This wasn’t God’s work. This was a health resort. – “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

I guess that I first have to admit to never reading any of Liane Moriarty’s books before. I did thoroughly enjoy the television adaptation of “Big Little Lies” but I think I just assumed that her books would be those that I like to classify as “better to watch than read.” I don’t think that I was either fair or correct about that. At least about this book. This was a page turner. I really had no expectation that I would enjoy it as much as I did after it was selected by my book club. That is often the beauty of book club for me.

Octothorp pretty handily explained the premise (with advance spoiler alerts), so I’m not going to get much into plot here. The basic idea is that 9 people with various issues to sort out sign up for a 10 day health retreat run by a former corporate executive who had an epiphany after a near death experience. Each of these “guests” get much more than they bargained for.

Both funny and dark, Moriarty’s story winds itself nicely around contemporary first world issues like mid life crisis, Instagram fame, and body dysmorphia. She deftly pokes fun at the whole self help guru craze while at the same time creating characters that are as laughable as they are sympathetic. It would have been easy to make each of these folks caricatures but instead, Moriarty breathes life into what could have easily been two dimensional stereotypes. She does touch on more serious issues as well which is what I think balances the characters a bit.

It’s a great quick read. A super juicy and fun book to while away an afternoon.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Good mothers are a gift… – “The Changeling” by Victor Lavalle

In my long standing tradition of judging a book by the cover, I grabbed this book based on both title AND cover. The premise sounded interesting: a dark fairy tale take on postpartum depression. In the end, I found a trippy book full of all kinds of weirdness that was more than the sum of its parts.

The protagonist, Apollo, is the child of a Ugandan refugee and a New York parole officer. Raised by a single mother after his father disappears, Apollo becomes interested in books when he begins selling used magazines to his neighbors for pocket money. Eventually, he finds himself with his own freelance rare book selling business and a librarian wife named Emma.

Haunted by the disappearance of his own father, Apollo throws his all into raising his new son, Brian, whom he named after him. Obsessed with being the father he never had, Apollo posts endless photos of the baby on the internet and befriends the “new dads” at the playground. Emma, however, begins to withdraw from their child just as Apollo bonds with him. Initially assuming that new motherhood and sleep deprivation are to blame, Apollo soon discovers that her apathy towards the baby goes beyond that.

Lavalle’s story is a horror story, mystery, and family drama wrapped up in a folk tale. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s novels, particularly “American Gods”. The language is very lyrical and the characters are all just on the edge of mythical.

The novel is a modern exploration of what it is like to be a parent. Lavalle builds a world where all of the vulnerability and anxiety of raising a child are more than just feelings. They are actual monsters that can tear families apart.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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…a place of knowledge, that is nonjudgmental, inclusive, and fundamentally kind. – “The Library Book” by Susan Orleans

I need some more non fiction in my life.  I generally like to read things that take me away from myself and my world when possible. It’s not that I don’t ever read challenging material or books that might make me uncomfortable. I do that as well, but I tend to pick things that transport me from my “real world” to fictional alternative worlds or historical worlds. 

I often associate non fiction with biographies, self help and dry textbooks  even though I know that is both unfair and untrue.  I just don’t generally find them as transportive as I need them to be. I have to be invested or intrigued by the material and with non fiction I am more wary that it won’t get me there.

I have never read any of Susan Orleans’ books and was only familiar with her through the “Orchid Thief” film based on her work. I had no idea what to expect in terms of how she approaches her writing but I suggested this title to my book club to get us reading something outside of our general selections.

I read many great reviews about the book and every single one of them discussed the “mystery” at the heart of the story: the devastating 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library. Interestingly enough, the book is hardly about that. I think that may have been Orleans intent, but the story dances around the fire more than with it.

Orleans book isn’t a whodunit mystery. It is more of a series of essays about public libraries, how they began and how they continue to evolve as social institutions that provide support as well as information. It’s about librarians who serve as confessors, parents, teachers and friends to the millions of people who seek them out daily. What it takes to keep libraries relevant to their community and how libraries are intricately woven into the lives of those who utilize them is the crux of the book.

