Two Big Books of Summer

Recently I read two of the biggest books of the summer: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. I LOVED one of them and liked the other. Let’s get to it.

img_4237I pre-ordered Big Sky a few months ago, something I rarely ever do – hello, library five days a week – but Atkinson is one of two authors I automatically make an exception for (the other is Jess Walter.) This is the fifth installment in her Jackson Brodie series, and I’ve loved every one of them so far. I didn’t know if she’d ever return to this beloved character. It’s been nine years since the previous one, Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m happy to report that this one satisfied my expectations and then some.

If you’ve never read one of these books, well, they’re hard to categorize. They’re not shelved in the mystery section of my library, even though they involve a private detective/ ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie. They’re multi-layered stories with lots of characters and threads that end up coming together eventually in unexpected ways. Atkinson has a talent for writing stories about very heavy and/or sad things but somehow letting the reader breathe a bit with dark humor, razor-sharp wit, and characters to root for.

It’s been so long since I’d read one that I’d kind of forgotten where we’d left off with Jackson. But Atkinson does a nice job giving us enough back story to catch us up.

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term “private detective” – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it.) Too Chandler-esque. It raised people’s expectations.

This one involves some very unsavory characters involved in sex trafficking – Jackson gets involved sort of obliquely because he saves a desperate man from throwing himself over a cliff. I hate to write too much about the plot because part of the joy of these books is piecing together how all these characters know one another and fit together. Suffice to say there is an underground of disgusting men taking advantage of young women and Jackson and an old friend, Reggie, who is now a policewoman, are investigating. What I loved about the book besides the puzzle was the characterization and the humor. Jackson is just a terrific character – he’s cynical and pessimistic but still got a good heart, loves his kids and his dog, and wants to help the vulnerable. In one of my favorite scenes he’s trying to counsel the chap he just saved from the cliff, and not doing a very good job:

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, Vince,” Jackson said, “sometimes you’re the bug.” That was what Mary Chapin Carpenter sang anyway, pace Dire Straights.

“I suppose,” Vince agreed, nodding slowly as he chewed on the last bit of toast. A good sign in Jackson’s book. People who were eating weren’t usually about to top themselves.

“And there’s no point in clinging on to things if they’re over,” Jackson continued. (Julia was right, perhaps counseling really wasn’t his forte.) “You know what they say” (or what Kenny Rogers would say), ” ‘you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ ” This was better, Jackson thought, all he had to do was utilize the lyrics from country songs, they contained better advice than anything he could conjure up himself.

I loved it, and I am hopeful that there will be at least one more installment in this series.

Gilbert’s City of Girls is a big, exuberant historical fiction novel about a young woman named Vivian. Well, at the beginning she’s an old woman reflecting on her life at the prompting of the daughter of her great love, who has written Vivian to try and find out just what exactly she was to her late father. So the story is essentially Vivian’s long, winding, roundabout answer. Most of the action takes place in New York City in 1940-41. Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and been sent to live in the care of her colorful aunt Peg, who owns and lives above a struggling theater called The Lily Playhouse.

This is a very detailed portrayal of a time and place, a love letter to that specific New York City, and Gilbert does a great job of putting the reader right there in the setting. It felt real and made me jealous of Vivian, who got to experience that New York before the post-war modernization boom and subsequent grimy decay of the 60’s and 70’s. Also there is a lot of fashion in this novel – Vivian has a natural gift for sewing and crafting outfits from scraps of fabric, which makes her very popular with the showgirls at the theater. I liked Vivian, but the first 140 pages or so didn’t convince me of the necessity of the story. It was nice, kind of fun, but didn’t feel essential – until Aunt Peg’s erstwhile husband Billy shows up from Hollywood with a surefire hit of an idea to reinvigorate the theater and make everyone some money. Then things started to happen and I became more invested. As we get towards the end of the novel and the man who becomes Vivian’s great love comes into the story, I could hardly read fast enough. This part moved me greatly and I ended the novel in tears. I love how Gilbert’s books are all so different from one another, but one thing she consistently does well is make the reader feel the complexities of romantic relationships. Not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, but that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real or valid. I also appreciated how Vivian came to own her sexuality over the course of the book. She became a woman who didn’t apologize for having a sex drive and that was refreshing, especially considering the time period.

…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

This was good. A bit uneven for me, but it gained steam as it went along and I’m glad I read it.

