Out & Coming Up Soon

12 Mar

I know it looks like I’m on a roll, and I guess I am, but I still haven’t found anything that really, really REALLY has me excited. In this first half of March, I’ve read some good stuff. The best two would be Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover, and Love and Ruin, the forthcoming new novel by Paula McLain.

Educated is the crazy, crazy story of Tara Westover’s life. It’s being hailed as the next Glass Castle and that is pretty apt. She grew up with a survivalist father who was sure that the world was on the brink of collapse. He didn’t believe in the government (only the first few of his 7 kids had birth certificates because of this), education (none attended elementary school), or hospitals/doctors. Her story is so crazy that it reads like a novel, and I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much. 4.5 stars

Love and Ruin doesn’t hit shelves until May 1, but it is just as good as I hoped it would be once I heard it was the story of Hemingway’s 3rd wife – Martha (called Marty) Gellhorn. I love that Paula McLain is OBSESSED with Hem, it definitely makes her novels seem so intense and honest. Hem and Marty had a weird relationship, but I loved reading about it. 4 stars.

I flew through How to Stop Time by Matt Haig today. But it was one of those weird ones where even though I wanted to know how it ended, wanted to keep reading, I didn’t really LOVE it. I’m not even sure I really liked it that much. So weird, right? It’s the story of a guy named Tom Hazard who is 439 years old. He ages slower than slow, looking 18 when he is actually closer to 70 or something like that. His life is interesting – playing the lute for Shakespeare, hobnobbing with the Fitzgeralds in Paris, pirating with Captain Cook. There is a little bit of a mystery and some suspense – but I felt like most of it was pretty familiar. 3 stars.

The Second Mrs Hockaday we read for our mother/daughter book club and had the best discussion. It’s set during the Civil War – a young bride is left alone at her homestead while her Captain of a husband goes off to fight. When he returns two years later, he hears rumors that his wife Placidia has given birth to a baby and that the baby was found buried by the river. Knowing that the child cannot have been his, he has her arrested. It’s (mostly) an epistolary novel and way more suspenseful than I was expecting it to be. 4 stars.

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February Reads

20 Feb

All of the sudden another month has gone by since my last entry! Good thing I’ve been reading and reading and have lots to share.

Oprah’s new pick is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. It’s the story of  a young marriage – fraught with small arguments that you can tell will grow over time. The husband and wife come from different backgrounds, one cause of tension, and seem to want slightly different things. AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS (as in all good novels) and the story takes an entirely different turn. I enjoyed the way this novel unraveled, but in the end thought it wrapped up to quickly. 3.5 stars

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance was kind of a weird/magical read. I guess I liked it, I definitely LOVED the main character Weylyn. When Weylyn was born, his summer birth was greeted with a fast and furious snow storm. Weather just did weird things around him period. It rained when he was feeling mad, rainbows followed his good moods. His parents were killed in a snow storm when he was young and he lived in the woods with a pack of wolves for a while. I loved the way that the novel was narrated by a series of people who knew him and whose lives were changed by him – such a lovely way to get a feel for a truly good character. 3.5 stars

This year’s Girl on the Train has arrived in the form of A.J Finn’s The Woman in the Window. I’d say that the first, oh, fifty percent of the novel I was thinking “I’ve read this before! Drunk protagonist who thinks she’s seen a crime but can’t be believed…hmm” but then the twists start turning and turning and before I knew it I was blindsided by the ending. The story is about a woman named Anna – agoraphobic, alcoholic, obsessed with black and white movies. She’s been stuck in her home for almost a year and spends her time watching her neighbors (ala Rear Window) when she sees a crime occur in her newest neighbor’s home. She calls to report it but can’t be believed because not only is she an alcoholic, she has been mixing a bunch of meds -dosing and overdosing because she can’t remember what she’s taken when – and the side effects of those drugs include hallucinations. Fast paced, surprise ending, 3.5 stars

Ok these next two were my favorites this month. Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow is a middle-reader (so, ages maybe 8/9 to 12/13) and the start of a new series. I know everyone compares everything to Harry Potter, but this really does have the same sort of readability and charm. It’s the story of Morrigan Crow, born a cursed child and hated in her hometown (her father is mayor). Morrigan gets blamed for everything from bad weather to upset stomachs to lost pets. Good thing that cursed children are all killed the night before their 11th birthday and for Morrigan Crow, that is tomorrow. Just before she is set to be killed, a mysterious stranger whisks her away to a realm she didn’t know existed where she finds herself being groomed to compete for a spot in an illustrious school for the gifted. The magically gifted, that is. She has to compete in a series of trials to earn her place but she is just not so sure what her magical talent is –  you’ll love her. 4.5 stars

