AV/AA in Brief

AVAA

I truly enjoyed taking a break from galleys in August to focus on reading Persephones and Viragos. I didn’t read as many as I planned to, but I think five is a respectable number (I’m including Anderby Wold, which I previously posted about). Instead of trying catch up with individual posts about the remaining four novels I’m briefly capturing each one here:

The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes – This is a remarkable suspense novel published in 1963 that deals with the still sadly relevant issue of how the police treat black suspects and how the fear of false arrest and mistreatment psychologically impacts those suspects. Reading it was so tense and disconcerting – it’s perfectly paced to create a maximum feeling of complete anxiety. The novel is set in Phoenix (where I live) and it was fascinating to read about the city in the early sixties. There aren’t many novels set in Arizona so I found it particularly absorbing. This book was recently featured on the Persephone Forum.

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita LaskiLittle Boy Lost is another really great psychologically tense novel about an English man who reluctantly tries to locate his missing child in France after the end of WWII. It’s an effort not to skip forward to see how this turns out and when the end does come it is utterly haunting.

Saplings by Noel Streatfeild Saplings is set during WWII and tells the story of how the war affects four young children, all siblings, as the vicissitudes of fortune through the years change their circumstances and very personalities. It’s quite affecting and terribly sad and I found myself worrying and wondering about them long after I’d finished the novel.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns – After reading the gut wrenching Persephones it was refreshing to read this funny, messy and kooky novel set among a group of artists in London during the thirties. Not that bad things don’t happen here – they do, and some really pretty things awful too, but Comyns has a way of making dire poverty, marital troubles, a horrific childbirth experience, depression, death and displacement seem like a grand adventure.

What a wonderful month of reading I had!

Disclaimer by Renée Knight

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One of my very favorite genres is the ‘suburban suspense’ or ‘domestic suspense’ novel. Books like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, etc. They can be extremely well done with vivid writing, well drawn characters and clever, tight plotting. Or they can be predictable, messy and dull. Thankfully, Disclaimer is in the former category. It is an excellent example of this particular brand of novel.

The story is told in alternating chapters first from the viewpoint of the revengeful stalker who is trying to ruin the life of an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and then from the filmmaker, Catherine’s, point of view. Twenty years previously the stalker’s son died and he’s convinced that Catherine was the cause. His late wife wrote a fictionalized version of the accident that killed their son and the stalker has found it, self-published it and made sure that Catherine, her husband and her son have seen it. Though it is fictionalized there’s enough truth in it for Catherine’s husband to realize that it is about her and their marriage and family is utterly devastated. As the novel progresses, the suspense increases and the stalker gets angrier – the stalker wants more than to ruin Catherine’s life – he wants to end it. But then the plot takes quite a turn, something I didn’t see coming at all – and it left me breathless and quietly horrified.

Disclaimer is not only an excellent suspense novel but a novel that makes you question your own assumptions about how well you really know people, even your own family. I think this is a stunning novel and if you are in the mood for a meditative page-turner this summer this is the book for you.

Someone by Alice McDermott

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At my book club’s April meeting I presented three books for the group to choose from and the overwhelming vote was for Someone by Alice McDermott – because it is quite short! However, I was pleased with the choice as this is a novel I’ve contemplated reading for quite a while now and Sunday over at Ciao Domenica had nothing but praise for it which piqued my interest even more.

This is one of those books that is more of a character study than anything – there really isn’t a traditional plot arc that holds it all together. In fact, the narrative moves in out and between the present and the past with no discernible transitions so it takes about 20 pages to realize what McDermott is doing and to become comfortable with the structure. Once you do, though, it’s quite easy to ride the wave of the main character’s memories.

The novel is told in the first person by Marie Commeford, an elderly woman who grew up in Brooklyn during the thirties and forties. Most of her memories center on the years of her childhood and young adulthood. Her family is Irish Catholic and live in a predominately Irish Catholic neighborhood and she is close to her beloved father and older brother who’s already been chosen to attend seminary at a young age. Most of her memories have that tender, almost yearning quality that we have as adults looking back on our childhoods. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment in her life, but she tells her story very straightforwardly with little regret. As I’ve mentioned, there isn’t a lot that happens in the novel yet Marie’s unexceptional story is riveting, more riveting to me than that of a spy story or an adventure story. Reading about ordinary people is always fascinating because most of us are ordinary – yet when you read something like this you realize that everyone has an interesting life and that, truly, everyone is ‘someone’.

How did my book club like it? Well, I think the majority of us appreciated it, but there were two members who didn’t – they didn’t see the point of the meandering style and just didn’t enjoy reading about Marie’s life. Despite that we all managed to have a pretty lively discussion about the book and I think it really set off a lot of related examination of our own memories and life stories. All in all, I’d recommend this for book clubs as it is a) short and b) brings up a lot of issues that will lead to a thoughtful discussion.

