Book Treks

Carol’s 2017 Reviews

The Honeymoon, Dinitia Smith
Well structured and researched novel about the life story of literary icon George Eliot, nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans. Her rebellious and difficult childhood was indelibly scarred by rejection from her mother and brother. She retreated into a world of knowledge and books, while doting on her loving father. These gave her the strength to later withstand several heartbreaking liaisons with men. She finally finds a wonderful love with George Lewes from whom she took her pen name and inspiration. This period was her most productive as a writer for over 20 years. Adam Bede. Mill on the Floss. Middlemarch. When Lewes dies, she is 60 and finds solace in a strange 20-years younger dandy named Johnnie Cross. Her “honeymoon” with him is the titular plot line and it is a doozy. Beyond weird. Tore through 400-pages.

The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin
Dominick Dunne genre. Gossipy. Juicy. Dishy fiction. Truman Capote & Upper Fifth Avenue social x-rays of the 50’s-70’s. Women who traded on their looks to snag the richest if otherwise unappealing men of their time. Superficial. Lonely. Materialistic. Narcissistic. Yup. All of that. Bill & Babe Paley. Pamela Harriman. Name dropping on every page. If only half the stories were true. Light. Fun.

News of the World, Paulette Jiles
A short sweet novel. Jefferson “Captain” Kidd reads the news of the world, literally, to small town Texas folk in the 1870’s. The gentleman widower rides on horseback from town to town regaling people with tales from around the world for a dime. He is a welcomed attraction. Intellectual, articulate, well-mannered. Then. He accepts a mission to return a 10-year old girl who has been “rescued” from captivity by the Kiowa Indians to her relatives. Along the way adventures ensue and an endearing relationship is beautifully portrayed. Our second NYC book club pick. I was glad to have read it.

2016 Reviews

Siracusa, Delia Ephron
Two American couples and a tween-aged daughter of one travel to Sicily together. The daughter is a Greek chorus of sorts, cunning and addled by no fault of her own. A distant father and enmeshed mother exacerbate her inherent psychological tilt. The four adult characters tell their stories from parallel first person perspectives. This is an interesting device. But, needs to create distinct voices for each. It didn’t work. I found myself going back to each chapter-head too many times to find out who was telling his or her recollection. The voices sounded too similar. The author’s. None of the characters popped as people. Guessed the ending way too soon.  First NYC book club pick.

Hillbilly Elegy,  J.D. Vance
In a poignant and important memoir, J.D. Vance tells the story of his Appalachian white working-class life in the context of this year’s angry crude political mood. Futility is the focus in a tale of the generational subculture of poverty made worse by addiction and abuse. Hillbilly ElegyLike Glass Castle and Blood Bones & Butter, Hillbilly Elegy portrays individual triumph over family dysfunction beyond belief. In Vance’s case he makes the miraculous climb to become a Marine, Ohio State grad, Yale Law scholar. Even with all of that, he cannot escape his roots. They remain current in his struggle to overcome bouts of ire at the bleak prospects left to the kin, classmates and community he left behind. Add drug epidemic to the scene as in every small town America today. It puts into sharp focus the reasons for this election year’s desperate yearning for change.

Burning Down the House,  Jane Mendelsohn
A new novel which combines David Byrne’s classic Talking Heads songs with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in a new Broadway musical. Sounds cool. Right? Too bad it’s a minor aside to the main plot. What? Yup. Never a clear connection to the story of anti sex-trafficking causes. I don’t mind a political agenda. Just don’t pose it as a fictional work. Other that that. The cover attracted me to the depiction of the San Remo on the Upper West Side. Problem was. Everyone in the book lives either in the Village or on the Upper East Side. Calling all editors. Anyway. Liked the cover. Love David Byrne.

Modern Lovers, Emma Straub
Pretty lame story about two dysfunctional mom-partners who have a neglected needy daughter. A real estate agent friend of one of the moms was in a band with her and her needy husband. So two needy couples. Needy kids. Saving grace. Got to have a glimpse into what sounds like a cool place called Ditmas Park in Brooklyn.

Enter Helen, Brooke Hauser
This extensively researched biography is based on Helen Gurley Brown’s personal papers archived at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. HGB’s words vis a vis alums Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan cast its own sweet irony. As a woman who broke glass ceilings and loves men, I relate more to Helen’s career climb from secretary to corporate executive to editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. More than those of the so-called feminists of their time. Groundbreaking status-quo shake of the 1960’s and 1970’s. They all shattered stereotypes. In different ways. What sets Brooke Hauser’s work apart is that it has an element of surprise. As I read her telling of Sex and the Single Girl’s rise in the lightning careen of that transformative era, I was most struck by the author’s own revelations about what women of a certain age went through. Her take on historical events of MadMen-esque escapades within the context of culture-altering ramifications of assassinations and war made this an outstanding read. Hauser’s enthusiasm for Helen’s story jumps off the page. 