The fire is shoe horned in every so often in an attempt, I think, to string the multiple library vignettes together. I’m not sure that it worked and I don’t think that I needed it to. Each little piece of the library story was interesting enough to stand alone. The only constant needed to thread it all together was the Los Angeles public library itself. Even though it shifted from location to location under different authority and with ever changing purpose, the library was the story.

I am a “library person”.  I rarely purchase books anymore and I’m not a fan of reading on an electronic device. The way that a book feels in my hands is still very much part of the experience of reading for me. Wandering through library stacks until a book spine or particular title calls to me is all tied up into my childhood visits to the library, the several library jobs that I had while in college. So, I am a little biased but I think that is what Orleans was getting at here. A celebration of a free, public institution that has embraced each technological advancement instead of buckling under the notion that it could become obsolete. A place that can still teach, contribute and enhance the community around it.

At times the book does ramble on a bit, but I think that is Orleans library crush showing. Her respect and admiration for libraries is always apparent and the years she spent researching the topic seem to have only deepened that. It’s a good read for library fans and folks who like to read but don’t count on the “mystery” to be the story here.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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…you have wronged me and my descendants… – “The Girl in the Castle” by Santa Montefiore

girlinthecastleI am notorious for judging a book by its cover. I am also notorious for trying to read the book jacket as little as possible so that I don’t spoil the plot. I try to get just enough of a peek at it that I can tell if it sounds interesting, but not enough to know too much of the plot (thank you publishers for pretty much spelling out entire novels in the jacket).

This practice has often resulted in taking a book out of the library, reading a couple of pages and then realizing that it is part of a series and is NOT the first installment. Sigh. Off to the library I go to return the book that I will most likely check out again after I read the preceding books in the series. And, that’s the easy part. The more difficult task is often trying to figure out what the series order is and so falling down the Google rabbit hole to obtain that information is a regular past time of mine. It becomes even more complicated if the books have different titles in the U.S. than they do in the author’s country of origin. THAT is particularly frustrating when the country of origin’s native language is ENGLISH as well.

All of that is to say that I saw a pretty, pretty book cover, checked the book out of the library, started to read it and discovered it was the third book in the series. After struggling to figure out what the first book was, I checked out “The Girl in the Castle” at my local library which is only available on Amazon under its other title “The Irish Girl.” Thus the title in the picture above and in the Amazon link below.

This is a excruciatingly long explanation that has nothing to do with this book. Or does it? This book.  It is amazing at the beginning, terrible and kind of embarrassing in the middle, picks up towards the end and then smacks the reader in the face with a quick succession of plot twists. It is long and parts of it were, indeed, excruciating.

The story centers around the Deverill family who are a wealthy Anglo-Irish (a drinking game that requires a sip every time “Anglo-Irish” appears in the book would have anyone under the table by page 20) family living in County Cork in Ireland.  The main focus is the youngest daughter, Kitty, who is pretty much either ignored or tortured by every member of her family except for her grandparents and her father. Considering herself to be Irish and relating more to the village children than her aristocratic family, Kitty forges close relationships with a kitchen maid, Bridie and the local vet’s son, Jack.

Following these characters from 1910-1925, through the first world war, the Troubles of Northern Ireland and their aftermath, “The Girl in the Castle” deals with heart-break, longing, marriages of convenience, adultery, poverty,  alcoholism, patriotism and violence.  A little “Brideshead Revisited” here. A little “Downtown Abbey” there.

A spiritual element is also woven into the framework of the story as both Kitty and her Grandmother see spirits. Castle Deverill, the home of Kitty’s grandparents, houses the tortured souls of all of the Deverill male descendants who are held captive by a curse. When the land that the castle was built on was taken from the Irish people by the English, a curse was placed upon the Deverill descendants. Only when a Deverill marries an O’Leary will the curse be broken and the trapped souls of the patriarchy will be released from the castle.

The first section of the novel deals more with the aforementioned dead patriarchy that only Kitty and her grandmother can see. This illustrates her bond with her grandmother and is a welcome respite from her parents and siblings who either ignore or belittle her. Similarly, Kitty’s friendships with Jack and Bridie as well as the developing romance between Kitty and Jack also make for a great read. However, it begins to break down in the middle part of the novel. All of the characters seem to hit one note repeatedly and the plot appears to unravel in a very predictable way. The story just becomes stagnate.

