Wednesday, December 28, 2016

THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware

Laura Blacklock, still reeling from a home invasion, embarks on a mega-opulent cruise.  She writes for Velocity, a travel magazine, and is filling in for her pregnant boss.  The ship has only 10 cabins, and cabin 10, next door to Laura, is not supposed to be occupied.  However, Laura borrows a mascara from a harrowed woman in that cabin and then hears something being thrown overboard. Laura sees blood on the glass door and a woman’s body sinking in the ocean.  She reports these events to the crew, but they don’t seem to take her seriously, especially since cabin 10 is now completely empty.  Everyone tries to convince her that she was drunk and imagined the whole thing.  There is no one she can trust, and the only person who purports to believe her is Ben, an ex-boyfriend who is also on board.  We readers, as well as Laura, have to guess whether Ben is on Laura’s side or in collusion with whoever committed the murder.  Laura is wary of all the other occupants and has no way to contact friends and family at home, as the ship’s wi-fi is mysteriously out of order.  Laura soldiers on, sticking to her guns about what she witnessed.  She may be sort of a bumbler, but who wouldn’t be in such scary circumstances?  The fact that she makes some serious mistakes further humanizes her as someone trying to do the right thing without the tools to do it.  The format of this novel adds to its suspense, since Laura’s narrative is interspersed with news bulletins that report her as missing.  I found this book to be quite entertaining—not as good as The Kind Worth Killing but a whole lot better than The Girl on the Train.  A friend suggested an interpretation of the ending that I hadn’t considered, and I think she’s spot-on.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


This novel is full of deliciously depraved characters, and I couldn’t get enough of them.  The author delivers one jolting surprise after another, starting with Ted discussing his adulterous wife Miranda with Lily in an airport lounge.  Ted has more money than he knows what to do with and wants to avoid a long and costly divorce.  He would really like to do away with Miranda altogether, and Lily eggs him on, so that the next thing we know, we have a rich guy plotting a murder with a beautiful, willing accomplice.  And why not take out Miranda’s naughty paramour, Brad Daggert (“Braggert” as one character dubs him), while we’re at it?  There’s a lot more going on here, though, than meets the eye, especially with regard to the past history of some of the characters.  Then one huge twist cracks the situation wide open and sets off an avalanche of murders, hooking me completely.  In the hands of a less-talented writer, the plot could have fizzled at this point, but, no, the action just gets more frenetic, and the shock value amps up as well.  Amidst all the sociopaths, a detective finally emerges to give the novel some kind of moral balance and someone to root for, because surely all these murders are not going to go unsolved—or are they?  Gone Girl’s ending was one of its few disappointments, but the ending to this novel is perfect in every way.  Go ahead and treat yourself to this exquisitely twisted tale.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

FOOL ME ONCE by Harlan Coben

As her brother-in-law observes, death follows Maya Stern.  Her sister was murdered in a home invasion, and her husband Joe has just been murdered in a park right before her very eyes.  Joe’s brother supposedly fell overboard years ago during a trip to Bermuda, and that’s the last straw:  something really fishy is going on.  Plus, Maya suffers from PTSD after a stint in the Middle East in which one particular mission tarnished her record.  Now she’s a single mother and wants some answers, particularly given that the same gun was used to kill both her sister and her husband.  When an image of her supposedly dead husband turns up on her nanny cam, even more questions arise.  She has to decipher what is reliable information and what is misinformation and, more importantly, who is trustworthy and who is not.  As an amateur sleuth, Maya is better than most, and she’s an expert marksman--if firearms are required, and you can bet they will be.  Character development is a little slipshod for the most part, but Maya is fairly well scoped out.  She’s tall, fierce, fearless, confident, and never backs away from a possible confrontation, even with her wealthy and overbearing in-laws who seem to have something to hide.  We don’t have much to go on with regard to the personalities of the dead sister and Joe, but the mother-in-law is obviously a snake in the grass.  When Joe’s sister Caroline shares a juicy clue, we don’t know if she’s the only truthful person in the family or if she’s just playing a role to muddy the waters.  Of course, there’s a twist at the end, and I feel particularly gullible here, because I did not see it coming.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

GONE FOR GOOD by Harlan Coben

Will Klein is a New Yorker who runs a home for runaways, and his mother has just died from cancer.  His brother Ken has been a fugitive for 11 years since the murder of Will’s former girlfriend.  Will’s current girlfriend Sheila has a murky past, which becomes even more murky as the book progresses.  There’s suspense, violence, vengeance, betrayal, subterfuge—the usual elements of a good thriller.  I do think that the main character, Will, needs a little more depth.  We know that he let his older brother handle his fights when they were young, but I think that’s not so unusual.  His buddy Squares is much more lively, although I never figured out what changed him from a neo-Nazi to a yoga guru and general do-gooder.  He slides nicely into the big brother role for Will while Ken is on the run.  This novel is entertaining but not cerebrally challenging, and the author packs most of the twists into the last few pages.  Sometimes I just need to read some pulp fiction.  Actually, I think Harlan Coben is one of the better thriller writers out there, and it’s been a while since I’ve read one of his books.  This one does not disappoint, although one big surprise was not a surprise to me. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

FOURTH OF JULY CREEK by Smith Henderson

Pete Snow works for the Department of Family Services in a rural area of Montana during the Reagan era, ministering to fringe elements of society.  He tries to protect Cecil from a mother who cooks meth and sexually abuses her son, as well as Benjamin Pearl whose father Jeremiah expects the apocalypse to arrive at any moment.  Jeremiah’s religious beliefs are so strict that he doesn’t allow Benjamin to enjoy anything that might be construed as a graven image, such as TV.  Jeremiah also eschews currency of any kind and finds that there is a market for coins that he defaces by punching holes in the heads of the depicted Presidents.  While Benjamin and Jeremiah are living off the land as best they can, Pete keeps asking where is the rest of the family, but we readers assume the worst.  Pete himself is no paragon of virtue—an alcoholic whose adulterous, alcoholic wife has fled to Texas with their 13-year-old daughter, Rachel.  Pete is being stalked by his brother’s parole officer, who may be the most dangerous person in the novel, and that is saying a lot, as this has to be one of the darkest, bleakest, most violent novels that I have read lately.  The only characters who seem to be truly virtuous are the Cloninger family, who willingly take in the foster children who Pete manages to wrest from unsafe homes.  The fact that these types of family situations abound in this country in modern times is disturbing, especially since Pete’s options are so limited.  My horror and frustration with these characters and what they realistically represent totally overshadows almost everything else that I may have noticed about the novel.  Even law enforcement characters in the novel shoot or throw punches first and then sweep up the collateral damage.  This world is like a war zone, and it’s hard to distinguish the bad guys from the good—if, in fact, there are any of the latter.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Eli is a teenager who adores his uncle, Poxl West, who is not really a relative but is more of a grandfather figure to Eli.  When Poxl writes a memoir of his experiences during WWII, Eli is miffed that he never receives his signed copy, but still he reads the book several times and uses it as a basis for school assignments.  This novel contains the entire text of Poxl’s memoir, and this book-within-a-book is the real meat of this novel.  Poxl, a Jew, flees Czechoslovakia for the Netherlands as a young man, at the behest of his father, but Poxl’s real impetus is the shock of seeing his mother with her lover.  Virtually the same thing happens in the Netherlands, where he escapes to England after seeing his prostitute girlfriend Francoise with another man.  He occupies himself in London as a civilian rescuer during the blitz but never gives up on his dream to become an RAF pilot.  Except for the twist near the end, which did not seem all that original to me, this novel didn’t really turn me on that much.  The twist does justify the book-within-a-book structure, though, and creates an unfortunate dilemma for Eli, while shedding more light on Poxl than even his own memoir does.  As for the memoir itself, Poxl’s incessant hand-wringing over his abandonment of Francoise becomes tiresome after a while, although I thought his abrupt departure from Czechoslovakia was much more lamentable.  Other characters seem to disappear almost as fast as they are introduced, and the turbulent times are certainly responsible for some of this.  Still, I never established any sort of bond with any of the characters, even though they weren’t despicable or villainous.  I would have liked to have felt more invested in either Eli’s or Poxl’s story.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

