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
The Rules of Magic
The Rules of Magic: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

I am pretty sure that I read Hoffman's Practical Magic since I've read several of her books, but it was probably in the 90s, long before I started keeping track on Goodreads. I once heard Anna Quindlen speak, and she said something I never forgot regarding certain female authors, "You can't go wrong with a book written by an Alice." This is terrific advice, and, I've found, completely accurate.

 

When I saw The Rules of Magic offered on NetGalley, I requested it right away, especially since the author considers this the first in the series, just in case I forgot the plot of the first one. (Yes, here I go with a series again, right after I said I never read them...) The family legacy of witchcraft haunts the Owens family, and you can bet that Susannah Owens' three children are not about to escape unscathed. Charged with a myriad of rules, their mother offers one that is just too compelling to ignore, "Don't fall in love." So you see where this is going — witches, spells, secret powers, and love — what's not to like? Trust me and Anna Quindlen, you can't go wrong with a book written by an Alice.

Review
4 Stars
The Boy on the Bridge
The Boy on the Bridge - M.R. Carey

I can't really explain my fascination with these books. When I read The Girl with all the Gifts, I never imagined I would read the sequel — not because I didn't love it, but because I sometimes have the attention span of a gnat, and rarely follow up with series, trilogies, etc. because I just run out of steam. This is probably the same reason I have loyalty to only a few television shows and am quick to consider they've "jumped the shark". In any case, here I am again, reading a zombie book while my husband watches The Walking Dead (and no, I didn't give that show up, I was too chicken to even watch it.) Before I read The Boy on the Bridge, I watched the movie of The Girl with all the Gifts. Had I not been watching that on an airplane, I would have either cried in terror or shrieked like a little baby, because, despite knowing the entire plot and outcome, I was terrified.

 

The Boy on the Bridge is equally terrifying, at least to me, but in a completely satisfying way. If you have not read the first one, I am sure you can still read this as a stand-alone, but I recommend reading both no matter which order. The two stories are cleverly intertwined, so that the author considers it a sequel, prequel or equal, but that's merely semantics. Whatever he wants to call it, I'll read it. In fact, I will probably even read another. Bring on number 3.

Review
4 Stars
Birdsong
Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

Just in time for the hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day, I read this novel of World War 1. This was a terrifying and compelling ride — perhaps the most intimate story I've read about wartime. Faulks' vibrant and often blunt descriptions give the feeling of being beside the men in the trenches, which is both painful and enlightening. This is not for the faint-hearted — the descriptions spare no feelings or sensitivities — but instead bear graphic witness to the suffering these soldiers so bravely endured.

Review
4 Stars
The Little Book of Feminist Saints
The Little Book of Feminist Saints - Manjitt Thapp, Julia Pierpont

This book is truly a treasure and an inspiration. The biographies are thoughtful, engaging and often surprising; the illustrations are simply stunning. I loved the form of a book of saints— I would especially like a leather-bound volume of this with a silk ribbon bookmark like my catholic school days—and even more, I loved having a grown-up picture book. There was a terrific balance between the well-known and lesser known women, with so many important, overlooked achievements. This is a book I read on my ipad in order to appreciate the illustrations, (and because I received a review copy from NetGalley -—Thank You!) but I wouldn't hesitate to buy a stack of these to give as gifts. Christmas is coming.

Review
3.5 Stars
Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Love and Other Consolation Prizes: A Novel - Jamie Ford

Ok, full disclosure: I love Jamie Ford's writing. I think that Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was the first book I read on a kindle, which was a difficult transition for me, because I have always been a book buyer. Despite the number of books I read on "devices", I still love the weight and feel of one in my hands. At some point, though, I understood the financial downside to needing to own every book I read, not to mention the rapidly decreasing amount of space to store them in my home. So, reading that first book was truly bittersweet, but thankfully, the quality of the story far outweighed my reluctance to read it on a kindle.

 

And though I read this book on my kindle too, I do have a couple Jamie Ford novels (and even a comic book) which he autographed when he was our guest speaker at our annual author lunch. All of that is to say again, I'm a fan, and Love and Other Consolation Prizes  did nothing to change that.

 

Ford demonstrates his ability to create a rich, quirky, entirely engaging cast of characters, as well as his knack for finding a "truth is stranger than fiction" topic. His story begins at the 1909 Seattle World's Fair, where a 12-year-old boy is being raffled off. Seriously. If that doesn't capture your imagination, I really don't know what will.