Towards the end, the novel begins to pick up a bit which only serves to make the plot twists in the last couple of pages super irritating. I mentioned that the plot appears to unravel in a very predictable way? So predictable. Would bet the farm on it predictable. So much so that when the exact opposite happens, I found it to be kind of insulting. The abruptness of it after the painfully long set up  was a “Ha-ha! Fooled you!” moment that I did not appreciate. It was unreliable narrator meets bad magician. “Look over here! Ha, it’s over there!” is not something that I appreciate in my reading. I don’t have a problem with a slow build that goes another way, but this was definitely a bait and switch scenario.

The thing is, I really enjoyed the first part of the book and the last, up until the bogus switcheroo. While I found myself slogging through the middle of the book and definitely not wanting to continue with the series, by the end I got back into it. Now, that stupid ending has me wanting to read the next book in the series. I guess joke is on me. It was irritating but titillating enough to spur me on to read the next. Mission accomplished, Ms. Montefiore, mission accomplished.

Have any of you read these books? Should I forge on or just throw in the towel?

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

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…it never did any harm to walk through a new door now and then, and see where you end up. “Bellewether” – by Susanna Kearsley

bellewetherHappy 2019!

I wanted to find a cozy historical romance/ Outlander-esque read for the holidays and this one did the trick.  This is definitely a “twinkle lights on, hot cup of tea, warm fleece blanket and PJs all day” approved title. Oh, and it’s Diana Gabaldon approved which is what put this on my radar to begin with.

The novel is set in Long Island and bounces between present day and 1759. The historical plot line centers on the Wilde family amidst the French and Indian War.  Grieving  the loss of their matriarch as well as the fiance of Lydia Wilde, the family is taxed with taking in two French officers as paroled prisoners of war. (This was an interesting bit of history that I did not know about. In a gentlemanly honors sort of thing,  captured/surrendered officers of the French and Indian war were often billeted in the homes of their “enemy” until they could be sent back to Canada or France).  With the eldest Wilde son Joseph suffering from this war’s equivalent to shell-shock,  providing shelter and sustenance to French soldiers makes for a tense household.

The present day plot line focuses on Charley Van Hoek who has taken on the job as curator of the Wilde House museum. Grieving the loss of her brother, she takes the job to be nearer to her niece. However, the job puts her in the shadow of her Father’s estranged family as well as up against antagonistic museum board members.

While gathering information and artifacts for the museum, Charley begins to unravel the true story behind the town’s Wilde family ghost story. Did Lydia Wilde find solace with one of the French soldiers taken in by her family only to see him killed by her older brother? Or, is the resident museum ghost trying to set the record straight?

While the historical story was more interesting to me, the present day one grew on me as I read. The themes of grief, heartbreak and war in both of the stories tied them together without being too forced.  It’s about the power that family has in shaping how we view ourselves and what course our lives take. It’s also about our stories and how they are altered by time.

I do have to say that it was slow going at first which I find tends to happen with epic historical fiction/romancey type books. Laying down the groundwork, introduction of characters and  building up to the slow burn of developing romance can sometimes drag a bit. I am always willing to persevere through the initial lull to get to the swoon-y good parts that come from good character development and furtive across the room glances. This one paid off in spades.

Check out Cannonball Read 11. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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…sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over – “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng

littlefiresJust enough time to slip a review in under the wire! This is a book club book for me and I was looking forward to reading it. I liked it, but didn’t love it, which was a surprise given all of the great reviews it received.  It took me a while to read, but really shouldn’t have.  It’s not a long or complicated book.  I’m not sure if that was because I was fitting it in around holiday goings on or if it wasn’t engaging enough to hold my interest for more than a chapter at a time. That being said, there was maybe too much going on in this book. I think that might have been why my interest in it waned.