This novel seems so authentic that it feels like an autobiography.  And, yes, the narrator, Lucy Barton, is a writer.  She is enduring an extended hospital stay resulting from an appendectomy infection.  One morning she wakes up in her hospital bed to find her estranged mother sitting in the room.  Lucy’s husband, who barely visits at all, has paid for Lucy’s mother’s journey.  Little by little, the author reveals disturbing snippets in Lucy’s poverty-stricken and abusive childhood.  Although Lucy as a grownup has had very little contact with her mother, she is delighted to see her and hear her take on their family’s place in the community, as well as curious nuggets of information about neighbors.  What’s interesting here is that there is a massive disconnect between the reality of Lucy’s childhood and her mother’s distorted view.  Lucy’s mother offers no regret, embarrassment, or apology for Lucy’s extremely painful childhood.  Her mother is disconnected emotionally as well, unable to express the love for her daughter that she obviously feels.  The author explores the mother-daughter dynamic here in a way that transcends logic.  Lucy has kept her distance from her mother for years but now delights in sharing memories and stories that don’t relate to either of their current lives.  Elements of this book seem very much like The Glass Castle but with more emphasis on Lucy’s present life in New York, including her admiration for her very caring doctor and for an established author who gives her some important advice about not whitewashing the ugly stuff.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016


This unusual novel is told from the perspective of three characters, none of whom is the title character.  The book is divided into three parts, so that each narrator has his/her own section.  The vegetarian in question is Yeong-hye, a South Korean woman who has a frightening dream that persuades her to stop eating meat immediately.  Her husband narrates the first section and confesses that he chose Yeong-hye as his wife especially for her lack of distinction.  Even after throwing out all of the meat in the freezer and adopting a vegetarian diet, she continues to have nightmares, and her weight loss drives her father to try to force feed her at a family dinner.  After a brief stay in a mental hospital, she attracts the attention of her sister’s husband, an artist who narrates the second section.  He takes advantage of Yeong-hye’s fragile emotional state for his own warped artistic purposes.  Yeong-hye’s sister narrates the final and most poignant section, in which she laments the fact that Yeong-hye has lost the right to make decisions about her own body.  Finally, in this section, we get a few cryptic clues as to why Yeong-hye has made this transformation, but I felt that by diminishing in size she was increasing in distinctiveness.  Not that I think she was trying to get attention, but especially in the middle section of the book, she sheds her mediocrity and becomes her brother-in-law’s erotic obsession.  She is the catalyst not only for the demise of her own marriage but also her sister’s, so that she becomes a force for radical change in the lives of other people.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

VILLA AMERICA by Liza Klaussmann

Sara and Gerald Murphy are Americans who really did exist.  They expatriated to the French Riviera in the 1920s, raised their three children there, and hobnobbed with a host of well-known artists and writers, such as Picasso, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Archibald MacLeish.  Gerald himself had a brief career as an artist, but basically the Murphys were known for their house parties.  They seemed to have a stable relationship, unlike Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald or Ernest and Hadley Hemingway.  However, Gerald was a closet homosexual, although in this book some of his friends utter innuendos that suggest his secret was not so secret.  Also, the author has invented a love interest for Gerald in the book—Owen Campbell, a pilot who exists well outside the Murphys’ well-heeled circle of friends, until they start drawing him in.  For me, this book treaded in all-too-familiar territory.  I liked The Paris Wife better, and this just seemed like more of the same but with more pleasant main characters.  Often the flaws are what make book characters compelling.  Here, Gerald and Sara come off as an island of sanity in the middle of an ocean of obnoxious but talented people.  Their idyllic life can’t last forever, though, and not just because the Depression is wiping out their prodigious funds.  Still, it’s the larger than life images of Hemingway and Fitzgerald that create the most memorable scenes in the book, such as the running of the bulls in Pamplona and a wine glass tantrum.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


We have two Louisa’s here, and they are both writers.  The author, Louisa Thomas, brings to life the wife of John Quincy Adams.  Louisa Adams wrote several autobiographies, despite her early reticence in composing letters to John Quincy, for fear that she had nothing to say and lacked the eloquence with which to say it.  Her confidence and self-esteem rose as she became vital to John Quincy’s political ambitions.  She compensated for his lack of social skills by ingratiating herself with influential people around the world, thanks to her charm and beauty.  Louisa’s health was always fragile, but she soldiered on, enduring enumerable miscarriages, long and harrowing journeys, and the demise of her father’s fortune and good name.  I’m not a big fan of biographies, but I couldn’t help but admire this woman’s spunk and savvy assessment of personalities that enabled her to make crucial decisions affecting her family.  Her keen observations of the people in power and her commentary on the political and social climate make for a sometimes absorbing read.  Unfortunately, she does not come across as a particularly happy person, but I think she had some very satisfying moments.  Certainly, her contributions to her husband’s successes were immeasurable, and she deserved more credit than she received.  As a woman who married into a very powerful and esteemed family, she struggled for acceptance and respect.  Her husband became an early abolitionist, but he may have stifled her relationship with the Grimké sisters, who were outspoken abolitionists and women’s rights advocates.  Louisa inhabited a man’s world but cemented her own place in this country’s history.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

THE DANISH GIRL by David Ebershoff

Sex reassignment surgery in 1930?  Yes, indeed.  Einar Wegener is Greta Waud’s husgand but identifies as a woman named Lili.  Perhaps the most interesting facet of this novel, inspired by a true story, is that Greta encourages the emergence of Lili.  Both Einar and Greta are painters, and Lili becomes a muse and a model for Greta’s work.  Einar visits several physicians for help, including one who recommends a lobotomy, as he becomes more and more despairing of ever living fully as a woman.  Finally Greta sends him to a women’s clinic in Germany, where at first he is refused admittance because he is a man.  Einar figuratively “dies” after the sex reassignment surgery so that Lili can completely divest herself of him and live freely as a woman.  Ebershoff depicts Einar/Lili as possibly having a multiple personality disorder and gives Einar/Lili non-functioning ovaries from birth.  I would have preferred that the author not attribute Einar’s identifying as a woman to any physical or mental anomalies.  (In truth, no one really knows whether Einar had ovaries or an additional X chromosome.)  The big story here, though, is how a marriage can survive and even flourish when a wife never knows if she is going to wake up beside a man or a woman.  Greta amazingly embraces both Einar and Lili but recognizes that Lili must at some point “bury” Einar.  I found it particularly interesting that Greta is able to obtain a divorce from Einar, citing the fact that he no longer exists after the operation.  Greta wants him also to be declared dead, but then where did Lili spring from?  Despite the intriguing nature of the story, I found the pacing to be slow, particularly during Lili’s recovery.  Also, Einar comes off a little flat.  Surely there is something about him that attracts Greta in the first place.  More intriguing is the question of why Einar chose Greta as a partner, unless he intuited that she would be his ally and champion when he needed her most.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GENEROSITY by Richard Powers

“Generosity” is the nickname that her fellow students give to Thassadit Amzwar.  Thassa possesses a contagious exuberance that is at odds with the tragedies she has experienced as a refugee from civil war in Algeria.  Russell Stone is the hapless adjunct professor conducting the nonfiction creative writing class in which Thassa is a force of jubilation that cannot be denied.  When a genetic enhancement scientist gets wind of the fact that Thassa may have a genetic predisposition toward happiness, all hell breaks loose.  Her sudden notoriety on social media and in the press threatens finally to undo her. Russell, meanwhile, has enlisted the help of college counselor Candace Weld, to help him informally evaluate Thassa, but Candace soon finds that she cannot befriend Thassa and still retain her unbiased position.  There are several sticky subjects here.  At what point does screening for potentially devastating genetically-transmitted diseases veer into the controversial territory of human engineering?  Russell had some success as a published author of nonfiction stories but then caused unforeseen ramifications for the subjects of his stories.  Similarly, Thassa’s exposure unleashes a barrage of paparazzi, hate-mailers, spiritual seekers, and just plain crazy people.   Russell retreats from writing, but retreating from life for Thassa is much more difficult.  Candace’s dilemma seems the most unfair and perhaps a little contrived, since she is never really Thassa’s therapist.  I loved The Echo Maker, but I struggled with this book and could not decipher the ending at all.  It is, however,  more layman-friendly in the genetics department than The Gold Bug Variations—and a lot shorter.  I loved the melancholy Russell and his unexpected delight with the response from his first class, but I did not feel the uplifting presence of Thassa that is central to the story.