The House of Broken Angels is heavier, but so good. Big Angel knows that he is dying. He knows that he doesn’t have a lot of time left. So for his birthday – next and last – he organizes a giant party to celebrate his 70 years of life. Big Angel is the patriarch of a giant, tempestuous, colorful family of Mexicans now living in California. When the whole family gathers, lots of secrets and feuds and laughter and storytelling occur. I loved getting to know his family, but what I loved most were Big Angel’s thoughts on his impending death. His is the truest, most sincere voice in the novel and reading it I felt like he was telling the truth about what it must be like to know your day is coming. Everything he thought about, all the things he thought he’d miss, the things he most loved to remember, felt so genuine. 4.5 stars

Sad Characters

26 Jan

Is it possible to really enjoy a book even though the main character is pretty much all-around unattractive? In looks, demeanor, attitude, thought? I think it must be, because I really enjoyed The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman even though Pinch, our “hero,” is pretty pathetic. As the son Bear Bavinsky, a famous and philandering painter, Pinch lives his life struggling to earn his father’s approval. He questions every move, every decision, every conversation – hoping that it is the “right” one. He finds himself teaching Italian at a small, unremarkable college in London having cast aside long ago his desire to paint. When he finds himself suddenly in Bear’s confidence and good graces, he makes some interesting and life-changing decisions that propel the second half of the story. I was completely interested the whole way through but found Pinch pretty pathetic. 4 stars.

This galley of Everything Here is Beautiful literally sat on my bookshelves for seven months. It hit bookstores this week and for the past seven months I’ve been thinking that it must hold some heavy expectations. And while it’s been getting a lot of buzz, while it was gripping and compelling and lots of things you’d want in a novel, I think it may be a little bit of a tough sell. Here’s why.

It’s very sad. It’s very honest. It’s terribly depressing.

The story is about two Chinese-American sisters. Miranda, the older of the two, is a rule-follower. A nurturer. Smart, independent and reliable. Her younger sister Lucia is impetuous, spontaneous, wild. She’s also schizophrenic and maybe bipolar. Everything Here is Beautiful is the story of what it’s like to live with and around serious mental health issues. The novel switches perspective – first Miranda, then Lucia’s husband Yonah, then Lucia herself. There are tons of good discussion points in here; how much responsibility should the sister take, and when has she done all she can do? Where do you draw the line? How far would you go to take care of someone who doesn’t want to be taken care of? There are no easy answers in this book. There are no right ones, either. It’s a tough read, but the characters are so well portrayed that you feel like you know them all. It sucked me in for sure, but left me feeling so sad. I think the buzz around this one will be enough to create adequate sales, but it’s a tough one to recommend. 4 stars

And We’re Off!

11 Jan

I can’t really say that 2018 started with a great big BANG, but I’ve definitely been into books so far this year. Two of these aren’t out until the spring, but since neither one really struck me I thought I’d go ahead and get them out here. By far the best thing I’ve read so far this year is Elif Shafak’s Three Daughters of Eve.

The book opens with a woman and her teenage daughter driving to a dinner party in Istanbul. Caught in highway deadlock, some thief swings open the back door of her car and nabs her purse. Something comes over Peri, and she leaves her car (and daughter) to chase the crook. She catches him, retrieves her bag after a scuffle, and heads straight to the dinner party she is now late for. The thief, ripping through her purse, had dislodged an old photo of Peri and two of her college friends smiling with their Religions professor. This triggers a lot of memories and they come flooding back to her, interspersed with the happenings of the party she’s attending. I loved Peri – loved her ambivalence and her childhood and the way her family worked (or didn’t). I loved her college friends. I loved the way the novel was about religion but not so much about religion as to be a turn off. And of course I loved the ambiguous ending! 5 stars

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin came out this past Tuesday and has been getting LOTS of buzz in the book world. It’s the story of four siblings who, as children, visit a fortune-teller in a cramped New York City apartment. She tells them, separately, the date each of them will die. So the question becomes, is she right? Will the prophecy alter the way each sibling lives their life? I’m not sure I know the answer, even now after finishing it in one big gulp. The siblings are great characters – Simon, the youngest, with the WORST date-of-death prediction, moves to SF on a whim. Klara, always sort of reckless, tries to pursue a career as a magician, performing death-defying acts certain that her death-day is in the future. Daniel was maybe my least favorite, mostly because he was just so totally normal. And Varya, the oldest, working in a lab that does tests on primates trying to increase longevity.  Really interesting premise with good characters. 4 stars.