Have you read these? What books published this year have you loved?

 

 

 

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Let’s Talk Classics: A Round-up

I’ve made progress the past few months on my Classics Club list and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process. I have not been timely about posting on these novels, however, so it’s time to clear the decks with some (very) mini-reviews. Let’s start with the one I read first, way back in March!

Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

First of all, kudos to me for finally reading the longest sitting book on my Goodreads TBR list. It had been there since 2008! I would recommend this only if you’re an Austen super fan. If you’re not, then DO read the wickedly funny Lady Susan, but you can feel free to skip the other two, which are unfinished novel fragments. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember much about them! They were fine, they just didn’t sing like her novels do. I think the seeds of great books were there but maybe just didn’t have time to blossom into being. Lady Susan is worth the read because it’s really sharp and feels more daring than Austen’s later works. It’s about a 40-something widow and mother who is just awful (in a fun way,) constantly scheming to get her daughter married off and to get herself invited to people’s houses for extended periods, all the while making eyes (and worse) with other people’s husbands. The movie adaptation that came out a couple of years ago is pretty good too and faithful to the novella.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Yes, I did finish this one back in April but it felt and still feels nearly impossible to write about it. It was worth all the time I spent reading it. It really is a marvelous adventure, filled with unlikely but very entertaining twists, dastardly characters, and a very long game of revenge. It’s a commitment but I am so glad I read it and do recommend it.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (Classics Club Spin Book)

Initially I loved this 1944 novel because it was filled with beautiful, rich, early 20th-century English people saying witty things to one another (one of my favorite genres of entertainment.) The prose sparkled with Sebastian as one of the main characters, but when he dropped out of the story line, my attention wasn’t held as strongly. I don’t think Charles is a very lively character.  He’s kind of a jerk, especially later in the book when he’s married. The scenes on the cruise ship were my favorite parts, though. This was good; uneven, but interesting. I’d like to watch the Jeremy Irons adaptation sometime.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Yes, I said that I might like this one more than Rebecca! I can’t decide – it’s at least as good, okay? The atmosphere du Maurier creates is just as tense and suspenseful (not as Gothic, though.) Young Philip is determined to hate his Italian “cousin” (by marriage) Rachel, but when she arrives at the estate unexpectedly after her husband’s death, she confounds Philip’s preconceptions. She is a fascinating character – one minute I was intensely sympathizing with her and the next I was convinced she was shady as hell! And my feelings about Philip changed over the course of the novel too. Initially I was firmly in his camp and little by little I saw all of his flaws and stubborn blind spots. The writing is incredible and the story is perfection. Now I’m pretty sure I need to read everything else du Maurier wrote.

I’ve read 14/51 classics from my list, and I’ve got about 3.5 years to finish  I guess I need to pick up my pace a little bit and be more intentional about mixing in classics with my contemporary novels. It’s good to take stock of where I am.

What classic works have you picked up lately?

 

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffith

Publication: March 2019 (US)

Format: Library hardcover

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Reason I Chose It: I love Griffith’s Ruth Galloway mystery series, and two bloggers I follow loved it (FictionFan and Cleo.)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this engaging. I finished it in two days and felt like I really wanted to write about it while it was fresh. You may have noticed that I’ve been scarce around here for a little bit. I’m trying to figure out just exactly what I want my blog to look like. I feel like I need to shake things up. I’m really burned out on writing reviews. They’re not fun for me anymore, they’re more like homework that I want to avoid. I’ve got three finished books for the Classics Club that I’m going to try and write some mini-reviews for, but other than that I think my reviews are going on the back burner.

img_4034Anyway, back to the book. It’s told from the perspectives of three characters: divorced mom and English teacher Clare Cassidy; DS Harbinder Kaur, a detective of Indian descent who still lives at home with her parents at age 35, and Clare’s teenaged daughter Georgie, who loves books and writing but hides this talent from her mother. The setting is Talgarth High, a British high school with a so-so academic reputation and a haunted past. The novel opens with a story within the story, one that Clare teaches to her students regularly, “The Stranger,” by R.M. Holland, who long ago lived in the building where Clare now teaches. It’s a ghost story, a horror story, and it elicits chills from students year after year. Clare takes a break from discussing the story with some adult creative writing students to receive some awful news: her good friend and English department colleague Ella has been murdered. There’s a chilling detail: a line from the Holland story is found on a post-it note near her body. As the police seek the killer and suspect someone connected to the school, Clare turns to writing in her diary for comfort. Only one day she sees that an unknown person has written a message to her in her diary: “Hallo Clare. You don’t know me.”