The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena
A very light chick mystery about an abducted baby. Nonetheless it was a fun read on a rainy weekend. Liked the twists and straightforward writing style.

The Double Life of Liliane, Lily Tuck
Singular bore. Never discovered the intriguing promise of a “double life”. She had divorced parents? Who lived in different places? Paris and Rome are cool. But, that’s it? Some famous of the times were glossed over. So what? Also, history was lightly touched. World Wars, Vietnam, too. Liliane could have been an interesting woman. She probably was. Should have made her one in this book. Snore. 

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg
Kept trying to stay with this one. It draws the reader in with a gripping story and compelling initial characters. Sets the scene of 1970’s seedy New York City. Anachronisms can be overlooked, such as certain neighborhoods would never have been considered as places to live then. As it goes along, writing trumps the people and the story. Hallberg’s use of language is brilliant. But, not every character has the intelligence nor wit to think the clever things Hallberg ascribes to them. That becomes jarring and distracts from the plot. Too bad. Needs to discriminate when it comes to the characters.

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
First of the Neopolitan quartet which made many “Best Of” lists last year, so I thought it worth a chance. But, could not warm up to the subject. Not a girlie friend dolls and such person. So that did not help me get involved. Second, the translation. I kept yearning to read the Italian. Maybe that would have made it more seductive and beautiful. As it was, the writing was stilted and clearly a translation. When you can tell, it is never good.

The Marriage of Opposites, Alice Hoffman
History meets Harlequin Romance. Another in the trend of veiling chick lit with a smattering of historical allusion. This one tells the story of Jews from Paris living in St. Thomas in the 1800’s. One of the women happens to be the mother of Camille Pissarro, the famous artist, but that is merely an afterthought to the hackneyed romance plot.

2015 Reviews 

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, David Lagercrantz
Amazing accomplishment. Keeping original characters true. Lagercrantz has written a fun sequel homage to Stieg Larsson’s Salander and Blomqvist. Fast-paced techno action drama in the spirit of Tattoo to Hornet’s Nest. Except for sugar-coated ending. Bravo.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, Natasha Pulley
Steampunk as a subgenre of fiction. Fantasy in a Victorian setting, using components of steam powered machinery to bend time and place. Until I read reviews, I’d never heard of it. Despite a lack of context of the literary genre, I loved this novel. Clockworks attract my fascination. Mori, a former Japanese Samurai turned watchmaker in Knightsbridge, London came to life. His relationship with Thaniel, a boring clerk, was real and endearing. His world of future telling and incendiary events captivates. Oxford physicist shakes the fantastical octopus. Well done debut. Great read.

Muse, Jonathan Galassi
Pastiche parfait. Reminiscent of St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words. Not as brilliant, but nevertheless a ludic success. Fast forward not too far to get to where books and words are obsolete. Wonderfully derivative yet original characters and realistic literary authors, works and themes. Clever satire from a writer who clearly loves books and laments their future demise. Ida Perkins beautifully drawn muse as were the publishers and Paul, Galassi’s autobiographical soul. Conjured so many greats of historical literature. Love for words reigned supreme.

Church of Marvels, Leslie Parry
Gritty Life Circus. A debut success. It does not rise to the lyrical edgy joy of Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus. This tale is more Robertson Davies’ World of Wonders. Dark. But, glowing writing makes up for it. Turn of the last century saga of tortured tattered lives on Coney Island and lower Manhattan. Endurance. Wit. A novel worth reading.

The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother and Me, Sofka Zinovieff
Hard cover bound with a pink ribbon bookmark. Delicious biography of a talented wealthy old dandy and his people playthings. Filled with artists, musicians, writers, politicians of the times. Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinsky, the Mitfords, the Lygons, Evelyn Waugh. Evolving decades of life at an Oxfordshire estate and its unlikely heirs. Fun read.

Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff
I almost put this book down a third of the way through. But, I read reviews that said that second part “Furies” was worth continuing. It was to some extent. I can’t say that I’m left knowing any of the characters nor caring about them. Mathilde is complicated but not evil enough to be interesting. She was deceptive to her hapless husband and cruel in many ways. Lotto (hated the name) was not that compelling. This couple came together as abandoned children deprived of parental love, and overcame some of it. They kept lots of secrets and there were holes in their souls. Redemptive denouement was weak.

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Weak women. Bad men. Yawn. No Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl to be sure. Here we have three needy, vulnerable competing current women tell their stories around an English train track. Intriguing literary device. Reductive in the end.