Sunday, October 16, 2016


This book is not for the faint of heart.  It is extremely challenging for its complex subject matter:  DNA, classical music patterns, and computer programming.  As a former software developer and infrequent pianist who took a genetics course in college, I have to say that only the computer stuff made sense, although it was a little farfetched.  I tried to understand the genetic research issues and their relationship to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, but I found myself mostly reading these passages without any real comprehension.  From a plot standpoint, though, this book reminded me of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, with its two love stories, one in the past and one in the present.  Stuart Ressler was a genetic scientist back in the 1950s and resurfaces in the 1980s, working graveyard shift as a data processing operator.  His young friend and coworker, Franklin Todd, who lacks only his dissertation on an obscure painter to obtain a Ph.D. in art history, becomes involved with our narrator, Jan O’Deigh, who is possibly wasting her mental faculties as a research librarian.  The mystery, if you want to call it that, is what drove Stuart to abandon his genetic research for such a mundane position.  Jan and Frank delve into Stuart’s past, and Stuart eventually shares his story of a love affair with a married coworker and his introduction to a piece of music that seemingly parallels the genetic code in some ways.  One intriguing twist in this book about cell reproduction is that neither of the women can bear children.  The author makes the point several times that evolution is all about a species’ reproduction rate being higher than its death rate, and yet he makes two of his main characters unable to reproduce.  My take on this is that he’s saying that, especially for humans, there’s a whole lot more to life than passing down one’s inheritable characteristics, and our knowledge of that fact is one of the many attributes that distinguish us from other life forms.  Jan, though, mentions a different distinguishing quality in this passage:  “the ability to step out of the food chain and, however momentarily, refuse to compete.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

THE WIDOW by Fiona Barton

What’s inside the head of a woman who discovers that her husband Glen has a thing for child pornography and may have kidnapped a little girl?  Jean Taylor is that woman and becomes a widow when her husband is hit by a bus and dies.  This is another novel with a non-sequential timeline, so revelations come in a manner that provides optimal suspense, as we look back on Jean and Glen’s marriage.  Jean has an obsession with children also, and Glen has a miniscule sperm count.  He has refused to consider adoption, artificial insemination, or a surrogate, so why doesn’t Jean just leave him?  For one thing, she comes across as a woman with a self-esteem problem, and then when Glen becomes a suspect, she decides to stand by her man, even giving him a false alibi.  The supporting characters are a cop who can’t solve the crime but also can’t stop thinking about it, and a female reporter who hopes to get Jean to spill the beans, now that Glen is no longer alive to intervene.  Jean’s reliability as a narrator is questionable, sweeping Glen’s porn addition under the rug and referring to it as “his nonsense.”  She’s an enigma of the first order, and, with her fixation on children, we can’t help wondering what her role may have been in the abduction.  Did she do it?  Did she compel Glen to do it?  And it’s not even certain whether she and Glen are even involved in the girl’s disappearance at all.  Jean may be under Glen’s spell, but she’s not fragile.  She becomes even tougher as she has to deal with hovering reporters and TV crews, endless hate mail, and frequent questioning by the police.  Is she as clueless as she appears to be, or sly as a fox?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016


Elena and Lila are girls growing up in Naples, Italy, in the 1950s.  Both come from poor families, and both are excellent students.  Clearly, Lila is more gifted, but her formal education ends with elementary school, while Elena continues on through middle school and high school.  Still, Elena feels inferior to Lila in both appearance and intelligence.  She has a few minor self-esteem breakthroughs, especially when she spends a summer helping out at a B&B on the island of Ischia.  However, that adventure ends badly, through no fault of her own.  She suffers through the usual adolescent angst, ignoring the boy she likes and choosing the boy who adores her.  Lila, on the other hand, has bigger problems.  A wealthy but unpleasant young man pursues her, but she fends him off, despite pressure from her parents to accept him.  There’s only one way out of this predicament, and that is to find another wealthy boy who is more tolerable.  Since Elena is a first-person narrator, I assumed that the brilliant friend was Lila, but Elena proves herself to be no slouch academically and more savvy about what’s important, although Lila seems to be making the best of a very unfortunate situation.  I did not particularly enjoy this book, and so I have mixed feelings about reading the other three books in the series.  On the one hand, I’m not wild about attempting to reacquaint myself with a huge cast of characters, although the index at the beginning does help.  On the other hand, I’m curious about what happens to the relationship between these two girls whose lives are sharply diverging as they approach adulthood.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

THE LOST DAUGHTER by Elena Ferrante

Leda’s two grown daughters have moved to Toronto to live with their father, and Leda is feeling surprisingly unburdened.  While at the beach on vacation, she encounters a beautiful young woman, Nina, with her small daughter Elena and a bunch of extended family members.  This is a very short novel, dark and full of shocking revelations, and I don’t want to give too much away.  Some of the revelations come up in conversation, and at first I wondered if Leda was making stuff up.  Suffice it to say that this novel is about two women for whom motherhood is not all sweetness and light.  They both try to maintain their responsibilities to their children while retaining some sense of self, with limited success.  In fact, they lean so far in the selfishness direction that they risk more than just a few raised eyebrows from family and friends in response to their actions.  Leda readily admits that she can’t really explain why she’s done some of the things she’s done, while Nina seems to be stuck in an unhappy marriage.  Nina may be somewhat obscure, but Leda is the real enigma here, though.  She struck me as just being in an eternally bad mood, doing mean things for no apparent reason.  Even though, she’s the narrator, I never quite figured out what made her tick.  She illuminates one small piece of the puzzle late in the novel, which just left me even more puzzled than ever.  And who is The Lost Daughter?  Leda does enlighten us a bit about her own childhood, and I assume that she is the title character, for she is indeed lost, in many ways, but especially to herself, as exemplified by her inability to explain her own behavior.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

The “lovers” in this novel are three Brooklyn couples:  Zoe and Jane, whose marriage has lost its luster; Elizabeth and Andrew, who were fine (sort of) until Zoe and Jane started having issues; and Ruby and Harry, the teenage offspring of the aforementioned couples.  Elizabeth, Zoe, and Andrew were all in a rock band at one time, along with the now-deceased Lydia, who had a successful solo career.  A biopic of Lydia’s life needs the band’s consent to use their anthem and depict them in the movie.  Andrew is the lone holdout, and later we learn why.  He and Elizabeth have a complicated marriage.  He has family money and has never really brought in any income, while Elizabeth thrives as a real estate agent.  When Andrew becomes involved with a shady new-age guru and his entourage, Elizabeth becomes suspicious about what exactly he’s gotten himself into.  Elizabeth has always had sort of a thing for Zoe and leans on her as a confidante, creating friction with Jane.  Ruby and Harry have known each other their entire lives but start to really connect in an SAT prep class.  Everyone here needs couples therapy, except Ruby and Harry, who simply aren’t very wise, but who was at that age?  Late in the novel Elizabeth and Andrew swap admissions of betrayal, and I found hers to be much more egregious than his.  Basically, the adults in this novel are all well-adjusted on the outside and neurotic on the inside.  If you’re looking for life lessons or substance, you might be disappointed in this book, but I found it very readable, and although I might be in the minority, I liked the ending.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I think most of us look back on the mistakes of our youth and wince with regret and embarrassment.  Evie has more to regret than most, as she was involved with a cult whose members murdered four people.  The Manson murders immediately come to mind, especially since our fictional crime takes place in the summer of 1969 in California.  Little by little we learn how Evie came to be a regular at the “ranch,” as the cult’s compound was called.  Her self-absorbed mother was neglectful, to say the least, of her fourteen-year-old daughter, who was rarely at home, but Mom hardly noticed and just assumed she was with a friend.  Evie was drawn to the ranch by the enigmatic Suzanne more so than the cult’s charismatic leader, Russell.  His ambition to become a recording artist contrasts starkly with the non-conformist lifestyle that he advocated, so that I questioned even further why his hangers-on were so enthralled.  Now that Evie is in her forties and staying at her friend Dan’s house, she is clearly not in prison.  The crux of the novel, then, is what really went down on the day of the murders.  Evie pleads innocence and a clear conscience to Dan’s son and his girlfriend, who are somewhat in awe of her past proximity to such a notoriously gruesome act.  Is Evie as free of guilt as she claims?  Or was she just not caught?  The ending does answer this question, but in many ways the ending is not as satisfying as I would have liked, in that it doesn’t elaborate on the consequences for the other cult members.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Call me old-fashioned, but I like for my books to be written in a mostly narrative style, with the exception of a couple of novels (Vanessa and Her Sister and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) that consist primarily of letters.  I found the format of this novel to be quite off-putting, as it is composed entirely of one snippet after another—some quotes and some musings from an unnamed wife in Brooklyn.  The musings are often whiney, but when the wife finds that her husband has been having an affair, perhaps there is cause to be whiney.  The husband seems like a great guy, except, of course, for his marital infidelity.  The two have a small daughter, who appears to be the primary reason that the husband and wife make an effort at reconciliation.  This isn’t just a marriage that goes through a bad patch; it’s a marriage on the brink of destruction that may not be worth salvaging.  The beginning and ending chapters are first-person (except for the aforementioned quotes) from the wife’s perspective, but the middle, in which the marital strife comes to a head, is in third person, as if the wife has distanced herself from her own thoughts.  To me, this is sort of like imagining yourself in a movie (“she” did this or that), and I have mixed feelings about whether this changing of person works or not.  I certainly did notice and felt some relief when the author switched back to first person, because, for one thing, there are fewer ambiguous pronouns to decipher.  Some reviewers have said that the most well-drawn character is the 5-year-old daughter.  Funny, but I can’t remember a thing about her.  Anyway, this is another fast read, helping me pad my book count for the year.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