I loved the Gothic atmosphere of this contemporary standalone British mystery. The ghost story within the story is genuinely spooky, and R.M. Holland’s life story adds another creepy element (his wife is said to have committed suicide in the building and supposedly haunts it.) The three main characters are strong and fully realized, each with secrets they keep from one another. Clare and Georgie’s mother-daughter relationship is very realistic, fraught with tension but fiercely loving all the same. DS Kaur and Clare at first are very suspicious of one another but grow into a nice mutual admiration. There are red herrings everywhere, especially after another person connected to the school is murdered. I genuinely had no clue who the killer was until very late in the book. An unexpected treat was Clare and Georgie’s sweet dog, Herbert. He plays a crucial role in the story and in their family, providing companionship and protection. This is also a book for book lovers: allusions to Harry Potter, Georgette Heyer, Shakespeare, and Wilkie Collins abound.

This was a smart page-turner, keeping me riveted and guessing until the very end. Great characters, atmosphere, and mystery. I’ve only read two other 5-star books so far this year, so I’m thrilled to add one more to the list. If you’ve never read Elly Griffiths before, this would be a the perfect place to start.

 

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

91vWDBRqMqLWith that awesome opening, Oyinkan Braithwaite had me hooked from the start. Her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is quite the page-turner – a quirky, darkly funny, kind of sad, creepy depiction of sisters caught in a warped dynamic.

Korede is the responsible, plain-looking older sister, working as a nurse in a Lagos hospital. Ayoola is the younger, flightier, more beautiful sister who posts incessantly on Instagram and attracts men easily. We are drawn into the action immediately, as Ayoola asks for her sister’s help after she kills the man she’s been dating.

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.

“Are you angry at me?”

Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.

We learn more about the sisters’ childhood, their violent and abusive father. We start to understand more about how that affected them.

More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened. Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.

Korede is in love with a doctor at the hospital named Tade. He is unaware of how she feels, viewing her as a friend who really listens to him. Once Ayoola and Tade meet, a meeting Korede was desperate to block, a chain of events is set into motion that will give Korede the opportunity to break free from the family’s cycle of violence and dysfunction. Will she be strong enough to take it, though?

There are moments of humor sprinkled throughout the novel, enough to make this not a bleak book despite the subject matter.

“You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry too.”

“Do you? ‘Cause the other day, you were singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly.'”

Ayoola shrugs. “It’s a good song.”

I alternately felt sorry for and frustrated by both sisters. But I never lost interest or stopped wanting to turn pages. (I also LOVE the cover.)  This is a smart, insightful debut and I can’t wait to see what Braithwaite does next.

 

Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin

“…it’s important to remember that outer order isn’t simply a matter of having less or having more; it’s a matter of wanting what we have.”

41RaMB9o7bL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re someone who feels like you’ve got too much stuff and all that stuff weighs on your mind, then Gretchen Rubin’s new book Outer Order, Inner Calm is for you. If you enjoy Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix but you think that her system is too rigid, this is definitely a book you should check out. (Literally. Check it out from your library so you don’t add to your clutter! ) Its bite-sized bits of advice are logical and encouraging and just might give you the push you need to let some things go.

If I only take away one idea from Rubin’s book, it’s this one: If you don’t need it, love, it, or use it, you should probably get rid of it.

Simple, right? And for me, it works better than Kondo’s “spark joy” idea. Everybody’s different, and Rubin seems to get that.

img_3736Another favorite piece of advice: The Three Strikes and You’re Out Rule. If she’s thought about getting rid of something twice before, the third time she thinks it, she gets rid of it. I sometimes find myself holding on to things that people have given me as gifts, but they’re things I don’t really want. I just keep them out of guilt, I guess. Now I can use this idea to show myself that I really DON’T want that scented candle or whatever it is.

Another great tip: Make a Mock Move. Would you bother to wrap up this item in bubble wrap and stick it in a box and put it on a truck to take it to a new house? If not, out it goes.

This is a very approachable advice book for people who don’t want to dump every piece of clothing they own in a big pile on the bed and tackle clutter all at once. Rubin is logical but also recognizes that people need beautiful things and sentimental things in their lives. In fact, her last section is titled “Add Beauty.” I really enjoyed this book and found it very helpful. You can read a few tips at a time or read the whole thing straight through in no time at all. I bet it will inspire you to look at your belongings and habits with a new eye.

