The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

After having achieved some degree of acclaim with his first novel, Jacob Finch Donner has been finding it a challenge, to say the least, to hit the target with that follow-up one.  Not that he hasn’t tried, of course.  He has had a couple of feeble attempts, but even he knows they were not worthy of much attention.  So, to make ends meet, he’s been doing what he can – and for writers, that translates to teaching writing, which he is doing currently at a small, run-down, third-tier program in Vermont, as an adjunct.  It is here where Donner has a brief exchange of ideas with an arrogant, petulant student who will forever change the course of Donner’s life – for better and for worse.  

While I found this book to be engaging for most of the way through, with a tone that was at once cynical and amusing, it was overall a bit disappointing.  The narrative did achieve some unpredictability, but it was riddled with conspicuous details and a singular plot line that just led to one possible conclusion.  The twists were not as “twisty” as I’d hoped for.

Even the characters were a bit milquetoast.  The main character, Jacob, was likable – messy, insecure and vulnerable – but we really don’t know very much about him.  We have little backstory on him and do not really develop a deep emotional attachment to him.  We feel even less about Anna, the woman he marries, and so do not get to like her all that much before we decide we may not.  

I will say that I was entertained for about the first 60% of the novel, but it definitely fell short of my expectations.  Worth it?  Not sure…

 

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Amazon.com: My Absolute Darling: A Novel: 9780735211179: Tallent, Gabriel:  Books

Turtle has been living a very self-contained existence for all of her 14 years of life. It’s been pretty much just her and Martin, her father, with a weekly visit to play Cribbage with her Grandpa. Except for going to school, Turtle has been living mostly off the grid, and Martin’s obsession with survival has her ensuring that her guns are always clean and her guard is always up. And while she feels incompetent because of her academic struggles, she feels little about how she is perceived socially – that is, until she meets 2 lost boys in the woods, who ultimately help her every bit as much as she helps them.

This is an utterly gripping, but utterly disturbing novel about how trauma can be experienced and passed down from one generation to the next.  We are in Turtle’s head as she withstands her recurrent abuse at the hands of her father, and we deeply feel compassion for the simultaneous love and hate she feels toward him. There are so many opportunities she has to escape and yet she returns to his overpowering grip. It is a classic abusive relationship, where the abuser convinces the abused that they have no way out.  

The writing is razor-sharp and keeps the reader on edge throughout.  It is impossible to put this one down. We are with Turtle, rooting for her, holding our breath, feeling her awkwardness, and reeling from her anger toward the hard, hard world she inhabits. We exhale when we meet her 2 new friends, as they banter mindlessly and playfully, in such stark contrast to anything she has ever known. And we cannot stop turning the pages to find out how far she will have to go to survive.  

This book is not for the feint of heart, but it is a wildly suspenseful read and an important insight into the mindset of a child abused.  

Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams

Amazon.com: Our Woman in Moscow: A Novel (9780063090231): Williams,  Beatriz: Books

Ruth has always been more like an older sister than a twin to Iris, guarding her and shielding her to the extent that she could, especially after losing both their parents. When in Rome at the start of WWII, Ruth is fully aware that Iris is falling for this seemingly noble Sasha Digby, but she still believes it safest for Iris to leave when the Americans are evacuated. When Iris defies Ruth, she incises a rift between the sisters that cuts deep and festers for years. So why is it Ruth whom Iris calls upon when she is suddenly lost in the abyss of Communist post-WWII Russia? Will Ruth be able to save her sister this time?

Beatriz Williams never, ever disappoints. Using her chatty, familiar, and utterly engaging storytelling style she has created a truly suspenseful historical fiction masterpiece in Our Woman of Moscow. The secrecy and counterintelligence of the post-WWII era is a centerpiece of the novel and sadly, feels eerily relevant today, as we are still at war, albeit virtually, with suppressive, paranoid Communist regimes.