GIRL AT WAR by Sara Nović

Ten-year-old Ana and her parents are Croatians who find themselves in the midst of a wholly unexpected civil war.  When infant Rahela becomes ill, the family’s best option is to send Rahela to a foster family in the U.S. for treatment.  What ensues is horrific, and then the narrative fast-forwards 10 years.  Ana is now a college student in New York with secrets from her past that she has never told her boyfriend or her adopted parents.  I certainly appreciated this opportunity to learn about the genocide in the former Yugolslavia, but I did not love this book.  The timeline is jagged, and I gasped at the abruptness of the ending.  Also, the author never completely fills in the 10-year gap, so we just skip over Ana’s adolescent years in the U.S., in which she ignored letters from her best friend, Luka, in Croatia.  Then when she does try to contact him, he doesn’t respond.  This whole dance seemed immature to me.  I get that she was traumatized and probably still fears abandonment, but she apparently never talked about what happened, and surely she couldn’t completely bury such intense grief.  I found her silence to be a bit maddening, and I never had the impression that she considered going back to Croatia until her boyfriend suggested it.  Then suddenly she feels compelled to return to face her demons and seems to be running away from her American boyfriend and family.  The writing is adequate but not stellar, but it was a fast read, and I’m grateful for that, not only because I wasn’t that enamored with the book but also because the subject matter is so disturbing, including the fact that relief aid seldom reached the people for whom it was intended.  Sad but undoubtedly true.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

LUCKY US by Amy Bloom

It’s the 1940s, and Eva’s father Edgar has two families.  When his legal wife dies, Eva lands in Edgar’s household, along with a teenage half-sister, Iris, whom Eva has never met.  Iris could have been downright nasty to Eva, but she’s not.  When Iris decides to sneak off to California to pursue acting, she lets Eva tag along.  Iris’s budding career is cut short, however, when paparazzi catch her in a lesbian love affair.  Edgar’s timely arrival on the scene affords the girls an opportunity to head back east, along with Francisco, Iris’s friend and makeup artist.  At this point the novel becomes a little silly, despite a grave tragedy, as Eva finds her calling temporarily as a fake fortuneteller.  With Edgar, Eva, Iris, Iris’s girlfriend, Edgar’s girlfriend, and a young boy that the girls pluck out of an orphanage, we have a strangely functional family.  Eva and Iris both do some devilish, childish things that would be funny if they didn’t have such dire consequences.  Of course, characters without flaws are not that interesting.  My favorite passages are in letters from Gus, a man who, due to some very unfortunate shenanigans, now lives in Germany, after being buffeted from one bad situation to another.  He makes some sweeping, mind-blowing, post-war observations and generalizations about the Poles, the Ukrainians, and the Brits that I’m afraid I will never forget, whether they’re valid or not.  Gus, who I think is really the conscience of the novel, and Eva are the true actors here, both building a life using false credentials.  They are both poster children for redefining one’s self.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

This novel chronicles a year in the life of 22-year-old Tess, whose name is not revealed until she is voted by her fellow employees as the person you’d most like to get stuck in an elevator with.  Without even enough cash to pay highway tolls, Tess arrives in New York and lands a job as a backwaiter at a tony restaurant.  As the “new girl,” she struggles to find her niche there among the more seasoned staff and develops a crush on Jake, the handsome and elusive bartender, whose relationship with Tess’s mentor, Simone, dates back to childhood and may or may not be sexual.  Burning the candle at both ends, Tess finds herself in a vicious cycle of drugs and alcohol, and I’m not sure how she is alert enough at work to learn about French wine regions.  This is what I would call an ensemble novel, and it’s the first one I’ve read since Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End in which the characters all work together.  It’s not about family per se, but then sometimes the workplace becomes a surrogate family.  From the beginning we know that Tess does not have a plan for her future.  She’s basically treading water, but then the author makes the point that restaurant workers are mostly young and eventually move on.  Simone is particularly an enigma.  She’s in her 30s, for one thing, but she takes Tess under her wing while warning her to stay away from Jake.  Tess is naïve but a quick study, except when it comes to matters of the heart.  Tess grew up without a mother, and Simone fills that void to a degree.  Simone may have already honed her maternal skills with Jake, but she becomes Henry Higgins to Tess’s Eliza Doolittle, and then the question is whether the student’s skills will surpass those of the professor.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE LIFE WE BURY by Allen Eskens

Joe Talbert is a struggling college student with an alcoholic mother and an autistic brother, Jeremy.  For a writing assignment, Joe interviews Carl Iverson, convicted years ago of murdering a teenage girl but now living out his last days in a nursing home with pancreatic cancer.  Of course, Carl claims to be innocent, but his story is corroborated by an old friend and fellow soldier in Vietnam, prompting Joe to delve into the crime.  Joe’s cute neighbor, Lila Nash, becomes involved in the decoding of the victim’s diary, and now we have a pair of amateur sleuths who don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.  Joe works part-time as a bouncer, so he at least has some pretty solid self-defense moves, and he can even go on the offense when there’s a damsel in distress.  Lila may have skeletons in her closet, but Joe especially feels that he can atone for a tragic mistake he made as a child by seeing that Carl is exonerated before he dies.  Carl also has his reasons for not participating more fully in his own defense at his trial.  I’m giving this novel 5 stars because I found it to be well-written and riveting, and it gallops along at breakneck speed.  It is not without its flaws, though.  Joe is conveniently lucky a few times too many, and why he trusts his alcoholic mother to look after his autistic brother is beyond my comprehension.  I get it that Joe’s education is important to him, but Jeremy would have been better off with almost anyone else.  The pacing of this novel is so fantastic that I chose to overlook the somewhat predictable plot and outcome.  My favorite scene is where Joe is recovering from hypothermia in a deserted hunting cabin and fashions an outfit from the curtains.  Scarlett O’Hara would be proud.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016


I have enjoyed Alice Hoffman’s magical realism novels for years, but her historical novels, like this and The Dovekeepers, did not hold my attention at all.  This book mostly takes place in a Jewish community in St. Thomas in the 1800s.  The main character is Rachel, who, at a very young age, marries an older man with three children.  The purpose of this union is to cement a liaison with a man who can potentially save her family’s business.  When the husband dies, his nephew Frederic comes from France to take over his uncle’s role in the business.  He further steps into his uncle’s shoes when he falls in love with Rachel.  However, the Jewish community objects to a marriage between these two, based on the fact that they are “family members,” but Rachel and Frederic refuse to split up.  Their son Camille Pissarro eventually paves the way for a reconciliation between his parents and the Jewish community, and he goes on to become a famous artist of the Impressionist movement in France.  There are other forbidden romances in the novel, some with tragic consequences involving the progeny of these romances.  Even with all of the secrets and intrigue, this book dragged for me.  When Frederic enters the picture, the plot gets a little more juicy, but then the feud with the Jewish community occupies way too many pages, as do descriptions of flowers and of Camille’s unsuitability for the family business.  More annoying is Rachel’s transformation from being somewhat of a poster-child for women’s rights to a mother who is bent on stifling her son’s artistic aspirations.  Later, her disapproval of his choice of servant girl as his wife brands her a total hypocrite in my book.  I get it that she objects to her son’s marriage outside the faith more so than his marrying someone of lower social status. Still, when I look back not just on her own fight to marry the person of her choice but also her friend Jestine’s heartbreaking separation from the man and daughter she loved, I just don’t understand how she can suddenly be so obstinate when her son wants to follow his heart.  And one more complaint:  What happened to Rachel’s stepsons, David and Samuel?  At some point, the author abandons them and never fills us in about their fates.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