Have you read Alice McDermott?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

 

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I consider Sarah Waters to be one of my favorite authors so of course I started reading The Paying Guests back when it was released last fall with much excitement. However, I didn’t finish it before I went to London and had to return it to the library before I left. While walking around Windsor after visiting the castle I saw a copy for sale in a bookshop and bought it with the idea of reading it on the plane home. Yet I didn’t finish it then either. Finally a few weeks ago I started it again and this time I was riveted. I couldn’t stop reading and finished the novel with that wonderful sense of satisfaction you feel after living in a truly wonderful story.

The book is set in London in 1922 when the aftermath of the war is still radiating through society. Frances Wray and her mother are left alone in a big, demanding house with little money and no servants. To make ends meet they take in ‘paying guests’, Len and Lily Barber, a young couple who come from a different world, a different class, a different social status.  Inevitable awkwardness and discomfort accompany their arrival to the Wray’s home, especially as Len is a bit slick and there is an odd undercurrent of bitterness in his relationship with Lily. As the weeks go by they all try to adjust to the strained situation and Waters brilliantly creates that feeling of unease for the reader that sits at the heart of all of her novels.

Frances and Lily are eventually drawn together – out of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction – and their relationship takes a dramatic and erotic path that leads to murder. The plot then turns from a simmering love story to a tense police investigation and courtroom drama that only made the novel more interesting and complex. Waters is so good at examining the shifting state of relationships when they’re put under pressure and how her characters react to tragedy and anxiety felt so right to me.

I love the domestic details in this book – the descriptions of the cleaning, the meals, the everyday chores that bring the novel to life and transport us into the post-war society that was so rapidly evolving. These details ground the novel in reality when the characters and the plot take unfamiliar paths and helps to ratchet up the suspense and sense of terror that would plague anyone involved in a forbidden romance or a murder investigation.

I wasn’t disappointed with this latest novel by Sarah Waters and it seems to be the book that will earn her the huge readership that she deserves. She is really gaining a following here in the States – I’ve had conversations with two different patrons this week at my library about how they can’t believe they just discovered her writing. One of the patrons was sad to learn that Waters doesn’t crank the novels out and there was a five year gap between The Paying Guests and The Little Stranger. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another five years for her next novel.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

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So the first book I finished in 2015 is the gripping, twisty, clever, nail-biting mystery that is being advertised as ‘the next Gone Girl‘. Whether it will have that kind of success or not (the film rights have already been bought) I don’t know or care, I just enjoyed the experience of reading this very well-written thriller.

The novel has three narrators and we see parts of the story from each perspective. The main narrative follows Rachel, a thirty-something alcoholic who can’t get over her ex-husband. Not wanting to tell her roommate that she’s been fired from her job she still takes the 8.04 train every day into London where she drinks in the park or hangs out in the library. One of the houses the train passes on her journey into town captures her interest and she looks for the inhabitants, whom she has mythologized in her mind as the perfect couple, every time the train goes by.

As her drinking gets worse she antagonizes her ex-husband and his new wife to the point of hatred (on their part) and frustrates her roommate. Then one Saturday night she blacks out and can’t remember where she went or what she did except for vague flashes of falling and of fighting. When the wife of her perfect couple goes missing on the same day Rachel wonders if her missing memories hold the key to solving the woman’s disappearance.

Like all good thrillers, this novel has many layers so I don’t want to say too much about the plot as part of the fun of the story is peeling back the layers for yourself. It is not as dark or gleefully twisted as Gone Girl (which is just fine by me) but still holds the reader in thrall in a most delicious way. I wouldn’t suggest this for fans of Gone Girl – I’d suggest it for anyone who likes complex, highly suspenseful novels, unreliable narrators and page-turning puzzlement.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Copies at my local Barnes & Noble.

I had no plans to read this book. I usually stay away from the overly hyped books of the year, not so much because I think they’ll be a fraud, but because it’s so hard to get my hands on a copy and they usually don’t seem worth giving up a precious spot on my holds list for. This one, though, kept calling my name so I put a hold on my library’s digital copy. I got the notification of its availability on a day when I was between books and as soon as I started reading it I knew it was going to be a wonderful journey.

The novel uses a dual narrative that alternates between the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives in Paris with her father, and Werner, a German boy who lives in a Catholic orphanage in a depressed mining town. Their lives before the war are ripe with discovery and curiosity: Marie-Laure about whelks and other shelled creatures, Werner about science and radios in particular. As conflict between the two nations approaches Werner is recruited into the Hitler Youth and sent to a school to learn how to be a perfect soldier and his skill with radios is utilized to further the efforts of discovering resistance broadcasts in Russia and Poland.

