Five Sentence Reviews: Three 2018 Novels

I feel like my reading mojo is returning. I’ve been on a streak of four-star reads lately.

There There by Tommy Orange. This one made me cry. I’d never read a novel told from the perspectives of urban Native Americans before (Sherman Alexie’s reservation-centric stories 36692478were my only reference.) So many characters occasionally had me reaching back to the beginning to get my bearings. And the ways in which the characters all intersected in the end felt just a wee bit too tidy. But the passion and emotion of the writing kept me invested and makes me want to read Orange’s next book. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Only those who have lost as much as we have see the particularly nasty slice of smile on someone who thinks they’re winning when they say, “Get over it.” This is the thing: if you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. What fun! This classic-style mystery with Gothic flare kept me turning pages so quickly I didn’t even take notes. You’ve got a crumbling, spooky estate, an inheritance at stake, family secrets and intrigue galore.51yGj5z3JtL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ Plus, a menacing, Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper looming around every dark corner. Highly entertaining – Ruth Ware is becoming one of my go-to mystery writers.             ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: Then she turned the handle of the door and pushed.

Nothing happened.

Hal felt her breath catch in her throat, and her heart seemed suddenly to be beating painfully hard.

The bolts. The bolts on the outside.

But no – it wasn’t possible. She would have heard. Surely she would have heard? And who – why?

Transcription by Kate Atkinson. One of my very favorite authors, Kate Atkinson’s last two books utterly wowed me. This novel, a story of a young, inexperienced woman named Juliet who is recruited to be a spy for MI-5 in the early days of WWII Britain, 37946414wasn’t as magnificent in scope or in emotion as those. But it was typically Atkinsonian in that it was an entertaining mix of heavy and light, serious and witty. It reminded me a lot of one of her earliest novels, Human Croquet, in tone especially. Fans of Atkinson should definitely read this. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A sample: The brooding landscape they were currently traversing, the lowering sky above their heads and the rugged terrain beneath their feet, were all conspiring to make her feel like an unfortunate Brontë sister, traipsing endlessly across the moors after unobtainable fulfillment. Perry himself was not entirely without Heathcliffian qualities – the absence of levity, the ruthless disregard for a girl’s comfort, the way he had of scrutinizing you as if you were a puzzle to be solved. Would he solve her? Perhaps she wasn’t complicated enough for him. (On the other hand, perhaps she was too complicated.)

Thoughts on any of these? What makes the difference for you between a four-star read and a five-star read?

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Library Checkout – October 2018

I love this library usage meme that Bookish Beck hosts each month. Do check out her blog here.

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Books Read: Because I’ve been reading my OWN BOOKS (yay!) – Lethal White, The Lottery and Other Stories, and Transcription – I’ve only read a few library books this month.

  • Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neal Hurston.       ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
  • Babymouse: Queen of the World by Jennifer Holm & Matthew Holm (juvenile graphic novel) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
  • 34137106A Different Pond by Bao Phi (a semi-biographical picture book I read with my son – terribly moving, about an first-generation little Vietnamese boy and his immigrant father and beautifully illustrated.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Currently Reading:

  • I Contain Multitudes:The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (library digital audiobook – I’m at 63% and my loan expires today so I have to get it again – I may try to finish it in paper form. Very interesting!)
  • When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
  • Biblical Literacy: The Essential Bible Stories Everyone Needs to Know by Timothy Beal

Checked Out, To Be Read:

  • There There by Tommy Orange
  • The House at Sea’s End – Elly Griffith
  • The Death of Mrs. Westaway– Ruth Ware

In the Holds Queue: (Besides 7 books still on hold from my August list – I’ve been suspending the holds for a while!)

  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver41hE+t2wE-L._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_
  • Dark Sacred Night by Michael Connelly
  • Daring to Lead by Brene Brown

Cookbooks: (I’m adding this category because I don’t feel like they really fit in well with the other kinds of books I check out regularly – I don’t read them from cover to cover.)

  • Magnolia Table by Joanna Gaines (I made the Cinnamon Squares and they were AMAZING!)
  • Debbie Macomber’s Table by Debbie Macomber ( I made the Lemon Shortbread Streusel Bars – also delicious, picture below!)

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Anything from my list appeal to you? What have you checked out recently from your library?

 

WWW Wednesday (October 17, 2018)

WWW Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Sam @ Taking On a World of Words. Take a look at her page and tell us what you’re currently reading!

Hi friends. I want to start out by saying how thoughtful and much appreciated your comments were on my previous post, the one where I took a little blogging break. Things are a little better for me now, but I’m still working through some pretty draining emotions and my reading concentration has suffered, I won’t lie. I seem to spend as much time watching Netflix (Ozark is my latest addiction!) and playing Candy Crush Saga on my phone as I do reading. I know these things are cyclical, and sometime in the future I will be back to my voracious reading habits. I’m actually okay with slowing down a bit. There’s nothing in the world wrong with taking your time with a book.

img_1384-0Now, on to the three questions of WWW Wednesday:

What are you currently reading?

What have you recently finished?

What will you read next?

Currently: I’m reading four books, in various states of completion/attention. I’m two-thirds done with Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories, which is part of both my Classics Club list and the R.I.P. Challenge. I have to say, I was expecting the collection to be creepier than it has been so far. Some of these stories have been unsettling to be sure but some have been almost “normal!” They’re good in any case and I’m enjoying it.