BLUE DIARY by Alice Hoffman

Beautiful Jorie and handsome Ethan have the perfect marriage.  Also, Ethan is an all-around good guy, serving as a volunteer fireman and Little League baseball coach in a small Massachusetts town.  In fact, he’s rescued several people from burning buildings, earning him a reputation as a local hero.  Suddenly, a blast from the past changes everything, and Ethan is arrested for a rape and murder that happened in Maryland before he met Jorie.  Jorie and her 12-year-old son Collie are in shock, and Jorie has to question how well she knows her husband, whose past she has apparently never shown an interest in.  Now, however, she journeys to the scene of the crime in order to experience more fully what its impact has been and to get a better handle on what happened.  The author’s signature magical realism is absent from this novel, but Jorie’s attitude up until the arrest seems to have been “ignorance is bliss,” and I didn’t really buy that.  More unbelievable, though, is the complete about-face that Ethan makes—from being a narcissistic sociopath to becoming a model husband, father, and citizen.  Kat, a friend of Collie’s, narrates part of the novel in first person and turns Ethan in after recognizing him from a photo on a reality TV crime show.  Her gorgeous 17-year-old sister Rosarie is basically the female equivalent of the old Ethan, so that Kat has first-hand knowledge of how someone can hide his/her true nature behind a pretty face.  What I liked about this book was the polarizing effect that Ethan’s arrest has on people.  In the Massachusetts town where he now lives, there are rallies to raise money for his defense fund, because no one there can believe that he would be capable of such a horrific crime.  In the Maryland town where the murder occurred, however, certainly no one has sympathy for Ethan or his family.  No one has felt safe there for the past 15 years, and some still think a ghost scarecrow committed the crime, because the murderer took a scarecrow’s clothes to replace his blood-soaked garments.  They hope to have closure, but nothing can bring back a life abruptly and brutally ended far too soon.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

THE RUSSIAN GIRL by Kingsley Amis

Richard is a professor of Slavic studies who thinks that reading English translations of Russian classics is a cop-out.  He’s married to Cordelia, who controls the purse strings, but falls for Russian poet Anna, whose poetry leaves a lot to be desired.  Herein lies the dilemma.  Anna’s brother is in a Russian prison, and she has the idea that if she can gain some acclaim for her work in England, she will be able to pressure the Russian authorities into releasing her brother.  To affirm her literary clout, Richard and his colleagues must sign a petition praising the value of her poetry.  Richard, therefore, has to choose between maintaining his professional integrity and showing support for the woman he loves.  He goes to some lengths to find someone who will dispute his low opinion of Anna’s poetry, but no such luck, even though he is moved to tears by one of her readings.  So two questions dominate the story:  Will Richard sign the petition?  And will Anna still love him if he doesn’t?  In case you’re feeling sorry for poor Cordelia, don’t.  She is not a sympathetic character at all, and she goes on a vindictive tear that is possibly warranted with regard to vengeance against Richard, but the collateral damage is not.  Despite the somewhat humorous turn of phrase now and then, this book just did not hold my attention.  Occasionally it’s OK for me to read a book that makes me sleepy so that I can get some much needed rest.  Still, I’d rather spend my time with a more riveting read.

Monday, August 1, 2016

LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis

Jim Dixon is a young history professor who smokes too much and drinks too much.  Put the two vices together and you have burned bedding in the home of Professor Welch, of the proverbial absent-minded variety, who holds sway over Dixon’s future.  Dixon has also been known to pull the occasional harmless prank in the pursuit of a woman or to exact revenge for revealing one of his screw-ups or secrets.  Dixon is drawn to two women.  Margaret is not particularly attractive, but Dixon feels a certain obligation to keep her company after an apparent suicide attempt.  Christine, on the other hand, is pretty and fun and becomes his accomplice in the bedding incident, but she’s the girlfriend of Welch’s unpleasant son, Bernard.  I have to give Dixon credit for wisdom in not trying to force Christine’s hand by blabbing about Bernard’s affair with Carol, a married woman.   In fact, Dixon has a number of commendable qualities, including being a decent judge of character and his ability to get in and out of some sticky situations of his own making.  His antics make him seem much more like a student who may not graduate than a professor who may get the boot.  Bear in mind, too, that this book was published in the 1950s, so that the humor is both retro and English.  This is my first Kingsley Amis novel, but perhaps I should have gone for one of his later, more serious novels.  For me, this one dragged, despite the terrific writing with lots of delightful metaphors and dialog that didn’t actually sound overly dated.  For example, his description of Dixon’s hangover as feeling like “he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police” made me feel Dixon’s pain.  And when he finally has to deliver his much-anticipated lecture on Merrie England, his nervousness and disorientation are palpable, and the mimicries are priceless.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

THE LINE OF BEAUTY by Alan Hollinghurst

Nick Guest is a guest—a lodger, actually—in the home of Conservative Parliament member Gerald and his wife Rachel, along with their grown children, Toby and Catherine. Toby and Nick were friends at Oxford, and Toby has invited Nick to move in with his family. Nick’s father is an antiques dealer, and Nick’s previous exposure to this level of posh gentility was limited to accompanying his father on clock-winding visits. It’s the late 1980s, and Nick is gay, so that the AIDs epidemic is lurking ominously on the horizon. Nick is an enigma, knowing that he does not quite fit in socially, but at the same time he somehow sees his host family members as friends. They, however, seem to view him more as a charity case who can help keep an eye on Catherine, who is bipolar. When she’s off her meds, she poses a threat to herself at least and may possibly be destructive in other ways. Nick is dangerous, too, in an entirely different way, blatantly snorting cocaine, right under the noses of the family, and meeting lovers in the garden. I couldn’t believe he would take his living situation for granted to the point that he would risk sullying Gerald’s political career. He overestimates his standing in the family, and in the end he realizes that his view of the family is seriously distorted. Their snobbish hypocrisy is obvious to the reader but not to Nick. There’s a reason his very rich friend Wani, short for Antoine, wants to keep their affair under wraps, and it’s not just for the sake of his Lebanese parents. Certainly, the appeal of this novel lies in its satirical treatment of upper-crusty manners, including a scene where high-as-a-kite Nick dances with Prime Minister Thatcher to a Rolling Stones tune. However, as a reader, you’ll be acutely aware that almost all of the male characters are gay, so that this novel’s world seems a little skewed in more ways than one. Hollinghurst’s sublime prose kept me interested in Nick’s fate, as I held onto the hope that he would stop making so many egregious errors in judgment before his world toppled around him.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

WHEN I'M GONE by Emily Bleeker

I read this book for book club, and I raced through it, just so that I could move on to something that I really wanted to read.  As a result, I didn’t suffer for very long, and, honestly, it could have been worse.  The writing wasn’t stellar, but then it wasn’t intolerable, either.  The premise is that Natalie dies of cancer but arranges to have letters sent to her husband Luke after her death.  Luke soon learns that Natalie has kept him in the dark about aspects of her past, and he, with some help from Natalie’s best friend Annie, sets out to untangle these secrets.  Annie is a character who comes across as alternately manipulative and wimpy, but then Natalie doesn’t fare much better.  As he gathers clues, Luke vacillates between anger at Natalie for her deceits and boundless grief over having lost her too soon.  The author throws in a good bit of conversation about the afterlife, or lack thereof, and I found this particular debate annoying.  I felt as though the author were trying to appease both believers and non-believers, and I really don’t like this sort of fainthearted fence-straddling.  Take a side, for crying out loud!  The author goes to some effort to keep the reader guessing, with quite a convoluted plot, full of red herrings and a few predictable outcomes.  However, there’s no real substance here—no redemption, no lessons learned, no self-help advice, and certainly no humor.   It’s basically just the unfolding of a mystery in a gimmick-y manner.  In fact, it’s as though Natalie wrote her own eulogy, full of confessions and advice for her bereaved husband, and then dragged it out for a few months.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Before I read this book, I knew that it was the darling of some critics, and that’s about it.  In fact, the title somehow made me think it would be funny.  Oh, man, was I ever wrong.  A beach read this is not.  It’s not weepy, either, thank heavens, but it is extremely tragic.  On the morning of her daughter’s wedding in Connecticut, June watches as her home explodes, killing her boyfriend Luke, her daughter, her daughter’s fiancé, and June’s ex-husband.  An old gas stove appears to have been the culprit, but somehow most of the townspeople have shifted the blame to Luke, because he served a prison term for a dubious drug conviction.  After managing to get through the funerals, June embarks on a road trip to the West.  This novel is told from the standpoint of about a dozen or so characters at both ends of the country, all of whom have some sort of sad history.   Fitting all of them together into this puzzle of a book was a challenge but not necessarily an overwhelming one.  Perhaps the saddest character is Lydia, mother of Luke.  She has a lot to atone for, and now Luke is gone, so that she can never fully make amends, at least as far as her son is concerned.  We also have Silas, a teenager who worked for Luke.  The author dangles a tantalizing carrot for us, constantly suggesting that Silas possesses secret information about the explosion.  Silas is too young to bear this heavy a burden, and I was concerned for his well-being and survival.  This book has not only a staggering amount of guilt in it, but also a mountain of regret for words not said before it was too late.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

