Mini Reviews: Ruth Rendell, Lauren Graham, Marlon James

416MKFJY97L._SX292_BO1,204,203,200_Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter (Inspector Wexford #15) by Ruth Rendell:  Ah, there’s nothing like visiting an old friend, and after having read 14 previous Wexford mysteries, I consider the erudite Reg Wexford an old friend indeed.  It’s odd to say that murder mysteries are my comfort reading, but it’s true all the same.  This one starts out with a grisly (for Rendell) crime scene: three murder victims, including famed author Davina Flory, shot in the middle of dinner, with her teenage granddaughter, Daisy, the only survivor. Robbery gone wrong, or something more sinister? Meanwhile, Wexford’s favorite daughter, Sheila, is seriously dating a self-important ass, and Wexford is trying navigate this tricky terrain, desperate to hold onto his good relationship with her while wanting her not to settle.  I liked this mystery, but at 378 pages it felt a bit too long for me.  And for the first time I started to figure out who was behind the murders before the Inspector did.  I could have used more Mike Burden, Wexford’s no-nonsense sidekick, but all in all this was an entertaining mystery.  I’ve got nine more of these books, according to Goodreads.  I don’t read series in quick succession like some people do, so I imagine that it will take me 2 or 3 more years to complete the series.

Talking As Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls And Everything In Between by Lauren Graham:  I listened to the audio book version, read by Lauren Graham herself, and it was delightful.  (It was also my first downloadable audio book checkout from my library system’s Overdrive catalog – go me!  Embracing “new” technology!)  If you’re not a fan of “Gilmore Girls,” you can skip this one.  But if you are, you MUST read or listen to it.  Ms. Graham writes about her unconventional childhood, her days in acting school programs, auditioning and trying to make it, and most pleasingly to this fan, goes into great detail about both of her times playing Lorelai Gilmore. Just a charming, self-deprecating woman letting us fans in on what it was like to be a part of such a magical show.  I especially liked her smartly done skewering of ridiculous Hollywood body standards for actresses.  Ms. Graham seems genuine and humble, and this was a fun, breezy, entertaining celebrity memoir.

512--x+XDfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_John Crow’s Devil by Marlon James: So, how much do we owe our favorite authors?  If you’ve followed me for a while you know that I ADORED both of Marlon James’s other novels, A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women.  Hopes for this one, his debut novel, were high, I admit.  At just over 200 pages, it was a total slog for me, I’m sorry to say.  It’s a story about two warring priests in 1950’s Jamaica, wrestling for control of the souls in a small village called Gibbeah.  Filled with biblical imagery and passages, it is also one of the most brutal, relentlessly violent books I’ve ever read.  However, there were some beautifully written passages, hinting at the mastery of his later works.

People had a way of carrying afflictions like possessions, thinking suffering was the evidence of life.

She hated him.  Her spirit rose and fell with his and she hated him.  Because of Bligh, the Widow’s heart was undoing her.  They had struck a deal, heart and mind, and now heart was cheating out.  It had begun by tricking her into doing things like adding more sugar to the limeade and looking at old dresses in red, yellow, blue.  She wished she could punch a hole in her chest and yank the frigging thing out.  The Widow has grown accustomed to death; the mossy, mothy grayness of it.  God had taken away every man who had unfroze her heart.

I made myself finish this because I loved James’s other novels so much.  If it hadn’t been him, or if this had been the first novel of his I’d read, it would probably have been a DNF. It was leaden, joyless, and his characterization was lacking.  I still don’t know what the point of the damn thing is, quite frankly.  Still, I gave it three stars on Goodreads, because I just can’t give him less.  So I’m wondering, do we treat lesser books by our favorite authors differently?  Do we grade them on a curve?  Or am I just a big softie?

How about you?  Do you tend to devour series quickly, or do you parse them out sparingly?  What’s the last good audio book you listened to?  Have you ever made yourself finish a book out of loyalty to the author’s previous work? I’d love to read your thoughts.

Mini-Reviews: Sarah MacLean and Jen Hatmaker

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Not sure about this cover.