When the German army marches into Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee and turn up in Saint- Malo at the home of her great-uncle Etienne, a man still suffering from the trauma of serving in WWI who is also obsessed with radios. Marie-Laure’s father constructs detailed, miniature models of the walled city to teach her how to navigate the streets and alleyways on her own though she is rarely let out into the occupied city. Madame Manec (my favorite character in the novel), her uncle’s caretaker, handles the intricacies of finding food, complying with curfews and orders and sharing information with the neighbors. She also recruits her female friends into resistance efforts by partaking in small rebellions like baking loaves of bread that conceal secret communiques that they pass along to key resistance figures, efforts that Marie-Laure also supports.

In August of 1944 after living for years under occupation Saint-Malo is bombed by American planes. Amazingly, the paths of Werner and Marie-Laure finally intertwine amid fire and destruction. Doerr seamlessly brings these two incredible characters together through a series of believable coincidences that underlie the plot.

The writing is incredibly lyrical with beautiful imagery and a perfect, understated tone. Describing both living under occupation in France and serving in the occupying German army brilliantly shows the humanity of both sides and doesn’t demonize the Germans or glorify the French. The emotions, decisions and motives of the characters are complex and layered as is this story. There are many, many levels of enchantment here, too many to mention, and the way they combine makes a gorgeous, robust novel. I was completely engrossed and am happy that this was the last book I read in 2014. I ended the year on a high note, indeed.

Have you read All the Light We Cannot See?

The Most Perfect Book

frances and bernard

I’ve always heard that if you have ambitions to write you should write the novel that you would want to read, the novel that embraces all your passions and literary likes. Well, thanks to Carlene Bauer there’s no need for me to ever write my own novel – she has written my perfect book.

Frances & Bernard is an epistolary novel set during the late 50’s through the late 60’s and chronicles the evolving relationship between a novelist and a poet. Their passionate and intelligent letters illuminate the difficult choices we all make about love, self-worth, creativity and spirituality. It is endearing and bittersweet and will make you laugh, cry and think.

With a mid-century setting, a New York vibe, characters who are based on Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor and others of their smart literary set, witty book talk, earnest spiritual discussions and honest observations on art and romance it ticks every one of my boxes. I wanted to re-read it immediately after finishing. It is a book that captured my heart and my mind and I think it will be a forever favorite.

Have you ever encountered the most perfect book for you?

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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I received an eGalley from Harper through Edelweiss.

This is the first book I read in what I consider ‘summer mode’. Do you find your reading tastes/expectations change when summer comes around? I do. I want to read mysteries, YA, contemporary more than classics and the ‘buzz’ books of the season. I think it’s all so fun. Elizabeth is Missing is definitely a buzz book. I’ve been hearing good things about it for months now and it is the #1 LibraryReads pick for June.

The entire novel is told from the viewpoint of Maud, a woman in her seventies who has dementia. Is she the ultimate unreliable narrator or is her friend Elizabeth really missing? She hasn’t seen her friend in months and on the many notes she keeps to jog her memory she finds she’s written the phrase ‘Elizabeth is missing’ over and over again. She tells her frustrated daughter Helen, calls Elizabeth’s son in the middle of the night, even goes to the police department many times to report the disappearance. In the midst of her forgetting and then suddenly remembering that she doesn’t know where Elizabeth is, her mind dwells in the past, in her teenage years.

Maud was a teen during the post-war years in England when her young married sister Sukey disappeared from home. She and her parents searched and waited, always suspecting Sukey’s husband of hurting her, yet there was no evidence and he seemed just as devastated as they were. The police believed Sukey purposefully ran away and couldn’t devote any man hours to investigating.

As the two parts of Maud’s memory weave together, seamlessly moving forward, there is doubt that these events are true. Did Sukey really disappear, is Elizabeth missing? After all, Maud can’t even remember where she is half the time – is she accurately portraying these dismaying events?

This is a clever and very tightly written novel that propels the reader forward, desperately wondering if either or both of these mysteries will be solved. Though it’s much slower paced than a typical mystery novel it summons just as much suspense and that eerie and subtle feeling of dread that the best thrillers contain. I marvel at Healey’s ability to make both the past and present storylines compelling and to create such smoothly flowing transitions between them.

Elizabeth is Missing was a great start to my summer reading. It will be published this week in the UK and Australia and next week in the US.

Do you already have plans for your summer reading?