WOLF TOTEM by Jiang Rong

Chen Zhen is an educated young Chinese man in the 1960s who, with many other young urban intellectuals, goes to live with sheep herders in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia, at the behest of the Chinese government.  Thanks largely to Bilgee, a wise old nomad who understands the delicately balanced ecology of the area, Chen comes to appreciate how vital the wolf population is to the continued success of the herders.  The sacrifice of a few lambs and foals to the occasional wolf attack is a fair trade-off, since the wolves keep the rodent population to a minimum.  The Chinese government, however, wants to relocate farmers to the area, and the wolves have to go.  I get that this novel is a condemnation of the Cultural Revolution, but it falls short in so many ways.  First of all, Chen’s obsession with raising a wolf cub is totally inconsistent with his reverence for the wolves and the grassland.  More annoying, though, is the author’s use of dialog to get points across about the protection and history of the land and the wildlife.  Characters sound as though they are quoting passages from an encyclopedia.  Yes, this is a translation, but I don’t think the Chinese would converse in such a stilted manner.  The book proceeds at a snail’s pace, partly because of all these sermons, and then the high body count for the animals made the book even more difficult to me to wade through.  Plus, I forget sometimes how important good writing is to my enjoyment of a book until I read one like this, which is not well-written at all.  The Kindle version is full of mistakes, particularly random repeated phrases that dangle randomly throughout the text, divorced from the sentences in which they originally appeared.  Bottom line:  The message is worthwhile, but the storytelling is not.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016


The opening of this book is a heart-stopper.  Sten Stenson and his wife Carolee are on a Costa Rican shore excursion that goes from bad to worse.  A couple of local criminals hold the cruise group at gunpoint, demanding their wallets and valuables, but Sten uses his skills as an ex-Marine to bring the ringleader down.  Back in the U.S.A., we find that Sten’s 25-year-old son Adam is a psychopathic survivalist who models his life after that of John Colter, a scout for the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Our third character is Sara, a lonely 40-something anti-government rebel who becomes romantically involved with Adam.  These two are the epitome of the lunatic fringe.  Sara doesn’t share Adam’s penchant for violence but neither does she try very hard to dissuade him.  In fact, she’s more concerned about the consequences of her possible guilt by association than she is about the horrendous things Adam has done.  Sten is no hero, either, as he allows a buddy to get him worked up about Mexicans buying food supplies in the grocery store.  In other words, all three of these people are a little hard to take and impossible to like, much less admire.  In fact, my only real complaint about this book is the lack of good guys.  The story takes place in northern California, and I know for a fact that not everyone up there is wacko.  As always, Boyle’s writing is superb, and he never shies away from controversial subject matter, such as a mentally ill person being armed to the teeth.  If the action and attitudes in this novel don’t raise your hackles and your blood pressure, I don’t know what will.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

WORLD'S END by T.C. Boyle

This novel is full of very wicked men of multiple generations.  The few good men are lost in the shuffle, and the women are pretty secondary throughout.  The Hatfields and McCoys have nothing on the Van Brunts and Van Warts of Peterskill, NY.  We pop back and forth between the 1690s and the 1960s, but nothing much changes during the intervening three centuries as far as these two families are concerned.  In the 17th century, the Van Brunts are tenant farmers on land owned by the Van Warts, and Jeremias Van Brunt balks each year when he has to pay his due.  In the 20th century, Walter Van Brunt manages to sever his feet in two separate motorcycle accidents.  And, yes, you can assume that alcohol was a factor.  Walter is basically a screw-up of epic proportions, haunted by the ghost of his long-gone father who may have betrayed Walter’s mother and godparents by skedaddling instead of going for help during a riot.  Some of these people are so vicious, the book becomes difficult to read at times.  Violence erupts over political differences, women, obligations to sadistic landlords, and bigotry, particularly toward Native Americans.  Probably the character who garners the most attention is Walter, whose lack of charisma is superseded only by that of his on-again, off-again employer, Depeyster Van Wart.  Depeyster, tortured by the fact that the Van Wart family line may end with him, follows in the footsteps of his ancestors, feeling that his wealth gives him the right to throw his weight around and crush anyone who stands in his way.  Two big questions loom:  Why exactly did Walter’s father abandon his wife and child, and what will Depeyster do if/when he discovers that his wife has been having an affair with a Native American?  The author fully addresses both questions, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like the answers.  My favorite thing about this book is that it mentions the snail darter, and I was a student at the University of Tennessee when this controversy brought the construction of TVA’s Tellico Dam to an abrupt halt.  I had no idea this endangered little fish had such a big fanbase.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


If the rest of this book were as fantastic as the first 50 pages, I would give it 5 stars.  David Zimmer has lost his entire family in a plane crash, and, after seeing a TV film clip of silent film star Hector Mann, he embarks on a quest.  David travels, with the help of Xanax, to museums around the world to view all of Mann’s silent films as research for a book.  Mann mysteriously disappeared shortly after the making of his last movie, but, after the book is published, David receives a letter indicating that Mann is alive.  Thus begins a new episode in David’s mission to uncover the truth about Hector Mann.  The downside is that I felt very detached from all of the characters in this book, including David, whose grief drives him to several suicide attempts.  Writing and some good old-fashioned slapstick comedy are his salvation.  The author’s vivid descriptions of Mann’s movies, two of them in particular, are the reason that the first part of the book is so good.  The plots are magical, sophisticated, and supremely clever, and I want to see those movies!  I imagined Mann, with his moustache and white suit, to resemble David Niven.  Zimmer and Mann both suffer tragic losses, but the silent movie plots are pure delight, and they save a dark novel from becoming maudlin.  I am also wondering to what degree, if any, this book inspired the movie The Artist.  John Goodman plays a man named Al Zimmer in the movie, so I figure his name is a nod to the narrator of this book.  There’s also at least one more similarity between the novel and the movie:  both are about a silent film star with a foreign accent, which makes the transition to talkies problematic.  In this book, the contrast between the man, “Mann,” and his enchanting film work is quite a feat for the author, but the real feat is the immense imagination that went into the construction of the movie plots and conveying those plots to the reader so brilliantly.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

TIMBUKTU by Paul Auster

Mr. Bones is a dog who understands spoken English.  His beloved master, Willy, is a homeless alcoholic with health problems, both physical and mental.  Mr. Bones doesn’t judge Willy for his shortcomings but rather judges everyone else by how clueless they are about a dog’s needs and wants.  When Willy passes on to “Timbuktu,” a euphemism for heaven, a weary and grieving Mr. Bones has to fend for himself.  Gone are the unplanned meanderings that Mr. Bones enjoyed with Willy.  He attaches himself to a new young human companion who has to hide Mr. Bones from his father.  Mr. Bones escapes this imperfect situation and moves on to a family that provides a doghouse and good eats but leaves him at a posh kennel during a family vacation.  Mr. Bones and Willy were inseparable, and now Mr. Bones is a different sort of lesser family member—a pet.  I’m not sure exactly how to interpret this story.  On the surface, this is a dog story or maybe even a buddy story, but deeper down I suppose it’s a story of unconditional love and loyalty between two individuals, regardless of species or gender.  It is obviously more than just an homage to our canine companions; it’s a statement about friendship and perhaps how life with a constant good friend, even if food and shelter are not always available, is more fulfilling than a life with creature comforts. For Mr. Bones, at least, the struggle to find love is a much more daunting task than scrounging for food and a warm, dry place to sleep.  I suppose we can apply this struggle to people as well, but that analogy only goes so far.  The ending, for example, was a disappointment for me, concluding with a whimper rather than a triumphant roar. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