What I love so much about Williams’ books is that her female characters are strong women of substance and dominate the plots. And while there are a few good men, so to speak, there are many who are weak and vulnerable. Most importantly, here in particular, the men– and even some women– are duped primarily because of their preconceived notions about women. This is the sweetest part.

Another MUST READ by Beatriz Williams!

The Golden Child by Wendy James

The Golden Child: A Novel: James, Wendy: 9781510737914: Amazon.com: Books

Charlotte is what many would call a “queen bee.” She is always at the center of activity– pretty, smart, and sporty, with many friends who admire her — while her older, yet more sedate sister, Lucy, seems happy just to hang on the sidelines. Their mother, Beth, has been preoccupied with their upcoming return from New Jersey to Australia, so while there have been some signals of trouble, it hasn’t felt like much more than normal “girl stuff” to her. Could it be that she’s missed something enormous, even in her own daughter?

This is a disturbing and yet utterly engaging novel that anyone who’s ever known or ever been an adolescent girl can relate to. (And if you’ve ever been a mom of one, it tugs at your heart strings like few stories do.) It highlights the cruelty of the adolescent girl dynamic, the targeting of others for random imperfections, quirks, or non-conformities and the ostracizing of others for the least infraction of an ever-changing, “accepted” norm. In the age of social media, it is magnified a million-fold and it is irreversible. And horrifying.

The writing here is crisp and engaging and the characters, while somewhat stereotypical, are still extremely plausible. The author also utilizes the technique of incorporating blog posts from the characters to interject their innermost thoughts, which adds both a deeper dimension and a clever diversion to the plot. It’s an intriguing read that keeps you turning the pages – with a satisfying twist of events right up until the very end.

This is not a “MUST READ” but it’s quick, slightly disturbing, and yet intriguing one, if you have the time.

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Amazon.com: Lost Roses: A Novel (9781524796372): Kelly, Martha Hall: Books

8-year old Luba is not happy, having to share her older sister Sofya with anyone, let alone this American, Eliza. Here in Paris, far away from their home in Petrograd, they seem to be the best of friends somehow, laughing and talking of anything but what Luba is interested in (astronomy, of course!)- that is, until their big surprise, arranged just for Luba. All too quickly, however, Luba understands that Eliza may be the best friend that the two sisters have, as their whole world comes crashing down on them, with the uprising of the Bolsheviks and the disintegration of the Tzar’s regime.

This story, loosely based on the real life story of Eliza Ferriday, is a gorgeous narrative about the plight of the “White Russian,” the elite Russian class torn apart and displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. It is told from the perspectives of each of the main characters, as well as from Varinka, a poor, young woman who worked for Sofya briefly, taking care of her young boy. While each woman was struggling with her own internal battle, each also was a victim of the Great War and the Russian Revolution. They were also interconnected and the story was woven together with threads that bound them throughout. This telling of the story through each of their perspectives also served to build tremendous suspense, particularly at the end of each chapter.

One unusual aspect of this story was the absence of demonizing the rich. So often in literature, the wealthy are assumed to be snobbish and evil and the poor are assumed to be altruistic and pure and good. What I admired here was that the characters were beyond that. There were some wealthy characters who were elitist for sure, but there were plenty who were generous and kind – likewise, with the poor. It was a refreshing avoidance of stereotypes.

I felt I gained more of an understanding of the Russian Revolution from this book. It gave an alternative version, something of a balanced viewpoint. It is true that the Tzar was terrible in his management of the country – his mismanagement of the economy, ignoring the needs of the masses, and certainly murder of the Jews in the country. This story strongly acknowledged this. But the Bolsheviks’ methods were not exactly honorable either. There was so much bloodshed and misery in order, really, to just put a different small number of people into a position of power over the masses. With new forms of propaganda that were just as deceiving and dishonest.