Ten Ways to Be Adored When Landing a Lord was only my second ever romance novel.  I read her Nine Rules to Break When Romancing a Rake last year, just for fun, as an experiment.  I’d been curious about the romance genre and wanted to go outside my reading comfort zone a bit.  It was fun, a bit predictable, but smartly done, and I certainly wanted to try another one of her books.  Ten Ways is set in the same time and place as Nine Rules, (1820’s England) only it features a different St. John brother, Lord Nicholas.  He is an expert in antiquities and also a renowned “tracker” (you kinda have to just go with that) hired by a Duke to find his missing sister.  While searching a town in Yorkshire, he ends up saving our heroine, Lady Isabel, from a team of runaway horses.  Lady Isabel’s father (nicknamed “The Wastrearl” for his gambling addiction) has just passed away, and Isabel is desperately trying to keep the crumbling estate going.  She has help from several young women who have come to the manor, which they have christened Minerva House. The ladies have sought shelter there for a variety of reasons, from physical abuse to poverty.  Isabel, ignorant of the real reason Lord Nicholas is in the area, invites him to examine her family’s collection on marble statues, in the hopes that they can sell some to make money for the estate.  Of course, sparks fly!  Of course, Nicholas doesn’t tell Isabel about his hunt for the duke’s sister!  And naturally, Isabel is very wary of men, as the only example of a husband she’s had was her good-for-nothing, cheating father, who ruined her mother’s life and left them in poverty.

This was a good change of pace for me, a light, fun, sexy read.  I liked that Isabel was so resourceful and so devoted to caring for the young women who depended on her, as well as trying to do her best to raise her younger brother.  She was a very appealing heroine.  The group of young women at Minerva House were spunky and resourceful as well.  Not having read many romances, I’m really not sure if I’m a good judge of this particular one, but I very much enjoyed it, and I plan on reading more MacLean novels, as well as venturing further afield in the genre.  For a fun list of 10 recommended historical romance series, check out this Book Riot article.  (Four stars.)

12171769My next read was Jen Hatmaker’s 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess.  This fits in with my goal of reading more books about religion and spirituality in 2017.  I’m a sucker for “person does wacky experiment for a year” kinds of memoirs anyway, so I figured I’d be into this, and I was. Hatmaker is a Christian writer and she and her husband started a church in Austin, TX.  After hosting hurricane victims in her home, she became fully awakened to her family’s privilege and decided to do something about it.  So they embarked on a seven month quest to simplify and serve their neighbor.  She writes in the introduction,

As I write this, I enter the next seven months for (at least) two of these extreme reasons.  First, and foremost, repentance.  7 will be a tangible way to bow low and repent of greed, ungratefulness, ruined opportunities, and irresponsibility.  It’s time to admit I’m trapped in the machine, held by my own selfishness.  It’s time to face our spending and call it what it is: a travesty.  I’m weary of justifying it.  So many areas out of control, so much need for transformation.  What have we been eating?  What are we doing?  What have we been buying?  What are we eating?  What are we missing?  These questions grieve me, as well they should.  I’m ready for the deconstruction.

So the areas her family focused on were Food, Clothes, Spending, Media, Possessions, Waste, and Stress.  One month she wore only seven articles of clothing (underwear excepted,) another she and her family abstained from seven forms of media.  They gave away their belongings, started a garden plot on their backyard with the help of an Austin organization that gives jobs and shelter to the homeless, and made due with just one car for a month. Hatmaker documents her struggles and her small victories with a good sense of humor and humility.  But what I liked the most about this memoir was her passion for embodying her faith in action, actually walking the walk.  Here’s another quotation I really liked:

Sometimes the best way to bring good news to the poor is to actually bring good news to the poor.  It appears a good way to bring relief to the oppressed is to bring real relief to the oppressed.  It’s almost like Jesus meant what He said.  When you’re desperate, usually the best news you can receive is food, water, shelter.  These provisions communicate God’s presence infinitely more than a tract or Christian performance in the local park.  They convey, “God loves you so dearly, He sent people to your rescue.”

I guess that’s why “love people” is the second command next to “love God.”  And since God’s reputation is hopelessly linked to His followers’ behavior, I suspect He wouldn’t be stuck with His current rap if we spent our time loving others and stocking their cabinets.

By the end I grew a bit weary of Hatmaker’s folksy, aw-shucks writing style, but overall I enjoyed reading her tale.  It was refreshing to read about someone so committed to acting out the tenants of her faith, so passionate about serving others.  It seemed as if her family came away from this experiment with a real sense of purpose moving forward.  It gave me a lot to think about, and it was a good way to begin my year of spiritual reading.  (Three stars.)