THE NEST by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Every dysfunctional family is different, and in this case, four siblings are awaiting the imminent release of their $2 million trust fund.  The oldest, Leo, who is simultaneously the talented star of the family and the black sheep, has run into a spot of trouble, seriously injuring his 19-year-old passenger in a car accident.  The family matriarch taps the trust fund for remunerations to the girl and for Leo’s stint in rehab.  This development is devastating to the other three, since the payout has now shrunk to a paltry $50,000 apiece.  Jack, unbeknownst to his husband, has secretly borrowed money on their summer home to keep his struggling business afloat.  Dubbed from childhood as “Leo Lite,” he is almost as despicable as his brother, without the substance abuse problems.  In his desperation to repay the loan, he tries to broker the sale of a stolen piece of art on the black market, compounding the ugly secrets he’s keeping from his partner. Melody wants to send her twin daughters to college, even though they have found a way to dodge her tracking of their cellphones so that they can skip out on their SAT tutoring sessions.  Bea, after a promising start to her literary career, has reached an impasse in the writing of her long-awaited first novel.  The crux of the matter and the question on everyone’s mind is whether or not Leo will turn over a new leaf and reimburse “The Nest.”  His track record is iffy, but he’s back with old girlfriend Stephanie, who shares with Bea my vote for most likeable character, despite her questionable taste in men.  Bea is a poignant character in many ways and makes the dubious decision to use her brother’s tragic mishap as fodder for her novel.   I enjoyed this book from start to finish, and I can’t complain about the ending, either, by which time I felt that I knew these characters inside and out.  They may not be people I’d want to hang out with, but certainly for the duration of this novel they provided some entertaining drama.  I’m just glad they’re not my family.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

THE HEART GOES LAST by Margaret Atwood

Dystopian novels tend to be pretty bleak, but here Margaret Atwood has injected a lot of humor, so that the tone is quite different.  Charmaine and Stan are a married couple living in their car after an economic collapse has devastated the eastern U.S.  Charmaine is working as a bartender so that they can buy food, but the car is their only defense against the crazed hoodlums who attack in the night.  Then Charmaine hears about a closed community (once in, you can never leave) called Consilience where everyone has a job and decent housing.  She convinces Stan to take the hook.  The premise of the community is that everyone lives as normal people every other month, but on alternate months they are prisoners, doing more menial jobs, while another couple occupies their house.  The two alternating couples are forbidden to meet as they swap places each month, but Charmaine soon finds herself in a reckless affair with Max, who lives in their house while Charmaine and Stan are in prison.  To me this seemed a bit like Cold War Communism, where everyone is working for the good of the community, but the community leaders are definitely reaping some sort of monetary benefits while keeping close tabs on what the citizens are up to.  The humor comes in the form of the funny business between Charmaine and Max and the ramifications for Stan, who finds a lusty note but misinterprets its authorship.  Charmaine and Stan are unwitting pawns in a complicated scheme that involves Elvis robots, blue knitted teddy bears, and a drug that will knock a person out and then cause them to imprint on the first thing they see with two eyes.  The gritty start belies the nutty stuff that happens later in the book, making it both chilling and somewhat absurd at the same time.  This combination appealed to me in a big way.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

LIFE BEFORE MAN by Margaret Atwood

Lesje and Elizabeth are competing for Nate’s affection, and, honestly, he’s not really worth it.  The two women work at the same natural history museum, and Nate is an attorney who now makes his living, such as it is, carving toys.  He and Elizabeth have a totally dysfunctional marriage, both engaging in affairs that they don’t bother to hide.  Elizabeth’s most recent spurned lover has committed suicide, and she’s depressed, though not exactly grieving.  Nate discards his current paramour, Martha, for Lesje, who lives with William but has no real investment in that relationship.  These characters are just as messed up as they sound, but Atwood wrote this book in the 1970s, and the novel takes place in the 1970s.  She may be making a statement about our culture during that time period, but I have a feeling that these people would be just as despicable today.  Still, I found these crazy relationships oddly appealing, in a voyeuristic kind of way.  Not that there’s anything kinky going on, except perhaps William’s startling reaction when he finds out about Lesje’s affair with Nate.  Elizabeth comes across as a skilled manipulator, laying a major guilt trip on Nate, when she’s just as much at fault for the demise of their marriage.  However, Nate seems to me to be passive-aggressive, stringing Lesje along while he drags out the severing of his ties with Elizabeth, ostensibly for the sake of their two daughters.  Lesje is the real enigma, and Atwood never really clues us in as to what she sees in Nate.  Does she love him because he sought her out as a lover?  He struck me as sort of a weasel.  She could do better.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

THE LAKE HOUSE by Kate Morton

Kate Morton’s novels are getting little too formulaic for me:  a woman in the present is attempting to unravel a mystery from the past.  Still, her novels are entertaining and not too challenging, so I don’t really have much to complain about.  In this case, Sadie is a cop, so that she has some experience solving mysteries, even though she is currently on leave from her job for blabbing to a journalist.  While spending her leave at her grandfather’s house, she stumbles upon an abandoned lake house and discovers that a child vanished from it in the 1930s.  Sadie then seeks out Alice Edevane, a sister of the missing child, who is now an octogenarian and prolific mystery writer.  As it turns out, Alice and both of her sisters blame themselves, for one reason or another, for their baby brother’s disappearance.   In other words, Alice’s family members, a former nanny, the handsome gardener, and the family friend who later committed suicide all seem to be candidates for killing the child or orchestrating his kidnapping, either intentionally or accidentally.  Morton is very adept at leading the reader on one wild goose chase after another, and we follow Sadie to most of these dead ends.  The author reveals countless Edevane family secrets, steering us to a series of possible conclusions that may or may not be plausible, depending on your opinion of the various characters.  In the meantime, Sadie has problems of her own, namely the one that got her banished from the force (justifiably or not?) and the mysterious letter that she returns to the sender unopened, but the Edevane puzzle is a welcome diversion from her personal tribulations.  So if you don’t like one storyline, there are several others that might be more appealing.  I was never bored with this novel, but I wasn’t exactly captivated, either.  Sadie is tenacious and smart and governed a little too much by her emotions, but how could I fully relate to a character who doesn’t like to read?  Still, Sadie’s more lovable than Alice the lovestruck teenager or Alice who bristles at revisiting a tragic event that she may have abetted.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

THE SECRET CHORD by Geraldine Brooks

Before reading this novel, here’s what I knew about King David:  he killed Goliath with a slingshot, and he fathered Solomon, who gained a reputation for wisdom.  This book jogged my memory with the knowledge that he played the harp and purportedly wrote about half of the Psalms.  What I didn’t suspect is that, according to author Geraldine Brooks, he was probably bisexual.  I love historical fiction that introduces a little controversy.  In any case, David committed a substantial number of serious transgressions in battle and otherwise, slaying civilians right and left, stealing other men’s wives, and looking the other way when one of his spoiled sons raped and disfigured David’s only daughter.  The villainous son and abused daughter were half-siblings, but still….  The narrator of this novel is Natan, who has the gift of prophecy and walks a fine line between saying too much and not giving David fair warning so that he can prepare for the trials and tribulations ahead.  According to Natan, David may be God’s chosen king, but God does not cut him any slack for his myriad and horrific misdeeds.  I liked the author’s fluid writing style, but the subject matter here is not in my wheelhouse.  I enjoy reading about flawed characters, but most of the men in this novel lean a little too far in the direction of evil.   The women, on the other hand, are primarily victims of David’s whims, and besides, he may have preferred men anyway.  King David may have brought unprecedented peace to the region, but the price in terms of human lives lost was exorbitant.  Then again, the Bible’s veracity as a historical document is highly suspect, so none of this stuff may have ever happened.  Whether the fiction here is historical or not, it was not up my alley.  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