Women in the Castle came out last year and had been popping up in my book-feeds. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would and am continually impressed at how books about WWII can keep being published and also keep being good. This is the story of Marianne, a German woman whose husband was part of a plot to assassinate Hitler at the beginning of the war. The plot failed and Marianne’s husband, as well as his collaborators, were executed. Marianne had made the men a promise that she would look after all of their wives and children, and this is the story of her trying to do that. 4 stars.

Another WWII novel that didn’t resonate so much with me was The Tattooist of Auschwitz. It’s the story of, surprise, the tattooist of Auschwitz. The Jewish man tasked with tattooing numbers on all of the incoming prisoners at Auschwitz. This story is based on interviews with the actual man, and his story is really impressive and tragic and also a great love story. My problem was with the actual writing of the novel, it felt like translated interviews and not like a novel. 3 stars

Girls Burn Brighter came up on a list of books to look forward to in 2018. It comes out in March and I loved the cover so I bumped it up in my queue. I loved the opening 50 pages or so where we meet Poornima and Savitha, two young girls in India. Poornima is named after the moon and Savitha the sun and the story of them meeting in their small, impoverished town and the growth of their friendship was really great. And then. Sigh. Nothing good happens and everything bad you can think of does. Savitha is raped by Poornima’s father and flees into the night. Poornima is sold into marriage and ends up living with terrible abuse until she too escapes. They both end up working in brothels, sold into slavery and on and on and on and on. I felt like I owed it to them to read their entire sad story but sort of wish I had never started it. 2.5 stars

Circe was maybe my most anticipated read of 2018 (Song of Achilles! swoon!). I am pretty sure this wasn’t even a case of being overly excited and expecting so much as to be disappointed with the reality. I think this was really just not that great. It is basically an imagined biography of Circe and, while interesting, had no real depth of story or plot or character. 3 stars.

Top Ten Litpicks of 2017

10 Dec

I’ve been postponing putting this list together in hopes that one more might make its way on here, and the one I’m reading now MIGHT be a contender (Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak) but who knows. This year I’m feeling a little shaky with my list – I know people who haven’t loved these in the same way I have. But these definitely topped my list. I read 67 books this year and here are my ten favorites, roughly in order, followed by some runners-up:

1. One Good Mama Bone by Bren McClain. Chances are good you haven’t heard of this one, that your bookstores don’t stock it and your library might not either. BUT boy is it good! It’s the story of a woman named Sarah Creamer who ends up raising a boy on her own (even though she has not one good mama bone in her body, as her mother told her). They are so, so poor and she worries that she won’t be able to provide for him – can barely provide for him now. She reads in the paper about the huge cash prize awarded to the 4H’s Grand Champion steer and decides that she will sell every last thing she owns and buy a calf for her boy to raise, thinking of course he’ll win the next year’s competition. It’s not as easy as it sounds, turns out, to raise a calf into an award-winning steer and she finds help in some unlikely places. Perfect small town family story, highly recommend.

2. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. My cousin described reading this book as “feeling constantly carsick” and that’s definitely true, it’s not an easy read. It’s dark and back-woodsy but written so, so well and so compelling that it tops my (and many other’s) list. It’s the story of a young boy living with his elderly black grandparents. His white grandparents want nothing to do with him or his little sister, his mom is deep in a drug addiction and his father in jail. When his father calls to say he’s being released, the mom grabs both kids and heads to the prison to pick him up. I loved the grandfather, the boy himself, the way it was written.

3. Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. I’m coming to think of J. Courtney Sullivan as sort of an Alice McDermott with much more plot. I loved this story about two young sisters who come over from Ireland – and then don’t speak for 50 years. We go back and forth between their arrival in New York City and their reunion years later, the mending of fences.

4. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This is on a lot of lists this year and I’m sure it’s crossed your radar. I loved this story of two families that get all tangled up in Shaker Heights..little fires sparking up everywhere.

5. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. She is just a beautiful writer – I never read Olive Kitteridge but I get the feeling this is similar. Short stories about a lot of people in a small town that are somehow connected to Lucy Barton (the heroine of her previous novel). I didn’t read My Name is Lucy Barton but it’s in my stack now, I loved her people so much.

6. The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivak. It’s sort of shameful that this is the only book by a male author on my list (and I only had one last year? seems crazy). This guy reminds me so much of Kent Haruf and I loved this story of a young man and his mother living on the outskirts of town and waiting for their brother/son to come back from Vietnam. Krivak’s previous novel, The Sojourn, was a National Book Award finalist when it came out and tells the story of the father/husband of these characters – and I believe there is a third that will pick up where this one left off, or perhaps with the next generation. I didn’t read the last one, you don’t need to to love The Signal Flame.

7. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. Something about this novel really hit me the right way. I loved the quirkiness and the heaviness and the whole atmosphere. It’s the story of Samuel Hawley and his twelve bullet wounds (12 was maybe too many, my only criticism) and also the present day story of his daughter’s coming of age struggles.

8. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. I love a good sweeping generational story every now and then and this one was just what I needed at the time I read it. Set in the Middle East, it opens with Salma reading her daughter’s tea leaves on the eve of her marriage. The forecast is fairly devastating, but Salma keeps it to herself. We follow Salma, her daughter Alia and Alia’s children as they bounce from Jaffa to Kuwait to Paris.

9. I Found You by Lisa Jewell. These last two are pretty much thrillers with a slight literary twist, more my usual now than ever before because they really suck you right in. Pretty much the only way I can get a book finished now, sadly, is to be sucked right in. This one was a creepy story starting with a man who washes up on the beach and cannot remember who he is. As he learns more about what he was doing at the beach far from home, as we learn more about him – eeek I thought this was really good.

10. If We Were Villains by M.L Rio. Kind of a modern-ish day retelling of Secret History. Or at least similar enough to be compared. Fast-paced story about seven young Shakespearean students at a small but elite college for the arts. There’s a death, an investigation…10 years later the detective still isn’t sure the right person is serving time in prison.  Again, maybe not the best work of literature to hit the shelves in 2017, but it worked for me.

RUNNERS UP:

These were all close runners-up for 2017 – definitely worth checking out. I cried pretty much the entire way through Arthur Truluv and would recommend it completely for anyone who likes those sweet, feel-good stories that deal with life after loss and aging and unlikely friendships. You can find reviews of all of the other titles back in the archives. I’m looking forward to a great year of reading in 2018!

Slumps and a request

16 Nov

I have been in a SLUMP. It happens, it happens more now than it used to. I tried my tricks; rereading an easy one like Harry Potter or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (actually not a great reread once you know whom to suspect), watching a Netflix series or five, not worrying about it. But I’m ready to get back into it. This is my favorite time of the year book-wise. I’ll be back in the bookstore a little bit starting a week from Saturday, all of the Best Of lists will be or are already coming out. It’s a magical time of year! I’ve been looking at my own Top Ten list and worrying that I’m missing something great (as I always worry). I would LOVE to know what your favorite books of the year have been – especially ones that I’ve missed! You can comment here or email me at schieber.elizabeth@gmail.com.  If I get a lot or even more than a few responses I’ll dedicate a post to it so everyone can see the suggestions. Thank you in advance!

 

I think I’ve only read three books since my last post. Here they are:

I Am I Am I Am doesn’t come out until early February, AND it’s non-fiction, AND I actually really, really liked it. Maggie O’Farrell wrote one of my favorite novels last year (This Must Be The Place) so I was excited at first to see she had a new one coming. Then seeing it was non-fiction, well, you know me – I almost passed it over. I’m so glad I didn’t! This is the story of Maggie’s real-life 17 brushes with death. They go from crazy (escaping, narrowly, a serial killer) to not so crazy (a dangerous childbirth) and they are all really well written and paint a vivid, if pained, portrait of her life. 4 stars.

Alice McDermott’s newest novel, The Ninth Hour, is just what you want (and expect) from an Alice McDermott novel. Great writing, simple story with characters you want to be friends with or that might live on your street. It’s the story of a young woman whose husband commits suicide while she is pregnant with their first child. The local nuns take the woman in, giving her work and helping her find her feet. It’s the story of the mother, the nuns, the daughter…and it’s Irish New York City. Highly recommend, 4 stars.