The story centers on the intertwining of two very different families. The roaming artist Mia and her daughter Pearl and the wealthy Richardson family that they rent an apartment from. When Pearl begins spending more and more time in Shaker Heights at the Richardson’s home,  her life becomes tangled with three of the Richardson children: Moody, Lexie and Trip. Initially forming a close friendship with Moody, Pearl begins to idolize the popular Lexie and to fall for the star athlete Trip.  Meanwhile, the youngest black sheep of the Richardson family, Izzy, escapes the Richardson house to Mia and Pearl’s apartment. Here, Izzy basks in the thoughful attention of Mia. If you are thinking that this is a blueprint for a John Hughes movie, you would not be wrong.

What Ng does with this Hughesian blueprint, however, is surround it with two additional story lines that never quite mesh enough with the main story line for me. One of these tangential narratives is taken from Mia’s past and is, by far, the most intriguing. It would have been a novel in and of itself. The second narrative takes place in the present but bridges both Mia’s world in Shaker Heights and the Richardson’s peer group. While that could ALSO have been it’s own novel as well, it wasn’t as well fleshed out as Mia’s story. In the end, neither of these threads really tightened the main story. Too much was happening and any ties that bound it all together felt a little too forced. Little fires everywhere, indeed.

Another issue that I had was lack of any character to root for. Ng tries to give a little depth to the Richardson family, but their privilege oozes out of every pore. Even after offering many hurdles to slow them down and make them sympathetic, I’m not sure that it worked. I couldn’t even get behind poor Pearl. She was a Molly Ringwald character. Falling for the wrong guy while ignoring what was right in front of her.

However, what I found the hardest to swallow was Mia. Ng’s portrayal of Mia seemed to be skewed toward sympathetic and heroic. Nope. Just, nope. While Mia possessed more depth in her little finger than all of the other characters put together, there wasn’t much heroic about her.  Mia wasn’t raised in an affluent family, but they were definitely portrayed as middle class. Having parents unwilling to pay for an art school education that they find impractical is a tough blow but not an insurmountable obstacle for a smart and talented young white woman. When Mia’s “pride” is what keeps her from accepting help from the many people willing to lend her a hand, the choices she makes that alter the way she must live from now on don’t make her a hero.  Lighting fires and starting over from scratch isn’t heroic, it’s avoidance.

I’m not knocking Ng’s writing style. She is a solid writer. There was just too much getting shoe horned in here and the contrast that Ng was trying to make between the families didn’t hold up well under scrutiny.  Sorry to end on a bummer note. It wasn’t a terrible book. I’d give it a solid 3 stars. It just wasn’t the book for me.

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

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Women of her class are molded to be ornaments – “The Hollow of Fear” by Sherry Thomas

thehollowoffearAt this point, I think enough Cannonballers have written rave reviews about Sherry Thomas’ “Lady Sherlock Series”.  Just read these books if the subject matter appeals to you at all. They are a treasure and I think that each one is better than the last.

“The Hollow of Fear” is the third book in the series. I have to admit, again, that my Sherlock Holmes background is via Madonna’s ex husband and Benedict Cumberbatch. I, therefore, come at these books without a reference point for the mysteries that lie within them. I am told that they mirror the mysteries in the originals to some degree, but I can’t really address that.  Maybe I will FINALLY, remedy that over the course of CBR11 and read some actual Sir Arthur Conan Doyle originals.

Charlotte and her childhood friend, Lord Ingram, are involved in yet another murder mystery. This time, however,  the stakes are a bit higher when Lord Ingram’s estranged wife ends up dead in the ice house and he is the prime suspect. Wrap that up with Jane Eyre jokes, a missing institutionalized sister, fake moustaches and much discussion about pastries and you have another winner!

The plot here is a particularly messy one and I have to say that I often got a bit lost in the shuffle. Again, that may be because I am operating with no familiarity with the original Sherlock Holmes stories. It required a little flipping back for re-reads, but I got there.

While the mysteries are intriguing, I come for the sexual tension and the gender politics. There. I said it. My love for these books comes from Charlotte Holmes finding a way to circumvent Victorian social mores AND the smoldering corset/cravat burning want between her and Lord Ingram. I know that those two points may seem at war with one another, but I don’t care. The way that those two admire, exasperate and NEED one another is a delight. Read the books!

Check out Cannonball Read 10. Lots of reviews from lots of good people and all for a good cause.

 

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