Book Reviews: Hit and Miss

If you’ve ever dreamed of living in the Amazon with native tribes while researching fertility drugs–then “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett is your book.

Marina and her colleague, Anders, are researchers at a pharmaceutical lab. But when Anders travels to South America to check up on the researchers, he dies–and is buried in the jungle. Anders’ wife asks Marina to travels to Brazil to find out the details behind her husband’s death.

Just a sidenote: I could NEVER travel down the Amazon River. Patchett’s description of the jungle and the creepy-crawlies, cannibals and giant snakes that live there will keep me safe in my home for the rest of my life. I probably won’t even go on Disneyland’s Jungle Adventure anymore.

Patchett is an amazing writer. I really enjoyed “Bel Canto” but I think she outdid herself with “State of Wonder.” Interesting to read how everything changes once civilization is left behind.

5 stars

“A Visit From the Goon Squad” is the much-heralded, Pulitzer-prize winning book that was supposed to be the most amazing novel of the year.

I just didn’t get it.

Granted, I’m not as smart as I should be, but none of the characters seemed likeable and I found myself endlessly frustrated with their behavior and choices.

EXCEPTION: The Powerpoint chapter was fantastic and so well-crafted that I read it twice. But overall, a seemingly endless cast of characters filled the pages and I found myself going back frequently to figure out who was who.

I get it. Everyone gets old. Youth is wasted on the young. People are never happy with what they have. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

3 stars out of 5

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Book Reviews: Vanishing Children

Both of the books this week are about young girls that go missing. (I think it must be time for my daughter to go back to school.)Anyway. The first book is “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin. In the ’70s, middle-class white boy Larry Ott was friends for a brief time with Silas Jones, the son of a single, black woman. Ott, always considered a little odd, is connected to the disappearance of a young girl.

Fast forward 20 years and Ott is still shunned by the community, even though he was never formally accused of any crime. However, he has made friends with an extremely creepy young man who idolizes Ott. Jones is now a constable in the town and ends up embroiled in another girl’s disappearance. The two men are forced to face their pasts and confront issues that were never resolved.

Really well written and engrossing.

4 stars out of 5

I need to stop reading depressing novels where crazy people kill little children. But how do you resist an opening line like this? “My life might have been so different, had I not been known as the girl whose grandmother exploded.” Very cool. (Not the exploding grandma, the opening line.)

In Helen Grant’s “The Vanishing of Katharina Linden,” the story is told from the point of view from Pia, a 10-year-old German girl. Her schoolmates are disappearing with no trace, and she’s determined to find out what’s going on–and see if there’s a connection to missing girls from decades ago.

With the help from a friend (the only person her age who associates with her), Pia embarks on a journey where she encounters true evil–which is a hard concept to grasp–even if you’re not 10.

Intertwined with fairy tales and ghost stories, the novel was good and I found it interesting that the author kept telling the story in a small child’s point of view. She didn’t always understand what was happening, or why. Kind of like real life.

3 stars out of 5

Book Review: Short Stories

I’m really not a fan of short stories. I guess I’m just not intellectual enough to understand things that are brief and vague. I need things spelled out for me in novel length. However, the short stories in “Swim Back to Me” by Ann Packer were well-written tales of loss and heartbreak, and the day-to-day grief of life.

I know. Pretty depressing. And I’ve been consciously avoiding depressing books lately.

But Packer writes emotion VERY well and it was easy to get lost in her tales. As I always do, I found myself wishing each story was a full-length novel. Oh, well. Can’t have everything. And the first and last stories tie back together, which was interesting, but decidedly infuriating in its ending.

3 stars out of 5

In “The Imperfectionists” by Tom Rachman, American reporters, editors and employees at an international newspaper based in Rome struggle to keep their lives, and the paper, afloat. Each chapter highlights a different character and Rachman is excellent at creating in-depth characters in very few pages. Interwoven between the chapters is the history of the paper and its founders.

It took probably three or four stories to get into the book, but then I was hooked. I even forced Tom to read it. (I’m sure he’s very grateful.) Characters appear in each other’s stories and it’s fun to get different perspectives of each person. These stories will make you wonder what makes your fellow employees tick or what’s going on in their minds during their workdays.

