Sunday, July 26, 2020

Deborah Crombie, A BITTER FEAST

I thoroughly enjoyed this character-driven mystery set in the Cotswolds, UK. This book, the 18th in Deborah Crombie's series, rides the line between police procedural (as the MCs Gemma and Duncan are detectives in London; and two other characters are police as well) and cozy, as the action all takes place within a small village. As with most cozies, it's the relationships among the characters that matter; a good deal of our reading pleasure is in discovering the backstories that connect the characters, the knots behind the tapestry, as it were. I love that the secondary characters are psychologically coherent, varied, and imperfect. Characters who are wonderfully talented still make meaningful mistakes; those who seem misanthropic or strange are capable of loyalty and honesty; those who are young and impulsive are also capable of thoughtfulness and empathy. The prose is pleasing, without being "writerly" or self-consciously poetic, which resulted in me feeling as though I were looking through a transparent window into the little village and watching the events unfold. Would recommend for fans of Louise Penney, Martin Walker and Charles Finch.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Elizabeth Gilbert, CITY OF GIRLS

A beautifully written novel that purports to be a letter from Vivian to her friend Frank's daughter Angela, telling the truth about herself and what Frank meant to her. (In this respect, it reminds me a little of Peter Carey's THE TRUTH HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG.) I loved Gilbert's book partly for Vivian's fresh voice and the lovely clarity of the writing, but also for the generosity of spirit, the celebration of strong women and their friendships, and the compassion at the core of this book. My favorite lines: "After a certain age, we are all walking around in this world in bodies made of secrets and shame and sorrow and old, unhealed injuries. our hearts grow sore and misshapen around all this pain--yet somehow, still, we carry on."

Thursday, July 23, 2020


After reading STATION ELEVEN about a pandemic and a dystopian world, I was in the mood for something lighter. So I picked up this book because the cover promised it was "divinely funny" and I would "laugh [my] pants off." I do love a good laugh!

Alas, I found this book painful (though engaging) for the first 2/3 and disappointing for the remainder. I almost felt as though I'd watched a funny trailer and then realized, watching the movie, that the only three funny moments in the movie were in the trailer.

[Spoiler alert] The protagonist, Bernadette, was once a brilliantly talented practicing architect in LA. She won a MacArthur Grant and built her bold, original dream house, which was first undermined and then purchased and bulldozed by the rich white man next door. Humiliated and discouraged, she moves to Seattle, where her husband is a bigwig at Microsoft, and she remains unemployed. She endures a number of miscarriages. Finally she succeeds in carrying her daughter Bee to term, but Bee has numerous health issues, which are a source of worry for years. Bernadette never fits in or makes friends in Seattle. Eventually her husband tries to have Bernadette involuntarily committed to an institution, so he can cheat on her with his admin.

So ... I didn't find this plot "divinely funny." Granted, Audrey Griffin the horrid next-door neighbor (think Mrs. Kravitz of BEWITCHED) is a caricature. Certain episodes are absurd--the mudslide into Audrey's house, for example, which is in a way satisfying because Audrey is so awful she deserves it. The writing is clear and often wry, which makes it an "easy read" and is perhaps why some readers called it "breezy."

Part of the difficulty for me is that the (sometimes satirical) first 2/3 of the book presents characters with psychological complexity; the last 1/3 is absurdly insta-fix, with the emotional issues magically and comically resolved. The quarrelsome, depressed, erratic woman goes to Antarctica and immediately becomes nurturing and wise and good-humored. In one day, the embittered daughter matures and precociously achieves insight about her parents, instantly forgiving them their errors. The pregnant admin is made to look utterly stupid and then pushed out of the story. There is nothing difficult or complex about the resolutions, which leads me to believe we're not to take them seriously. So I'd say the book first made me wince at a middle-aged woman's pain and then made me shrug, as I lost my emotional connection to the characters.

It occurs to me that this has some aspects of a Gothic novel (as in 18th-century and some 19th-century novels), in which a woman is abused by men in power. (Think of how Mr. Rochester stuck Bertha Mason in the attic and tried to seduce Jane Eyre.) The modern twist is that it is told in emails, letters, and faxes. Although a woman is at the novel's center, it is perhaps the most anti-feminist book I've read in a long time. I know there are tons of people who enjoyed both the book and the movie. It just wasn't to my taste.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Emily St. John Mandel, STATION ELEVEN

An ambitious, engaging novel about a world after a pandemic wipes out most of the population. At the moment (July 2020) it feels a bit On The Nose.