Wishtree has been buzzing lately, a middle-grade novel that everyone seems to be loving. I enjoyed it, but didn’t find it as deep or as touching as other middle grade works. It’s the story of an immigrant young girl, kind of the outcast of her neighborhood and school, and a wise old tree, the wishtree, that lives outside of her family’s home. The story is narrated by the tree itself, and the story is sweet with a good moral. 3 stars.

Catching Up & Surpassing Goals

27 Sep

It’s been a while since my last post, but I’ve been keeping up with my reading, just a little slower than I’d like. With this last batch of books, I surpassed my goal to read 50 books this year. I finished Child Finder today, my 55th book of the year. I definitely didn’t think I’d hit this and am thrilled to have done so – with time to spare!

A lot of these were good, but the best one, for me, was definitely Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. There was a lot of hype about this one since her last, Salvage the Bones, won the National Book Award the year it was released. I haven’t read that one, but this one really hit the spot for me (you know I like those dark, depressing, character driven family stories with no happy endings). It’s the story of a young boy living with his elderly black grandparents. His white grandparents want nothing to do with him or his little sister, his mom is deep in a drug addiction and his father in jail. When his father calls to say he’s being released, the mom grabs both kids and heads to the prison to pick him up. I loved the grandfather, the boy himself, the way it was written. Definitely one of my favorites this year. 5 (depressing but great) stars.

Maybe next on my list would be The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas. This is a massive novel. Physically massive. I think it clocks in at over 500 pages. But I really loved it! Most of it, at least. It’s the story of Joan Ashby, acclaimed author of two collections of short stories published at a young age. She built her career on the idea that as a writer, and a woman of her own making, she would never marry, never have kids. She shocked the literary world when she married, and then shocked herself when she accidentally wound up pregnant. We follow her into motherhood, see her give up her name and her fame and her writing to raise two sons. But then she starts to take her life back and I loved watching her/reading about her doing it. The shortcomings for me were the excerpts of the stories that made her famous (also fictional). I just didn’t think they were that great, in fact I didn’t like many of them and was skimming or skipping completely all of the parts that she “authored” by the end. 4 stars

Two thrillers on the list were just what I needed when I needed them. Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips – a woman and her son stuck inside a mostly empty zoo that is apparently under attack by two snipers. Fast-paced, hooked me right away, loved the mom. The Child Finder I just breezed through today during preschool/nap times. VERY fast. A woman named Naomi has a career of finding missing children (she’s known as “The Child Finder”). She takes a case in her hometown trying to locate a girl who went missing in the woods three years ago. She, of course, has her own back story and working in her old hometown forces her to face a lot of things she’d forgotten. Kind of reminded me of Descent by Tim Johnston. 4 stars.

Affections by Rodrigo Hasbun kept popping up in my social media feeds so when I saw it at the library I snagged it. It’s short – maybe 120 pages – and reminded me of a lot of things I’ve liked. Part In the Time of the Butterflies, part Paul Theroux/Mosquito Coast. The story of a man who flees Germany with his family after WWII (he had been Leni Reifenstahl’s (fictional) main camera man) and lands in La Paz, Bolivia. He goes on lots of expeditions working on a nature documentary and sometimes takes one or two of his three daughters along. Chapters alternate between daughters – one later becomes a revolutionary. All the pieces for something great are here, it just felt a little chopped up to me. 3 stars.

Rabbit Cake was a light-ish book club book last month – a coming of age story of a young girl named Elvis who is dealing with the sudden death of her mother. Grief finds everyone in different ways and between Elvis, her father and her sister…things get a little weird. Easy, fun even though it’s dealing with death and grief, and just really quirky and weird. 3.5 stars

Serpent Essex is kind of a slow burn that has been growing on me little by little since I finished it. Also kind of a weird one, but very atmospheric. It’s the story of a woman whose terrible husband dies and she finds herself free to live how she pleases (late 1800s, I think, England). She decides she wants to be an archaeologist of sorts and moves to a small town rumored to be home to a monstrous sea creature. Part of this were slow, but it all felt very misty and muddy and foggy. Some great characters that keep popping back into my head. 3.5 stars.