Great read.

4 stars out of 5

Book Reviews: Supernatural Turnings

I’ve always wanted to be a witch. There are many who believe I’ve accomplished that goal. I picture myself as an enchantress with beautiful red, curly tresses, casting spells and helping those in need. I’m a good witch, of course.

In “A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness, a young college professor tries to surpress her witchy powers handed down to her from her powerful parents. Fool. She also falls in love with a vampire–which seems to be absolutley forbidden by some “creature code.”

There are times this book gets bogged down in bodice-ripping, lusty, deep-breathing details that make me cringe, and the main character, Diana, seems to do a lot of eating, sleeping and being confused. If these are witch requirements, I am SO there.

The story follows Diana and her handsome vampire as they try to figure out the secret behind her powers. All kinds of things like time travel, history, witch laws, the creation of demons, etc., come into play–which makes for an interesting read. “A Discovery of Witches” is the first book of a triology. Of course. But fun if you like casting spells on friends and neighbors.

3 stars out of 5

“. . . at three o’clock in the morning in the village of Bishopthorpe, it is easy to believe the lie indulged in by its residents–that it is a place for good and quiet people to live good and quiet lives. . . If you let yourself think this, you would be wrong. For 17 Orchard Lane is the home of the Radleys, and despite their very best efforts, they are anything but normal.”

My second book is “The Radleys” by Matt Haig. This isn’t your gentle, slow Boo Radley character. This is your “We’re trying not to eat the neighbors” Radley family. The parents in the Radley family are abstaining vampires–vampires who have decided not to drink human blood. That’s nice of them. Their two teenage children have no idea they’re also vampires–until a fateful night when one of them eats a guy. Whoops.

All hell breaks loose. So to speak.

This book is much darker than the witch novel, but creepily and eerily fun. Again, if you like the idea of drinking human blood to sustain an incredible lifestyle, this book might be for you.

3 stars out of 5

Book Review: Two Books With Strange Titles

“The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery is a collection of essays about beauty, art, life and movement wrapped around a heartbreakingly bittersweet story of acceptance, love and grace.

In order to keep up her “expected” role as the dowdy, stupid concierge at an upper-class apartment building in Paris, the uber-intelligent Renee hides her love of music, art and literature. Her wealthy and snobby neighbors look at her with disdain, if they look at all.

Paloma, a 12-year-old genius living in Renee’s building, has decided to burn down her apartment and kill herself on her 13th birthday. She sees nothing to look forward to as an adult. (Paloma’s observations on the hypocrisy in society can be downright hilarious.)

Enter a wealthy Japanese man who sees both of these women for who they truly are–and changes their lives forever.

If you like a mindless read–this isn’t it. The writing is elegant, well-crafted and describes what makes life beautiful; what gives life meaning.

It took me a while to get into this book because I REALLY had to pay attention, but about 70 pages into it, I was hooked. This story will break your heart, so have some tissues handy.

4 1/2 stars out of 5. (I would have given it 5 stars but the ending pissed me off.)

SO worth reading.

Kate Atkinson’s “Started Early, Took My Dog” is a collection of happenings revolving around 3 main characters. When Tracie Waterhouse sees a mother abusing her daughter in public, she decides to buy the girl and take her home. This choice escalates into a series of adventures in Tracie’s previously unexciting life.

Jackson is a private investigator who witnesses a man abusing a dog in public. He rescues the dog and takes him home. Jackson is trying to find a woman’s biological parents: but nothing adds up. He encounters a mystery almost 40 years old and makes a few enemies.

Telly is an aging actress with dementia who just landed a part in a TV series. Very good (and sad) depiction of a character who is literally losing her mind.

These characters wind in and out of each other’s lives, never quite connecting, but still affecting each other immensely.