Review
3 Stars
Are You Sleeping?
Are You Sleeping - Kathleen L. Barber

Like most people who have weighed in on this book, I did find it fairly predictable, but still a decent read. I thought the comparison to Serial was misleading, because it was more of a knockoff, like a bad Rom-Com version of Serial, despite the heavy-sounding premise. While she tested my patience with characters whose dialogue (and actions) often defied believability, Barber's skill in pacing and an interesting narrative form kept me turning the pages. I did enjoy the family drama — the romantic tangles not so much. Despite the sometimes-clunky characters, I did finish, so I will be interested to see what Barber thinks of next.

Review
3.5 Stars
Reading with Patrick
Reading with Patrick - Michelle Kuo

This was an eye-opening book. I found Kuo's story at turns heartening and frustrating — as an eager member of Teach for America, she offered hope for an impoverished, unruly group of last-chance students, but at the same time, she was so ill-equipped and naive it was dangerous. Often throughout the book, Kuo compares Patrick's plight to her own immigrant family's struggles, which I understand, but I think it made her tone-deaf to this particular urban crisis. I give Kuo tremendous credit for reconnecting with Patrick when she learned he was incarcerated, but I sometimes felt those months with him provided a beyond-reproach excuse for her own career indecision. Upon her return to the Delta, Kuo learns the harrowing fates of many in the class she taught, but does not seem concerned by her inability to make an impact with anyone but Patrick. What's more, at different points Kuo acknowledges huge gaps in their education, that provide few with the skills to reach beyond their circumstances. Obviously, this is not a situation that can be changed overnight, or with the limited attention span of a short-term volunteer teacher, but still.

 

I appreciate Kuo's devotion to Patrick, and the sacrifice it entailed. But parts of this story seemed more to me (and I hate how cynical I feel saying this) like they were intended to pad a resume or write a book. There were so many others in Patrick's class simply left behind, and I could not get that out of my head, how you could choose just one student to place all of your hope in, at the expense of the rest.  But despite all my misgivings, I do believe that Kuo has provided a valuable window into an untenable situation — where the difference between the haves and the have nots is, in some cases, literally criminal.

Review
3.5 Stars
Before Everything
Before Everything - Victoria Redel

I cannot resist a good book about a close-knit group of girlfriends, especially a sad one. When Helen, Ming, Molly, and Caroline gather to say goodbye to Anna, who is about to enter hospice, I was ready for some wild stories and long overdue confessions. Despite the setup, this story was not the gripping tale I expected, and there were some surprising moments of pettiness among the characters given the gravity of the situation. Despite this, it felt true to me. It reminded me of the times I have experienced perspective altering events, when my own troubles — that had seemed huge and unmanageable before — were eclipsed by unexpected tragedies. Redel does an excellent job of creating characters who are human and believable. They are not always perfect, or selfless, or even kind and forgiving, but they are capable of change, and so there is always hope.

Review
4 Stars
Educated
Educated - Tara Westover

We listened to this one while we worked (my best friend/business partner and I), and I will say there was quite a bit of moaning and yelling at the narrator throughout. Westover's childhood was appalling, and no amount of back-pedaling by her parents and estranged siblings can convince me otherwise. Considering that their lawyer uses the only three children who escaped the family and paid their own way through an education as an example of the alleged "home schooling" success, I have to side with Tara's story whole-heartedly - not to mention that every single one of the others relies on the mother's "healing oil" business for their livelihood. I never thought anyone would make Jeanette Walls' story look like a walk in the park, but here you have it. Also never heard so many near-catastrophic accidents happen in one family; if nothing else, that alone is reason for Tara to distance herself from them.

Review
4 Stars
Memory's Last Breath
Memory's Last Breath: Field Notes on My Dementia - Gerda Saunders

I chose this book on NetGalley because the topic was timely for me — my mom is dealing with many of the same issues — and I wanted to learn more about it, especially given the first-hand account. As it got closer on my to-read pile, I found myself resistant. By then, I had read the eye-opening book, The 36-Hour Day, which certainly helped my understanding, but also pretty much squelched my desire to be more informed. In this respect, Saunders anecdote-filled book was a relief, but, as a scientist herself, she balanced the narrative with so much information that it was occasionally overwhelming. It is always difficult to see someone whose livelihood depends on their superior intellect affected by a disease of the mind, but I was more moved by the daily diary entries that detailed embarrassing lapses in the countless mundane acts we all perform thoughtlessly every day.

 

There are a lot of digressions here, but I forgive her those. I think that, given the platform of this book, she is allowed to show off a little, to prove that she still has a wealth of information at her command, despite this disease nipping at her heels. A thought-provoking story, and, for those of us who truly understand her struggle, a comfort.   