The Green Road, Anne Enright
Don’t like reading about the gruesome medical symptoms, tests, and diseases of adults or animals. So. Enright’s Road was a definite NO for me. Dismal tale about a dysfunctional family from anywhere. This one happened to be from the West of Ireland. I’ve been there. And there. In this gorgeous part of Ireland, people are friendly and the land lushly green. This story made it all disappear into a funky haze. Writing was mostly narrative and a bit weighty.

The Wonder Garden, Lauren Acampora
Each person’s tale is fraught with something unfulfilled. Trapped in a modern suburban New England enclave, these are lost souls behind upscale Colonial façades. The myth of rich and happy lives. Some find solace in arts and crafts. Others history and healing. All obsessive. Advertising man turned alternative drum circle medicine man did reach some spirits. However, none of their secrets were interesting enough. Nor their stories creepy enough. Wanted more Stepford meets Twin Peaks. Acampora does evoke the depressing futile undercurrent of human existence. Disappointing in the end.

At the Water’s Edge, Sarah Gruen
Loch Ness monster as backdrop to what turned out to be a bit better than a drug store romance novel during World War II. The ending slapped you so hard at the water’s edge right from the get go that it was hard to believe it actually went there. Rich Philadelphians with dysfunctional pasts, Maddie marries Ellis and gets his bestie Hank in the deal. She has little to no sex with either. Muddied waters as to Ellis and Hank’s real relationship although obviously Ellis was more than a little conflicted. They all end up in the Scotland Highlands looking for Nessie. But, not really. It’s just a ruse to save reputations and cover other colorless drunken intrigues. Bomb shelters. Gas masks. Maddie seems smart and assertive at times, yet inexplicably passive at others. The plot pretzels to get to the predictable ending were too easily untwisted. Another lame attempt to make more out of a romance novel with a smattering of history to give it heft.

Ruby, Cynthia Bond
Bond’s prose is beautiful and takes the reader into Ruby’s world. But, hard to love a novel that tells such a grisly depraved story of this poor little girl in the American Deep South in the 50’s and 60’s. Horrors heaped upon horrors tough to handle, even though many children probably did and do endure such things. Worse that demented violence came mostly at the hands of her own people. Churchgoing elder, Celia, was the most selfish and evil, the all too often woman who blames other women victims for their own abuse, holding deadly secrets as collateral. A slice of life that most of us will never understand.

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Won Pulitzer Prize. Not sure why. Another okay read from the best seller list. It wasn’t a fairy tale. Separate and parallel sagas of a French blind girl and German genius boy coming of age during WWII. Story and style juvenile, but matured as did its two protagonists. Should have remained focused on them.

The Magician’s Lie, Greer Macallister
More “Deptford World of Wonders” than “Night Circus” in the magic circuit and carnival train caravan to rural stages. The writing did not rise to Davies, however. It’s about Ada/Arden, a rare female magician at the turn of the century, and protégée of the first, Adelaide. Boyfriend manager Clyde re-connection a little far-fetched. Intertwined lives with similar names. No character came to life for me. Ray the most acutely drawn, was a study in stalker evil. If someone wants to do you harm, the only way to escape is through magic or murder. That was the good part of the story. Well done. Holt, the cop, was blurry and dreary. And, the contrivances to get us to the remarkable end were hard to swallow, like a bad fire-eater.  That said, a good read on a snowy weekend. 

Boston Girl, Anita Diamant
Implausibly syrupy story about a Jewish family at the turn of the century in Boston. City itself barely recognizable nor relevant. The smart, cute daughter of three, Addie Baum’s luck was incredible as she escaped the critical eye and neglect of her financially struggling immigrant parents to be welcomed into a high class world with summer trips to Rockport. What? Her sisters’ fates were also contrived if less happy. It was too women-y for me. Yiddish terms seemed forced with a smattering of contextual history. Very light read indeed.

The Good Neighbor, A.J. Banner
Fast and loose with an implausible plot. There are so many fact-checking flaws. How did this character know this about them? And her. And him. Bad editing, at best. This is a lightweight trite plot that had neon red herrings and an ending which was so easily guessed as to be surprising when it came true. Chick mystery without the gravitas of Nancy Drew. Eeyuu. Left it on the table of our summer rental with a bit of guilt. Hope they will let us come back.  

The Devil You Know, Elisabeth de Mariaffi
A dearth of good books so far this year, so a change of genre seemed like a good idea. This Canadian author’s debut novel is dubbed a literary thriller. The writing is crisp and clean, and the mystery has its moments, but the young reporter is so silly and the ending so lame as to ruin it. Anybody read a great book lately?