From the author of Lilac Girls, Martha Hall Kelly, this is another MUST READ! Give yourself this very gripping and very loving gift!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

While Anna has always been curious about her father’s “errands” for work, she has never questioned them.  On the contrary, she adores accompanying her father and loves that he entrusts her with knowing how to conduct herself with his business associates.  So why is it that she suddenly has become too old to continue to go? Does he not trust her anymore?

On the other hand, life has become quite complicated for her father,  Eddie.  He’d thought he’d figured out a way to save them from the poverty that surrounded New Yorkers in the late 1930’s, but it has become more complicated than he’d predicted.   And no one in the family really understands.  And he must protect them from understanding fully.

This is a hugely ambitious novel of historical fiction takes place just before and during WWII, primarily in New York harbor, focusing on the New York Naval Yard.  Once Anna has grown, she is employed in the building of the warships in the Yard, and becomes entangled, in her own way, in the complicated world her father has left behind.

It is a bit of work, this novel.  This is not an easy read.  There is a lot of technical wording and esoteric jargon — seafaring-related –that admittedly flew right over my head.  Sometimes this is a bit mind-numbing, I have to admit, but after awhile, it sinks in subconsciously.

On the other hand, it is likely that this very detail is what ultimately creates the understanding of the drama that builds up in later half of the book.  It is the excruciating detail that enables us to visualize exactly what is going on when each of the characters encounter their respective dangers and we are right there experiencing those dangers with them.

I also loved these characters.  Anna is a strong, painfully lonely character who is an admirable story heroine.  She fights for what she wants to do, works hard and abides ridicule and interminable prejudice in order to achieve her goals, earning the respect of her male peers by her endurance.  The reader adores cheering her on.

So I suppose I am encouraging patience and adherence for this book – it does pay off in the end for a dramatic and heartfelt story line.  You will have to be willing to learn a lot about ships, sailing, and naval structure, but you will glean a reading experience with tenderness, complex characters, and a build-up to great suspense.

 

 

 

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda

Avery Greer could not imagine that her best friend Sadie, so full of life, would have killed herself.  That very morning of the end-of-season party, after which nothing was the same, she’d come to Avery for help with deciding what to wear.  Sadie clearly intended to join in the festivities.  Then why had she not come?  Why had she never answered Avery’s text when Avery asked where she was that night?  As Avery struggles to piece together the answers, she feels the shadows of someone trying to thwart her efforts.   Is she just too close and too enmeshed in Sadie’s life to get a clear view?  Or is she too close to not look guilty?

I have to say that especially at this time, I was looking for something distracting – and this fit the bill  This mystery was dark but engaging, with an ominous cloud hovering above as we meet each character, suspecting all and trusting none. Avery is such a lonely character that we feel compelled to blanket her with compassion, and that is what keeps us tied to her throughout the story.  And her story grows deeper and sadder as it goes on.  And as it twists and turns, and as we feel the eyes of the small town peering at her accusingly, we feel the injustice of her possibly being a suspect, just because of the position she’s been put in by life circumstance.

Every once in awhile, I love a good murder mystery.  It is not my usual genre, but it is always fun to get back to.  It is challenging, keeps me guessing, and I am always trying to figure it out – and usually fail miserably.  But I love the surprise of it.

The Last House Guest was on Reese Witherspoon’s reading list.  Now it’s on mine too!

 

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams

Lulu is on a mission to save her husband, Thorpe, who is trapped in a prison camp known for being the harshest and meanest of its kind.  But she knows that the package she’s carrying is so valuable that if she gives it up too freely, there will be no saving Thorpe.  So she does what she has to do and escapes with only this to find shelter with his sister, whom she’s never before met, isn’t even sure she can trust.  With Thorpe’s sister, she is destined to sort out both the future and their very complicated past.

What I love about Beatriz Williams’ writing is that she weaves deeply complex characters into political intrigue/historical fiction using an almost casual and personal voice.  You feel like it’s your old friend who is telling you this lovely story.  And your friend is vulnerable, has had a difficult history, and so your heart goes out to this friend and you want very much to hear so much more.