 

 

 

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: a Mini-Review

29154543The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Michael Connelly’s twenty-first Harry Bosch book.  I’ve never before read a mystery series for this long.  Years ago I was into the Hamish Macbeth series by M.C. Beaton, but I think I stopped somewhere around the sixteenth book or so, because things just got too repetitive.  I used to read Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series but decided to quit, coincidentally, after the 16th, mostly for the same reason (boredom) but also because that one involved investigating a snuff film with kids (NOPE NOPE NOPE!)  I’m still digging Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, of which I’m on the fifteenth book.  But let’s face it, it’s Ruth freaking Rendell, the queen of smart psychological mysteries, and she’s a goddess in my book, so I think I’m safe there.   (Sadly, she passed away in 2015; I wrote a tribute to her here.)  The thing about series is, at some point they have to end, right?  I’m definitely hanging in with Detective Harry Bosch until the end, whenever that may be – and based on how much I enjoyed this one, I hope that’s not any time soon!

If you’ve never read a Bosch book before, let me get you up to speed.  They’re set in L.A. (with a few detours here and there to Vegas, Florida, and even once to China.)  Harry’s real name is Hieronymous (yes, like the 15th century painter!) His mom died when he was young, and he was put into foster care.  He’s a Vietnam vet, and flashbacks play a role in many of the novels.    He’s horrible at relationships, and as of this last book, he hasn’t found his one true love.  (I admit, the relationship plot lines are my least favorite and most cringe-worthy elements of the books.)  But he does have a daughter, and he manages to forge a pretty good relationship with her.  And his relationship with a half-brother, who he doesn’t discover until many books in, is really compelling (no spoilers!)

What I like about Harry is that he’s the guy fighting the system, fighting corrupt cops and politicians alike, always fighting for justice and the underdog.  He’s smart but he’s not perfect – he sometimes misses things and makes mistakes, and he’s got a bit of a hot temper.  He usually reads people well and is a good study of character.  I like how he will often think that something about a case is bothering him but he can’t quite make the connections, so he’ll let it sit and percolate, go about his business, and all of a sudden BAM! He’s cracked the case and it’s a mad race to see if he can save the next victim or catch the bad guy after all. Connelly’s plots are page-turners, but it’s really Bosch himself that keeps me coming back.

This one was a bit different because there were two cases being worked simultaneously.  Harry’s part-time now at the small San Fernando Police Department, since he’s no longer with the LAPD.  He’s also a private investigator on the side.  He’s working a serial rapist case for the department while also trying to find a potential heir to an ailing millionaire’s fortune. He gets so caught up in one case that he makes some crucial missteps in the other, possibly endangering someone he is close to.  It was a typically fast-paced Connelly thriller; I raced through it in two days, even willingly staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

518cjmm-dxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_If you’re thinking about trying one of these books, I’ll tell you that the first three were solid three-star books for me.  It wasn’t until the fourth book  (The Last Coyote) that I knew that I was invested in the series for a while.  Harry is a capable, complicated, tough, caring, haunted man, and he made me want to keep coming back. Mysteries make great, entertaining palate-cleansers in between heavier literary fare, so if you’re game, I say give Michael Connelly a try!

 

Mini Review – Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde

It seems that my reading speed is far outpacing my blogging speed right now, so I decided to write a mini-review..  I feel like this is a book that I must share.  Based on my Goodreads friends, I know many of you have read it, or read selections from it.  If I borrow a book from the library, and I think it’s one that I’m likely to write a post about, I take notes in a medium-sized magenta  notebook.  While reading Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, I ended up with four pages.  It took me quite a while to get through this, because I did not want to rush it.  I wanted to sit with the essays for a while.  I’d read Lorde in college in my women’s studies classes, but that was almost twenty years ago, and honestly, I can’t remember half of what I did back then (other than make midnight trips to Taco Bell with my friends and pine obsessively for boys who weren’t into me.)

img_0322This is a collection written in the 1970s and early 1980s, but (sadly) so much of what Lorde writes feels relevant and fresh for today’s reader.  Bookended by insightful travel pieces about Russia and Grenada, the bulk of Lorde’s essays are about speaking , writing, and owning her truth, and the power of words, language, and poetry to unite women who may lead different kinds of lives but who are all oppressed by patriarchal structures.  There were so many powerful passages that I noted, so many sentences that spoke to me and that I wanted to share.