 

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after another, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilized a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.

Jane Harper writes consistently thoughtful, gripping mysteries. Her third and latest book, The Lost Man, isn’t shelved in the mystery section at my library (but I think it should be.) Taking a break from her Agent Aaron Falk series, Harper keeps the setting in Australia, this time in the sweltering Christmas time Outback of Queensland. Once again, she creates a vivid portrait of an unforgiving landscape and, in this outing, a seriously dysfunctional family.51XFkVOYqOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

The Bright family owns a lot of land, giant cattle ranches split between the three brothers, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Vast distances separate their homesteads – a three hour’s drive from Nathan’s to Cameron’s, which was the original family home. The land is rather bleak and Harper once again does a wonderful job of situating her story into a very atmospheric setting. The book opens with a gruesome death – middle brother and golden boy Cameron’s body is found dehydrated and heat-stricken in the meager shadow of a local landmark, the Stockman’s Grave. His car is later found fully stocked with water and supplies and in good condition but miles away from his body. No one in their right mind would walk away from safety into the extremely dangerous temperatures of the Outback. Was it suicide? What had his state of mind been lately? Little by little, eldest brother Nathan, a divorced dad and black sheep of the family, starts peeling back the layers of the mystery. In doing so he has to relive and confront some very ugly truths about his family’s past.

I read this quickly, in just a few days, and when I had to put it down I longed to pick it back up as soon as possible. I found that Harper has a wonderful way of ending a chapter with a little revelation or a question so that I felt compelled to keep reading. In spite of the relative isolation of the setting, Harper gives the reader plenty of characters who act just a little bit shady and may have the motive to commit murder. I confess I didn’t see the solution coming. While the family dynamics at play here may seem just a shade over the top, I felt the characters were credible enough for me to enjoy the story. Nathan in particular was a compelling character, trying to break free from the mistakes of his past and the walls he’d put up in the meantime. If you’ve not read Harper before this standalone would make a great place to start. (Although there is a fun little Easter egg connection to her first book, The Dry.) Just know that she’s more of a slow burn kind of author with great attention to detail rather than a breakneck pace kind of writer. I really liked this one. 4 stars.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

For Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland Month celebration and exploration of Irish literature, I chose an author I’d read and loved before: Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart is a short book (156 pages) but it packs a huge emotional punch. I kept having to put it down because each chapter was so weighty and gave me so much to consider. He is an absolutely beautiful writer, and if you’ve never tried him before I highly recommend him. But be warned, this is not escapist reading.

712fj-pYwALEach chapter of the book is narrated by a different character, and they don’t come back to narrate another chapter later as in so many other books told from multiple perspectives. Because this takes place in a small town everybody knows everybody else, so we hear about characters again and again from different points of view. In this way the action of the story keeps moving forward despite not having continuity in storytellers.

Set just after the booming economy of the “Celtic Tiger” burst, everyone in the town is feeling the after effects. Jobs vanished, men who’s self-esteem depend on bringing home a paycheck are angry and depressed. Some consider moving to Europe or Australia to look for work. But underneath the narrative of the economic crisis is another story about long-buried secrets and emotions. Emotionally abusive or withholding fathers, boyfriends and husbands who can’t find the words to tell their women how they really feel, women who have lost children and lost their way. A surprising act of violence sets everyone on edge and tongues wagging, and then another surprising twist makes everyone doubt whether they know their neighbors at all.

“The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knot community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”

I kept putting down this novel after every chapter initially. The weight of each character’s separate sadness felt too heavy for me to continue on. Like Bobby, the foreman of the local construction outfit, who everyone views as an upstanding man. His father was emotionally vicious and his mother died too young. The fear and shame of no work is eating him alive, and the bond between he and his wife Triona is all he has with which to steady himself.

“I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?”

This is a beautifully written novel about people who are hurting from emotional wounds both long scarred over and fresh. Donal Ryan is a gorgeous writer who portrays even the most appalling, unsympathetic characters with a measure of care and gives them many layers. The Spinning Heart is a moving exploration of the ways families hurt and heal one another, and the ways a terrible event can expose the frayed seams of a small town community. Four Stars, and a very good pick for Reading Ireland Month.