I’m also listening to the (digital library) audio version of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes, a nonfiction book about microbes and their importance to all life on the planet. It’s interesting and the reader has a lovely British accent. I confess to some of the stuff going a bit over my head as I’m driving but I’m getting the gist of it. I hope to be able to finish it before its due date!

Two more books I’ve only just started: The Wrong Heaven by Amy Bonnaffons (short stories) and When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön (Buddhist/spiritual self-help.)

 

Recently Finished: Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo by Zora Neale Hurston, edited by Deborah G. Plant. This was shorter than I had anticipated.  The actual story straight from the mouth of Cudjo Lewis, an eighty-six year old former slave from the last slave ship to America (1860,) is only about 100 pages long, and that includes 2590136several pages of African stories Lewis told Hurston. I am so glad this was finally published and I’m glad that I read it – my only quibble is that I wish it were longer. As Hurston’s introduction states, “All these words from the seller, but not one word from the sold.”

Up Next: I’ve got a few books on the old nightstand of course… I actually pre-ordered Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, a rarity for me. But she’s one of my top 5 authors and I will dig into this one as soon as I can finish the Jackson stories. I also have just checked out There There by Tommy Orange and I know there are still holds on it so I’ll have to read it soon. I also have the third installment of the Ruth Galloway series, The House At Sea’s End. I’ve had it checked out forever!

 

I hope you are all having a good week and I also hope to do some blog hopping and catch up on what you’ve been reading. Do you have thoughts on any of my picks?

 

 

A Small Break

Hello, bookish friends. I wanted to post this to let you know that I’ll be taking a small break from the old blog for a little while. (Seems I already got a head start on that break  – ha ha!) Things in my personal life are rather topsy-turvy at the moment, unfortunately. I just don’t have the energy to commit to reading deeply, thinking deeply, and writing about books. That’s not to say I won’t be reading. I’m still reading. (I finally finished Jane Eyre yesterday – hurray! And I’m just starting the new Cormoran Strike novel today – Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling if you don’t read those.) But my mental energy for blogging is low and I need all the mental energy I can get to take care of myself and my son in the next little bit.

So I wish you all well as autumn has finally arrived, and hopefully I will be back some time in October to write up my R.I.P Challenge posts and continue on with my Classics Club and Library Checkout posts as well. I may pop in to comment on your blogs here and there as I am able. Happy Reading, friends.

Brother by David Chariandy

But during that first night in Mother’s birthplace, I remember feeling afraid, though of what I did not know. Something old and unburied in the darkness, something closer to us now than ever before. I remember lying awake with Francis and hearing for the first time the scream of a rooster, my brother’s hand pressed hard in mine. The sun still hadn’t risen, and I remember looking at Francis, who lay beside me very still with his eyes wide open. I remember searching for a clue about our situation in some slight movement of his ear, or of his jaw, or of that expressive space between his mouth and nose. And when he caught me looking at him, he swallowed and nodded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said.

36672820Oh my goodness. This book. I don’t know that I’ve read a book that made me feel more in 177 short pages. David Chariandy’s Brother was highly recommended by three bloggers I trust, Anne @ I’ve Read This, Fiction Fan @ Fiction Fan’s Book Reviews, and Naomi @ Consumed by Ink (links to their reviews if you click their names.) They did not let me down. It’s a book that I could have read in a day or two but I deliberately drew my reading out longer because I wanted to savor the writing and really let the story sink in.

Set in Toronto, flashing back from present day to the 1980’s and 90’s, Brother is the story of Michael and his older, cooler brother Francis. Growing up in a part of town called Scarborough, home to immigrants from many nations, the brothers are smart but swimming against both the high expectations of their hard-working Trinidadian mother and the low expectations of their community. The specter of gang violence haunts their nightmares and impacts their waking hours too. Their father has disappeared and their mother works two or even three low-paying jobs but still doesn’t have enough money to fix a rotten tooth. But the boys find small ways to escape and experience peace through food, music, and through visits to a nearby park called The Rouge Valley.

When we were very young, we’d build forts and hideaways in the brush, using branches but also cardboard and broken piece of furniture occasionally dumped here. We’d race twigs in the creek, spot the little speckled fish swimming together in the blowing current, hunt for the other small lives that had managed to survive in the park unnoticed. The tracks in the mud of a muskrat or a raccoon or maybe a turtle…. One fall we piled the stuff of this land over our bodies like blankets. Coloured leaves and pine needles, branches and the barbed wire of thistles. Also plastic bags and foil drifting down with smashed drinking straws and rushes. Our faces were already the colour of earth.

This is a coming-of-age story as well as a story about grief and identity. The possibility of young love gently permeates the tale, lending the narrative a bit of needed lightness. There is not a word wasted in this book. I marveled at Chariandy’s craft in creating such a powerful story in so few pages. Small details, like a mother gently pinching her son’s earlobe “lightly between her thumb and finger as if it were a raindrop from a leaf” are the kinds of things that made me want to linger instead of racing through the pages.

There is tragedy here, and the reader knows this from pretty early on, so I was bracing myself while simultaneously enjoying the beautiful, searing writing. Yet even with the devastating pain of loss there is still a note of tender hope here, that lives can be patched back up to form something new. This is Chariandy’s first novel published in the United States, and his second novel overall (2007’s Soucayant is one I must somehow find a copy of.) I am so thrilled that I learned about Brother from my blogger friends, and I hope that you will give it a try if you haven’t yet read it. It’s one of my favorite books so far this year.

 

 

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)