I was reminded of Lindy West and her excellent book Shrill when I read this from “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action:”

What are the words you do not have?  What do you need to say?  What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you sicken and die of them, still in silence… And where the words of women are crying to be heard,we must each of us recognize our responsibility, to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hid behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which we so often accept as our own.

This stunning passage is from “Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response:”

I wish to raise a Black man who will not be destroyed by, nor settle for, those corruptions called power by the white fathers who mean his destruction as surely as they mean mine.  I wish to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self.  For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.  Men who are afraid to feel must keep women around to do their feeling for them while dismissing us for the same supposedly “inferior” capacity  to feel deeply.

And finally, this passage on guilt from “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism;”

Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own action or lack of action.  If it leads to change then it can be useful, since then it is no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge.  Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.

Oh man, I felt that.  Did you feel that?

I wish I could be more eloquent in my appreciation of Lorde’s poetically devastating prose. While some of the essays in the book spoke to me more than others, this is a book to be shared, discussed, and pondered.  It is the kind of book that can change lives, that can galvanize action, that can inspire a woman to speak her truth and seek out common ground with others who are speaking theirs.  I am so glad that I read it.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia: A Mini-Review

In his earliest memories he was sitting on the floor in the family room, in front of the giant stereo his parents had bought themselves as a wedding present, his face pressed into the padded fabric of one speaker.  The fabric was prickly against his forehead but his nose fit perfectly into a little groove, and he could feel music spilling like molten gold through his entire body.  He’d sit back on his heels when the song was over and his father, an accountant and amateur drummer whose (still-unrealized) dream was to open a jazz club and coffee house, would say, “Order up!” and put another record on the turntable.  His favorite albums were by Earth, Wind, & Fire (syncopation made his brain feel like it was laughing) and Also sprach Zarathustra, its opening rumbling like an earthquake…For six month in 1984, he had asked his parents to play “Stairway to Heaven” instead of a bedtime story.

Kate Racculia’s Bellweather Rhapsody is a quirky little gem of a novel.  I had put this on my TBR when it came out in 2014, but it soon got buried under an avalanche of other titles and I kind of forgot about it.  Then Gin Jenny of Reading the End wrote a post about it a few weeks ago, and likened it to my favorite childhood novel, Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. That was all it took – I instantly perked up and ordered it from another library branch.18263667

I say this is a quirky novel because it’s kind of hard to categorize.  It’s part mystery, part meditation on the power of music, part moving story about loneliness and finding connection, between siblings and between strangers.  The main action takes place over a long weekend at a high school music festival at the Shining-esque Bellweather Hotel in Upstate New York.  It’s told from multiple perspectives, including Harold Hastings, the long-time concierge of the hotel, who’s emotionally and physically stuck in place and time, and Minnie Graves, who is returning to the Bellweather to face a horrible past incident she witnessed there when she was a little girl.  We also meet twins Bert (Rabbit) and Alice Hatmaker, who are participants in the music festival and who are about to graduate high school and face college, perhaps apart for the first time in their lives.  The storylines of these and other characters converge in really satisfying and intricate ways, and everyone is sort of connected to one another even if they don’t realize it.  There’s a creepy mystery that kept me turning the pages involving Alice’s roommate for the weekend turning up missing (and perhaps dead?) and some really sweet stories of characters searching for meaning and fulfillment after years of self-sabotage.  Racculia’s lovely writing about the beauty and power of music also touched me.  I love stories like this, that are all kinds of different things at once.  And it did really feel Westing Game-esque (good job, Jenny!)  This was just a really nice surprise – a fun, endearing novel.

So what are some of your favorite hard-to-categorize, quirky books?  Tell me your picks in the comments.