Sometimes the story was hard to follow because it jumps back and forth between characters, and in time, but then sometimes I find the nightly news hard to follow.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Book Reviews: An Orphan and a Teenage Girl

Oliver Twist

Two or three times a year, I’ll dive into a literary classic. Often it’s Jane Austen or Mark Twain but this month was Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist“. Big fan of old Charles, I am. But I’d never read “Oliver Twist” and decided it was high time I did.

A vast amount of swooning, fainting and crying happens in “Oliver Twist“–mostly by the main character. In fact, I can’t think of a bigger pussy in the history of literature. He spends most of the book recovering from illnesses brought on by his overwrought emotional state.

The characters in the book are either SO good or SO bad. Not a lot of gray in Dickens’ characters. It’s melodrama to the umpteenth degree.

SPOILER ALERT: There are predictable endings for the novel’s characters: On the one hand, everyone finds out they are secretly related and they live in happy bliss surrounded by butterflies and unicorns. Except for the thieves. Who all die. Hooray!

Dickens also has a very low opinion of Christians. He must have spent some time around some. But Dickens’ dialogue is always first-rate. A very sarcastic, satirical writer. Which is probably why I love him. But “Oliver Twist” was not my favorite.

2 1/2 stars out of 5

Inzanesville

You could not PAY me to relive junior high. I can’t think of a more traumatic, emotionally damaging period of time in a young girl’s life. Jo Ann Beard’s novel “Inzanesville” captures that horrifying experience very well with the un-named main character agonizing over EVERY decision she makes, not wanting to look stupid.

The intricacies and craziness of relationships at 14-years-old is depicted very well as the young girl battles with her sister and mother, worries about her father, has misunderstandings with her best friend and is basically trying to find her way in this crazy thing we call life.

Good read. Funny, honest and a great example of how tenuous friendships can be.

3 1/2 stars out of 5.

Book Reviews: Boys Behaving Badly and a Lonely Old Woman

At any given time, I am involved in a novel. If I’m not reading something, you should probably check for a pulse.

During the last few weeks, I’ve read two books I thought I’d share with you–if only as a warning for the fainthearted.

The first book is SO well-written that it’s worth reading just for the author’s skill. “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray is a brutal look at boys at a boarding school in Ireland and, as the title implies, Skippy dies. This is not a spoiler, it’s the title of the book and the boy dies in the first chapter–so don’t freak out on me. The rest of the story retraces the months before his death and the events leading up to that fateful day. It’s really long and took me a while to get into but it’s an interesting look at the choices we make and the consequences of those choices. With at least one dozen different perspectives, “Skippy Dies” covers every possible personality.

Skippy falls in love, his roommate is obsessed with multiple universes, a drug-dealing freako is out to get him and his history teacher is experiencing a mid-life crisis–in his early twenties. From Irish folklore to quantum physics, the novel is interesting and brilliant.

“Skippy Dies” is NOT for anyone easily offended. Graphic scenes detail the horrible things teens do to themselves and each other. Sex, drugs, psychopath characters and pedophile priests: It’s all in there. SO BE WARNED. But if our modern society has numbed you to lurid descriptions, then you might enjoy “Skippy Dies.” I gave it 3 1/2 starts (out of 5).

If you are afraid of getting old and living alone with your dog while your children live out-of-state and rarely visit, this book might not be for you. “Emily, Alone” by Stewart O’nan is a melancholy depiction of an elderly woman’s life and all the tiny details that make up her existence. She LIVES for phone calls from her kids and grandkids. An outing to the breakfast buffet each week with her sister-in-law is one thing she looks forward to. Her husband has been dead for years and she frequently attends funerals for her friends.

Regrets, fears, past experiences and frustrations make up most of Emily’s days. She’s basically waiting to die. Or waiting for her dog to die. Or waiting for her friends to die. Or eating waffles. Quite depressing (death–not waffles).

The author is really good at getting into the mind of an older woman, describing the things she worries about (getting rid of her husband’s luggage, not getting thank-you cards from her grandkids) and the book is well-written–just a little bit of a downer.

I think I’ll go look at cemetery plots. (3 stars)

If you’re reading something good (NOT Mary Higgins Clark, Danielle Steele or other serial authors), drop me a line and let me know!