thanh Nguyen

I originally selected this book from NetGalley because I saw it the same day my husband asked me to get it for him. Fast forward a year or so, and he still hasn’t read it, and I felt guilty getting an advance copy without reviewing it. Well, not really so guilty. For one thing, the list of awards this book has won, starting with the Pulitzer and ending with the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, and including a whole bunch in between, makes me pretty sure it’s done ok without my meager endorsement. Despite this, I forge ahead and offer my opinion, in this case, consenting.

 

Seriously, there are over 10,000 reviews on Goodreads for this book. I have not read them all (or any, in fact), but I am fairly certain I may not have a whole lot of new ideas to bring to the table, so I will keep it short. This should be required reading for every high school student, much as I hate to use the word required. This is the Vietnam War after the fall of Saigon, with violence that made me weep, culpability that shamed me, and an untenable situation of a “man of two minds” — both patriot and spy — that made me understand the desperation and impossibility of it all. Just read it, if anything else, you will feel more human and yes, a little tiny bit smarter.

Review
4 Stars
An Inheritance of Ashes
An Inheritance of Ashes - Leah Bobet

Sometimes, the amount of time that passes between when I receive a book from NetGalley and when I have a chance to read it is longer than I’d like. Because of this, I may forget what the book is about or why I selected it. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing; I just forge ahead and see what happens, trusting in my original inclinations. In the first couple of pages of this book, I was reminded of Cold Mountain, and mistakenly imagined I was reading about soldiers returning from the Civil War. Well, not so much. This is not the Civil War, and these are not those men.

 

Bobet’s fantasy is remarkable for its realistic details; she has recreated our world, circa the late 1800s, and turned it on its head. The old cities with their towering skyscrapers are a thing of the past, and the people who remain live off the land in traditional farming communities — only now their men are off fighting a ruthless dark god. The comfort found in this bucolic scene is shattered by the appearance of an inescapable evil, far from the original scene of battle.

 

This is a compelling, eerie tale. While some of the story is predictable and less convincing, Bobet keeps the narrative moving with her vivid descriptions and attention to detail. I cared about these characters, and I was afraid of that dark god and the wretched monsters he unleashed on their world. So yes, I am a wuss, and you will probably be braver and just muddle on through the scary bits. But in the end, like me, you will be happy you did, because Bobet has woven a lyrical, heartbreaking tale of a strange and unforgettable new world.

 

p.s. – I loved this cover – makes me want to go out and buy a hard copy of the book.

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