 

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

I’m going through a grapefruit phase right now.  Occasionally I’ll get obsessed with a particular fruit and I just can’t get enough.  Right now it’s grapefruits.  I eat half of one almost every morning.  Sometimes I eat the other half later in the day.  I don’t know.  I’m just going with it.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest reminds me of grapefruit.  It’s tart, somewhat sweet, and totally juicy.  I loved it.  It hit many of my bookish buttons right from the start.  New York City setting – check.  Multiple perspectives, told convincingly – check.  Family secrets and lies – check.  I didn’t have a lot of reading time when I first began, but once I was halfway through I finished the remainder in one day.  (My son was sick, and I stayed home and sat on the couch with him and read while he watched cartoons.)  I simultaneously didn’t want it to end and couldn’t stop turning the pages.25781157

The bare bones plot is this:  The Plumb siblings, the youngest of whom is soon turning forty, have been counting on “The Nest,” a ridiculously named trust fund that their father set up for them.  He intended it not to be something that they counted on to save them from bad decisions, but rather a modest sum that they could add to their retirement funds or help their kids pay for college.  Well, what was intended to be modest grew into a sizable sum, and all four kids counted their chickens before they were hatched.  Now that the youngest, Melody, is turning forty, they are all in financial trouble and eagerly awaiting their portions of The Nest.  The trouble is, the oldest sibling, the charming but feckless brother Leo, has gotten himself into major trouble, and Mama Plumb raids the Nest’s coffers to dig him out (and to shield herself from scandal.)

But this novel is so much bigger than its plot.  What I loved most about these characters (and we get to know not just the siblings, but their children, their partners, and their neighbors) is that they all seemed wholly believable to me.  They are all very flawed people, but they are not unlikable.  Sweeney writes with great empathy for her characters. This family not only doesn’t connect well with one another, but they also don’t really know themselves.  And it’s a real treat getting to see how they build (or break) bonds with one another and go on emotional journeys of their own, reckoning with old family patterns and poor choices.

If you enjoy a well-written family saga, if you’re a fan of books like J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine or The Engagements, or Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House, you will probably enjoy The Nest.  It’s sharp, smart, funny, and compassionate, and I can’t wait to see what Sweeney writes next.  Definitely one of my favorite reads so far this year.

End of the Year Outbox

It’s that time of year when we’re all clearing the decks, so to speak, trying to sort out what’s done, what’s in progress, and what’s to come in the last ten days of the year.  I imagine I’m not the only one who’d like to do blog tidying as we get ready to ponder reading goals for 2016.

I have read three really great books in the past month, all very different from one another but all equally compelling.  The first is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women: Stories.   I am a short story fan.  The best can be just as emotionally complicated and absorbing as any novel.  These stories captivated me.  They each are inspired by a different real life woman (or women, as is the case with the first story, about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.)  These women are complicated, intriguing, or problematic, according to your point of view.  You may have heard of a few of them – perhaps Butterfly McQueen, most famous for her role in Gone With the Wind?  Or maybe you’ve read the new novel about writer and adventurer Beryl Markham, Circling the Sun.  I’d never heard of most of these women, but after each story I went straight to Google and did some digging to find out more.  I added quite a few biographies to my TBR!  These are fierce, lovely, and (sometimes) sad stories, and I am eager now to read Bergman’s previous collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.

The next page-turning read is Michael Connelly’s The Crossing.  It’s the 20th (!) in his best-selling Harry Bosch series.  I’ve read every one of these, and will continue to read them as long as he puts them out.  I love a good mystery, and find former Detective Bosch a compelling character.  This one was especially good, since he reluctantly teams up with his half-brother Mickey Haller, a.k.a. The Lincoln Lawyer (of the Connelly book series and movie with Matthew McConoughey.)  Bosch doesn’t want to cross over to the “dark side” of defense law, as a former cop, but he is such a bulldog for justice that his half-brother convinces him that his client is innocent.  Good stuff!  (Definitely start with the first one in this series, The Black Echo.  You really need a chance to get to know Harry.)

Finally, I recently finished The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.  I really enjoyed it.  reviews-the-turner-houseI’m a sucker for a well-written family saga anyway, and this one was so engrossing that I read it quickly once I got the chance to dig in.  It focuses mainly on the oldest son, Cha Cha, and the youngest daughter, Lelah, from a family of thirteen children in present-day (well, 2008) Detroit.  Their father has passed away, their mother is ailing, and they need to figure out what to do with her house, which is sitting empty in a declining neighborhood.  Lelah’s got a gambling addiction, Cha Cha’s seeing a “haint,” and we also get to glimpse the beginnings of their parents’ marriage back in the 1940’s.  There’s a lot going on but I was never confused, just thoroughly entertained.  I can’t wait to see what else Ms. Flournoy writes in the future.