Review
4 Stars
Sing, Unburied, Sing
Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

With writing most often described as lyrical and lush, Ward's elegiac prose eases you gently into harsher truths. Having read Salvage the Bones, I was happy to see this new title offered on NetGalley, especially with that amazing cover. But despite the fact that I got the kindle version, I decided to listen to the audiobook, which added an AudioFile award to the many others this book has garnered, including the National Book Award for Fiction. This is a powerful, deeply moving story, combining the gritty underside of life with the ethereal world of those who have left but refuse to be forgotten. Compelling and truly a wonder, as you might expect.

Review
3 Stars
The Little French Bistro
The Little French Bistro - Nina George

This seemed like it was going to be one of those charming summer reads along the lines of Under the Tuscan Sun, and it was, for the most part. The summary is a bit deceiving though, and I don't think it's revealing a plot twist to note that Marianne's idea of how to leave her loveless marriage is to literally leave this world. (This is downplayed as "taking action" in the summary.) The problem I have with this is that while she escapes into a completely implausible picturesque new life, she still entertains thoughts about suicide. I am not trying to belittle these thoughts in any way, but instead, I felt like the author was merely pandering in perpetuating this storyline. Perhaps if there had been a little more conflict in Marianne's ideal new life, George wouldn't have had to continue with the half-hearted plot. To be fair, there are some terrific characters here, and, between them and the inspired setting, they make up for the lapses in plot. I am going to believe that something was lost in translation.

 

And yes, I am totally jealous of the new life Marianne is living, so there's that. But lucky for me, I have a wonderful husband who's walked along the Seine with me, without ever making me feel the need to jump.

Review
3.5 Stars
The Accomplished Guest
The Accomplished Guest: Stories - Melody Beattie

I chose this book because I love Ann Beattie's writing, and I found the theme — of people paying visits, traveling to see old friends, or receiving visitors themselves — intriguing. Despite the fact that these were collected from a range of publications, I found the theme especially apt, and enjoyed discovering the connection to it in each story I read. I feel like I have grown up with Beattie's writing, and this collection is one of her best. The characters have flaws but so much soul, and I would guess that, given the subjects she tackles, they will appeal to a wide audience. Told with compassion and humor, this is definitely recommended.

Review
2.5 Stars
Perennials
Perennials: A Novel - Mandy Berman

I chose this book because it promised tales of summer camp (a place I've sent my kids to, but always wished I'd gone myself) and suggested it was for fans of Curtis Sittenfeld, among others. I was hoping for another Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, or something like that, but the characters did not capture my imagination in the same way. While their backstories were interesting, for me at least, they never seemed to be fully fleshed out. Worse still, I found them annoying, so empathy for their problems was especially hard to come by. The resolution of the book came in a rush, and was more confusing than revealing. This was not for me, but, as far as I can tell, if you were a summer camper, you will page through this one on nostalgia alone.

Review
4 Stars
Grief Cottage
Grief Cottage: A Novel - Gail Godwin

I read one or two of Godwin's books long before I began tracking my reading with any kind of purpose, but when I saw her new book on NetGalley, I was eager to read it. Pitched as a mystery/ghost story and a moving exploration of grief, it delivered on all counts for me. I almost wanted to call it Grief Town, because everyone in this book is grieving, far beyond Marcus' loss and whatever happened in the ruined cottage down the beach. Godwin's story comes alive with her deft prose, her quirky and compelling characters, and her evocative setting. It's not so much a mystery — since the missing pieces are not all that hard to put together — but it's a story of loss, love, and how to carry on when things don't work out the way you planned. Perfect beach read, if you are still able to do that, but trade that in a pinch for a comfy chair by the fire with a nice cup of tea or hot chocolate.

Review
3 Stars
New Boy
New Boy (Hogarth Shakespeare) - Tracy Chevalier

I've read several of Chevalier's books, so when I saw this one offered on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to get a copy. After reading two other books in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Vinegar Girl and Hag-Seed, I was curious to read Chevalier's take on Othello. I think this is a departure for Chevalier, whose historical fiction I love, but I am not sure what she intended here. Her protagonists are reimagined as 11-year-olds, and the drama occurs over the course of one school day, with most of the action taking place on the playground. For me, this format diminished the impact of the story. I am not sure why Chevalier set this in the '70s, especially when the words and actions of her characters seemed more in line with today's kids, as opposed to the much less eloquent and exceedingly more immature kids I remember, having been an 11-year-old in the '70s.  

 

To be fair, Chevalier on her worst day is significantly better than so many other published writers, that of course I finished reading it, and I have no regrets. Now, on to her other books on my TBR pile...

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