YEAR OF WONDERS by Geraldine Brooks

I can hardly imagine a situation more depressing than a town quarantining itself due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.  Geraldine Brooks imagines what life was like in this real-life English village in the 1600s.  Her protagonist is Anna Frith, who works as a housekeeper in the home of the town’s compassionate minister and his wife, Elinor.  Anna has lost her husband in a mining accident and her two children to the plague, but she forges on, doing what she can to protect the living and administer to the sick and dying.  She and Elinor become companions in their quest to save as many people as they can and to alleviate suffering.  When the going gets tough, though, many residents become hysterical, looking for and punishing scapegoats, trying to appease what they perceive as a vengeful God that has burdened them with this tragedy.  People in a panic tend to behave badly, and that is certainly the case here.  I wanted to like this book, and I did feel invested in the characters, particularly Anna, but how much black death and human stupidity can one reader take?  Plus, I don’t advise becoming attached to any character, because by the time Elinor and Anna start drawing some conclusions about how the infection is being spread, many denizens have already expired, and not necessarily directly from the plague.  I would say that this book is about how dire circumstances change people—either inspiring them to perform feats of heroism or reducing them to murderers whose sanity has been supplanted by superstition.  Science and medicine may have made great strides in the last three centuries, but the ugliness in human nature hasn’t changed at all.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

Like Gone Girl, this book has two very different halves, the first of which is the husband’s perspective, and the second half is the wife’s.  The husband is Lotto, a tall, charismatic man with a bad complexion and a very wealthy mother.  The wife is Mathilde, who is smart and striking in appearance.  They marry young, and Lotto’s buddy Chollie is convinced that the marriage will be short-lived.  Initially, Lotto struggles to make a living as an actor in New York but then finds that he has talent as a playwright.  Mathilde becomes his business manager, and in the second half we find that she is really much more than that.  The first half of the book, Lotto’s half, did not hold my interest at all.  Lotto is just a big lap dog with creativity of genius proportions. The second half, in which Mathilde is revealed to be quite multi-dimensional, is much more lively.  We’re not quite sure if she’s evil or merely opportunistic or justifiably vengeful or perhaps even a long-suffering martyr, but certainly her early life is more colorful, although not necessarily in a good way, than his.  However, the second half skips back and forth in time, seemingly more so than the first half, and I found the zigzagging timeline disconcerting and annoying, as I tried to determine what had already happened and what was still yet to come at any given point in the narrative.  The first half of the book certainly sets the stage for the second half, but I thought that the first half could have been shorter, so that the author could spend more time filling in the blanks with the contributions that Mathilde makes to the marriage and to Lotto’s career.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Thank heavens there’s a Buendía family tree diagram at the beginning, because this novel spans about 5 generations, and the men are all named some variation of José Arcadio or Aureliano.  The women, although they certainly take a backseat to the men in this story, are much easier to differentiate, and several of the women in the family tree are mistresses.  In one case, two brothers have the same mistress, so that their children are half-siblings.  Plus, in one case, a male character chooses a 9-year-old for his wife, and fortunately her parents make her wait until she reaches puberty to marry.  Then there are a couple of instances where a nephew has a thing for his aunt.  What a family!  The story takes place in the fictional town of Macondo, and sometimes it seems that there aren’t enough non-Buendía residents there to keep the population genetically diverse.  Then we have characters who routinely spend years sequestered in a room reading scholarly documents or sitting under a chestnut tree—voluntarily.  I’m not really a fan of magical realism, especially this sort with flying carpets and people who live past 140 years old.  The fantasy aspects just contributed to my overall inability to feel any sort of connection to the characters.  The whole thing seemed quite absurd and confusing to me.  I wish there were at least one character who stood out for me or who seemed particularly heroic or even particularly tragic, but unfortunately, they all ran together into one indecipherable heap.  I’ve wanted to read this book since Gabriel García Marquez died a couple of years ago, but I can’t say that it was time well spent.  At least I can check it off my list now.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

AGE OF IRON by J.M. Coetzee

Mrs. Curren is dying of breast cancer, and, worse yet, she is a liberal-minded white woman living in South Africa during apartheid.  The novel is mostly an expression of her thoughts in the form of a letter to her daughter, who is married with children in the U.S. and unaware of her mother’s terminal condition.  A homeless alcoholic, Mr. Vercueil, who, along with his dog, has camped out near her house, becomes Mrs. Curren’s handyman, companion, and caregiver.  Her black maid, Florence, has a teenage son who has joined the resistance effort.  Mrs. Curren is torn between her enormous revulsion at the government’s enforcement of apartheid and her concern for the safety of the young people involved in the rebellion.  She would like to make a statement against apartheid by perhaps hastening her own death in a violent manner, but that would solve nothing.  The fact that she has taken on a homeless alcoholic as her confidant is a testament to her extreme loneliness and desperation.  Vercueil, for his part, seems neutral politically and unredeemable socially, but he’s all she has, and he’s better than nothing.  In fact, he’s a lot better, because he seems completely non-judgmental, and a family member would probably have a lot to say about an elderly woman living alone and consuming vast quantities of pain meds.  Mrs. Curren is a character whose outrage is so palpable that I felt immense empathy for her.  In fact, this is my first Coetzee novel, published in 1990 while apartheid was very much still in effect, and it obviously represents the South African author’s personal stand against apartheid, using the power of the pen to try to enact positive change.  I expect that Mrs. Curren’s dilemma and guilt come straight from his own personal conscience, grappling with a situation that was impossible to bear and simultaneously dangerous to oppose.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Alan Clay needs to resurrect his career so that he can pay off some unsavory loans and finish putting his daughter through college.  He hopes he can do that as a member of a team that is pitching IT services to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia for a splashy new city—King Abdullah Economic City or KAEC.  Jet-lagged and unable to sleep when he arrives, he misses the shuttle to the site and employs young Yousef in a beat-up Chevy Caprice to drive him there.  Yousef starts diminishing Alan’s expectations by scoffing at the idea of KAEC, which he seriously doubts will ever be completed and reporting that the king is in Yemen.  Alan finds his team in an insufferably hot tent without wifi or food, preparing for a holographic presentation that apparently has no audience.  Day after day, the waiting for the king continues, and Alan soon joins Yousef in thinking that KAEC is a sham.  Meanwhile, Alan raggedly lances a growth on his back, gets drunk on moonshine, attends a Danish embassy party where everyone dives into the pool to retrieve black-market pills, and goes wolf hunting in the country with Yousef.  Basically, Alan is a man adrift making one last ditch effort to set everything in his life back on track but is thwarted by a foreign culture that has no respect for his time and whose denizens flagrantly disregard the prohibitions of an oppressive government.  In some ways this book was a breath of fresh (desert) air, since it’s so different from anything I’ve read lately.  The waiting game could have been interminably demoralizing and uneventful, but Alan’s musings and escapades make this book anything but dull.  Alan’s musings include family memories and rehashes of his failed business ventures, which do not bode well for the current one.  In fact, Alan himself is not exactly punctual, causing me to fear that he may miss his audience with the king if and when the king finally puts in an appearance at his eponymous city.  This not knowing is what provides suspense, but Alan’s adventures provide ample entertainment and food for thought along the way.

Sunday, May 1, 2016


Though not his first book, this is Dave Eggers’ first novel, and I hope that the subsequent ones show a little maturity for both the author and his characters.  This is sort of a 21st century version of Kerouac’s On the Road, minus the drugs and alcohol.  Mercifully, it spans only one manic week, but the setting is Senegal, Morocco, Estonia, and Latvia, and that’s worth something—as a travelogue, if nothing else.  Will and his pal Hand are traveling as far as they can in a week and giving away $32,000 in the process.  They become very frustrated at how long it takes to get from point to point, but all in all, they manage to pack quite a lot of activity into a short period of time, doing without sleep or bathing.  The writing style matches the frenetic pace of the story, but I thought it was borderline silly.  Occasionally the characters find themselves in scary situations, but mostly their madcap misadventures are pretty harmless.  There are a few LOL moments, especially when the two guys are reminiscing about their childhood aspiration to grow up to be Hollywood stuntmen.  They continue to practice for this vocation while on the trip, with mixed results.  At the other end of the spectrum, we find that these guys were perpetrators of some pretty serious animal cruelty in their youth, reminding us that they’re not as generous and warm-hearted as we might like to think.  I felt that they were divesting themselves of the money as a way to shed their grief over the death of their buddy Jack.  They do come up with some crazy but creative ideas for how to distribute the money, even as they deliberate as to who is worthy to receive a payout.  Still, a novel about two American guys making fools of themselves in foreign countries, behaving more like adolescents than grown men in their late twenties, is not really my idea of a great read.