What I Read In March

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March was a hugely productive reading month for me. I finished nine books (one of them an audiobook) and mostly enjoyed the things I read, though there really wasn’t that ‘killer’ book that knocked my reading socks off. A bunch of decent reads is much better than a run of stinkers, though, so I’m not complaining. Here is a quick roundup of my reading life in March:

Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is her first novel since the highly popular Room. In 1876 San Francisco we follow a French prostitute, her dandified boyfriend and the woman who comes between them. This historical mystery features great female characters and a richly drawn setting.

The Receptionist by Janet Groth. You can read more about my thoughts here.

The Shelf by Phyllis Rose. This nonfiction title is an account of Rose’s year of reading almost exclusively from one shelf in her local library and is a perfect book for readers of all stripes. Her humor, curiosity and thoughtfulness make her a lovely and feisty companion through the books of Gaston Leroux, Rhoda Lerman and John Lescroart, among others.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell is another funny romance from this author filled with pop culture references that I adore. This is an adult title about a failing marriage and what happens when an old telephone gives the wife, Georgie, access to her husband of the past. Intelligent chick-lit at its best.

The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia LaingI started out really loving this book about five writers and how drinking affected their lives and work. I was fascinated by the story of Tennessee Williams, who I didn’t know anything about before reading this, and how addiction both focused and destroyed him. The ending was a bit of a letdown as the author speedily related the stories of John Berryman and Raymond Carver. I would have liked to learn more about them and less about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub. This book is a gem of a family tale. The Post family (dad, mom, brother and sister) rent a house in Mallorca for two weeks with a couple who are good friends of the mom and the brother’s girlfriend. Being cooped up in close quarters forces conflicts to be resolved, choices to be made and truths revealed. All of this takes place in a beautiful setting by the beach with Spanish food and culture surrounding them. Her writing reminds me a little of Cathleen Schine.

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset MaughamA silly wife in 1920’s Hong Kong cheats on her stoic husband so he forces her to accompany him to a cholera ridden area in China. I thought every single character was incredibly frustrating and they all made me want to throttle them, but I did love the portrayal of Kitty’s growth and maturing as she overcomes her many challenges.

After I’m Gone by Laura LippmanI listened to this over the month in my car and it was quite good. When a small-time but good-hearted criminal intentionally disappears to avoid prison time, his wife, three daughters and mistress all pay a price. When a cold case detective starts dredging up the past we learn just how high that price was. This has truly believable characters and a surprising twist that made me gasp out loud. I loved the narrator, Linda Emond, and want to listen to more books she’s worked on.

Picture Perfect by Shanna Hogan. A true crime novel about Jodi Arias that broke me out of a reading slump.

Now on to April – I can’t wait to see what I end up reading this month.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Schine & Weber

Just in time for Valentine’s Day –  these books both deal with women in their forties and fifties seemingly falling in love with horribly unsuitable (younger) men.

The Music Lesson by Katharine Weber

When forty-something librarian Patricia Dolan meets a distant Irish cousin, Mickey, she immediately falls in love with his youth, confidence and beauty. Their steamy, intense relationship takes a sinister turn when Mickey recruits Patricia, who has an art education and works at the Frick Museum, to help him steal a famous Dutch painting that belongs to the British queen. The novel is a diary of Patricia’s experiences as she waits for Mickey in an isolated Irish cottage with the purloined painting hidden in an upstairs cupboard. The pacing is as slow as life in an Irish village, which leaves plenty of time for Patricia to write about her life before Mickey, her feelings about their relationship and her reflections on art. The story has a melancholy tone and is laden with an air of defeat. Patricia is somewhat of a wet blanket character, but the friends she makes in Ireland are colorful and eccentric enough to keep readers engaged right up to the shocking, unexpected betrayal that ends the tale. I read this soon after finishing The Goldfinch and enjoyed its similar themes and subject matter.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine

My book group discussed this novel at our January meeting. When Betty Weissmann’s husband leaves her for a younger colleague she moves with her two middle-aged daughters, Annie and Miranda, to a shabby house in Westport, CT that is generously provided by her extravagant Cousin Lou. Annie and Miranda have also run smack dab into financial, professional and personal setbacks so this decision to live together seems to solve many of their problems, though their temperaments severely conflict. As Betty prepares her divorce case (and becomes a Costco addict) and Annie tries to keep them financially afloat, Miranda falls crazy in love with a young actor named Kit who has a three-year-old son. This very funny book trots along at a brisk clip while the family struggles to find their footing in their strange, new (insolvent) existence. The characters are fully and charmingly drawn, though somewhat absurd, a trait I think Schine enjoys exposing. Resembling Barbara Pym’s work, the novel is a true social comedy on the surface, yet has an earnest and sad undertone. It is based rather loosely on Sense & Sensibility and my book group had fun discussing the similarities and differences in the two plots and appreciated the way Schine turns Austen’s ending on its head.

Do you have any favorite stories of love gone wrong?