I have to admit, I heard a lot of hype about this book, and perhaps my expectations were absurdly high. I was surprised by the writing, which felt at times somewhat workmanlike, ordinary. But I was wholly engaged by the range of characters (all well-developed, nuanced, psychologically coherent) and subplots that illustrate our broad range of responses to unimaginable horror. In some cases, human decency is affirmed; elsewhere it is utterly abandoned.

Because the book shifts about in time, moving forward and backward, and focalizes through different characters (3rd person POV throughout), it creates some small mysteries: when we learn about "the prophet," we wonder, which one of the children, at the time of the pandemic, became this depraved man? The narrative voice is deft and trustworthy, so I knew the subplots and the fragmented timelines would connect somehow--and I found myself guessing throughout and pleased by how well the threads tied together, in an ending that is not happily ever after but is still hopeful. I read this in one day and recommend, even for those of us who don't love or usually read dystopian novels.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Bryan Stevenson, JUST MERCY

This book was like a window into another world: the South and particularly Alabama, dangerous prisons, a deeply flawed legal system, death-row inmates, problematic laws and litigation, and the historical contexts that led to today's racism. Partly because Stevenson sustains such a balanced, calm tone, there were times when I felt the injustices so deeply I wanted to hunt down these judges and law enforcement personnel and ask "What on earth were you thinking?" But as the author says, Everyone is more than their worst act, and he includes several anecdotes that reflect how people can grow and change. The book reads a bit like the suspenseful page-turner A TIME TO KILL but also reflects wryly on how TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is, in fact, a novel about an attorney who *fails* to defend an innocent black man. I'd recommend this book for anyone who wants a better understanding of what attorneys working to defend people in poverty, particularly people of color, are up against. I'm deeply grateful that the author wrote this book, on top of what sounds like an impossibly busy and challenging day job.


An ambitious, beautifully written novel about white privilege, family patterns among generations, what it means to stand by and keep silent in the face of injustice and inhumanity, and the possibilities (and impossibilities) for atonement. Other readers objected to the shuttling back and forth in time as well as in and out of different people's perspectives (it's told in third-person, focalized through different characters), but maybe because I read this in only three days, I didn't lose track of the time periods and characters. In contrast to other readers who felt that white privilege had been in some way endorsed, I read the ending differently. (Spoiler alert.) In having the only Black main character providing a crucial lost piece of information to a daughter of white privilege, Blake suggests that his POV is deeply relevant, a piece of history that is both essential to this (her) particular story and more broadly meaningful for all of us. Well-drawn, psychologically coherent characters and some heartbreaking moments. On par with Blake's earlier historical novel, THE POSTMISTRESS. Recommend to fans of Ann Patchett, Mary Beth Keane, and Juliet Grames.

Monday, July 6, 2020


I read this strong thriller in a day. It's a harrowing novel based upon the true story of boys abducted in small-town Minnesota in the 1970s. What raises this book above the average thriller is the balance Lourey sustains between showing the danger outside and inside the home. For me, even more excruciating than wondering about the boys is watching 11-year-old Cassie (the first-person narrator) earnestly and futilely attempting to normalize the wild dysfunction in her family. It's as if she's trying to make a small rug cover a large floor. The erratic behavior of her drunken father, and Cassie's acute sensitivity to all its phases, felt close to the bone. For me, this was rawer and more real than most thrillers, and better written, verging on literary fiction.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020


This is a debut novel (that gracefully slips into almost-memoir by the end), but it doesn't read like it--probably because Grames's day job is editing for Soho Press. With a profoundly assured narrative voice, she begins her tale in the early 1900s, in a small town that clings to the rocks of a hill in Italy. Stella (based upon the author's grandmother) is the eldest daughter of the Fortuna family, which eventually emigrates to the US, where they settle in the northeast. The book is organized (ostensibly) around Stella's eight brushes with death, and at first I thought it was merely a device that served as a counterpoint to the heroine's suggestive name; by the end I realized its thematic importance. Stella is a fully-realized character, and we watch her change, grow and diminish, and warp her interpretive framework in response to the often painful events of her life. A clear-eyed, unsentimental, but compassionate view of a family rife with dysfunction, loyalty, suspicion, and love. I would recommend to fans of Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Strout, and Mary Beth Keane.