And while this story occurs during the era of WWII, it is unlike most other WWII stories.  There are only casual references to Jews, camps, and to Pearl Harbor and the Japanese, because much of the story takes place in the Bahamas.  But it is interesting as an example of how the War impacted the world.  Here, we see how British royals may have been involved remotely, for instance, and may have played a role in maneuvering intelligence and power from distant corners of the world.  And it’s not clear if it was for good or for evil.

One of the most prominent and beautiful characters in this novel, Elfriede,  also suffers from post-partum depression.  She is feared, ostracized, even sent away because of her illness.  But she is the kindest of characters, has the most generous heart, and feels passionately about each person she loves.  She is the ultimate hero in the story.  I love that her character, suffering as it is, is celebrated in this story.

Once again, one of my favorite authors has come through for me –  for all of us!  Hope you enjoy this book as I have!

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Mrs. Richardson thought she’d planned her life out quite well.  She had a beautiful home, a devoted husband, four healthy, intelligent teenage children and even a career, benign as it was.  And in Shaker Heights, a planned community just outside of Cleveland, that is what was expected of a well-to-do, educated woman of her stature. Sure, she’d had her moments of passion – she’d grown up in the 60’s after all –  but there was a reason why rules and laws existed.  Orderliness was necessary,  correct.  (Why couldn’t her youngest daughter, Izzy, appreciate that?  Was that so difficult?) And when Mia, an artist, and her daughter Pearl came to live in the apartment that Mrs. Richardson rented out, it was only the right thing to do, to support the arts in her own way, by renting to them.  However, as the two very different families became intertwined, lines became blurred and rules became fuzzy.  At least in the eyes of Elena Richardson.  Not so, to Izzy.

Thanks to my book club for encouraging me to read this one!  I was reluctant to try another Celeste Ng novel after the relentlessly depressing Everything I Never Told You.  This one, however, was entirely different.  It was so beautifully crafted, with the care and devotion and an eye to her art, much like that of Mia’s.  There are wonderful characters, who are messy and quite real, contrary to Mrs. Richardson’s ideal.  Some who seem superficial, but emerge with more depth, and vice versa, much like people in our real lives.  But the plot is what is most gorgeous, with its many sub-plots, taking the story in directions that are unforeseen, often tender, occasionally cringe-worthy, but always engrossing.  I could not put this book down!

And it is deeply meaningful. I will tread carefully because I do not want to spoil for anyone, but I believe the way that both white privilege and class privilege is illuminated is so carefully and poignantly done that it is digestible and accessible to the reader.  There is history and context and explanation, but there is also the story and what actually happens.  So we understand why, but we still understand that it is wrong.  This gives such power to the message.

I loved this book and believe that many of you will also.  This is a MUST READ, for sure!

 

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Frances was sick and tired…  not just sick with the cold that had lingered for the past many weeks, but really feeling as if life had caught up with her.  With her career suddenly seeming to be turning south and her love life at a mortifying halt, a 10-day “cleanse” at the Tranquillum House seems to be just what she needs to repair.  When she meets Masha, the stunning and passionate guru whose mission is to guide each of the nine newcomers to Tranquillum House through their individual transformations, Frances is a bit wary – but she’s trying her best to be open-minded.  Little does she – or any of them – know how they will, in spite of themselves, be completely transformed ultimately, but not at all in the way that they think.

Some books are plot-driven and some are character-driven.  This book is both.  There are endearing and tragic characters whose layers are gradually peeled off one by one as the story is told via rotating narrative perspectives.  Each has their vulnerability that is seen as something that might be remedied by a diet change, or with some counseling or some meditation. (Who can’t relate to that?)   But there is also a wild plot that is imaginative and suspenseful and runs beyond where at least I expected it to go.  And by the time it is completed, you feel that the nine are no longer strangers, but rather your dear friends.

Better read it before the movie comes out – it’s bound to be a movie!