Carol’s Ratings List 2010-2017

Five Stars

Us, David Nicholls
Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn
The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Defending Jacob, William Landay
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
I Am Charlotte Simmons, Tom Wolfe

Four Stars

The Honeymoon, Dinitia Smith
Enter Helen,
Brooke Hauser
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
The Swans of Fifth Avenue,
Melanie Benjamin
The Girl in the Spider’s Web,
David Lagercrantz
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street,
Natasha Pulley
Muse,
Jonathan Galassi
Church of Marvels,
Leslie Parry
The Mad Boy, My Grandmother and Me,
Sofka Zinovieff
The Unknown Bridesmaid
, Margaret Forster
All Our Yesterdays, Erik Tarloff
The Heist, Dan Silva
The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies
The Sea The Sea, Iris Murdoch
The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe
An Unexpected Guest, Anne Korkeakivi
Derby Day, D.J. Taylor
Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller
That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena

Three Stars

News of the World, Paulette Jiles
City on Fire,
Garth Risk Hallberg
Siracusa, Delia Ephron
Fates and Furies,
Lauren Groff
The Wonder Garden,
Lauren Acampora
At the Water’s Edge,
Sarah Gruen
Ruby,
Cynthia Bond
The Girl on the Train,
Paula Hawkins
All the Light We Cannot See,
Anthony Doerr
The Magician’s Lie,
Greer Macallister
The Paying Guests
, Sarah Waters
The Children Act, Ian McEwan
Her, Harriet Lane
We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
The Secret Life of Violet Grant, Beatriz Williams
The Perfume Collector, Kathleen Tessaro
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Communion Town, Sam Thompson
The Perfect Prey, Jeroen Smit
Maya’s Notebook, Isabel Allende
The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
Snowdrops, A.D. Miller
Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton
The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

Two Stars

Weekenders, Mary Kay Andrews
Burning Down the House,
Jane Mendelsohn
Modern Lovers,
Emma Straub
The Marriage of Opposites,
Alice Hoffman
The Green Road,
Anne Enright
The Double Life of Liliane,
Lily Tuck
The Devil You Know,
Elisabeth de Mariaffi
The Boston Girl,
Anita Diamant
Clever Girl
, Tessa Hadley
The Good Neighbor, A.J. Banner
The Vacationers
, Emma Straub
The Tour, Jean Grainger
The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
Labor Day, Joyce Maynard
The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg
The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

Elaine’s RIP 2011. SanFran Book Club Reunion, March 2001.


Top Reviewer on Amazon

2014 Reviews

Us, David Nicholls
This novel paints a portrait of a modern English family with brushstrokes that hit the heart without being maudlin or sappy. A couple gets together for all the wrong yet right reasons at the time. They endure so much and find a kind of love over 20 years. Their son is the cistern that collects all of the pastel runoff and deals with it the best he can. A spare style brilliantly intertwining stories that culminate in the summer of very questionable choices, but make sense in the end. It is laugh out loud funny. But, never cry out loud sad. Best read of the year.

Lost for Words, Edward St. Aubyn
A  playful satire of the Man Booker literary prize commitee’s corrupt politics. As a short-lister himself, St. Aubyn takes aim at the process. The novel weaves the stories of fictional 2013 judges and candidates of the “Elysian Prize”, which is of course sponsored by Shanghai Global Assets. Capitalism gobbles art. On every page, St. Aubyn turns a phrase with precision and scandal. He creates passages from each author’s works that parody every modern genre of the day. The ironic twist of fate takes the cake. You can see it coming, but it doesn’t matter. The fun is in the reading. A ludic masterpiece.

The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
Period piece set in New Zealand during its 1860’s gold rush. That was not the lure. Yet, once I read the first few paragraphs, I was hooked. Do you usually skim the descriptive passages? Not here. 13 men form a coalition of truth. 3 women matter. An historical magical mystery tour. Life as astrological illusion.

The Heist, Dan Silva
Starts as a masterful art heist. Becomes a James Bondian thriller. Wikipedia-like research at times. Tourist landmarks in every global venue. What recommends this topical page-turner is the insight into Middle East cultural dynamics so up-to-the minute. Most interesting was the anecdotal history of the Assad family in Syria. The rest of it was pretty trite. Father Marco answers the phone. Okay. Really? It rambled around art, geopolitics, amour. Formulaic fun.

The Unknown Bridesmaid, Margaret Forster
Not a silly bridesmaids story. It is a serious look at how we are formed from our DNA as well as experiences as children. Julia was a young bridesmaid who no one recognizes in a family wedding photo years later. A troubled girl by nature, Julia is the observer of her own anti-social and just plain mean actions. Parallel stories told from her past to her present intertwine emotions and case studies which mirror her guilt-ridden mis-deeds. Although she never truly evolves, nor feels contrition, Julia is aware of her intrinsic lack of empathy. Not a study of triumph, but a recognition of how guilt and shame shape certain lives.

All Our Yesterdays, Erik Tarloff
This novel was billed as a ‘Big Chill’ derivative. Berkeley friends meet in college there and stay through adulthood. It was far more than that. It was a story of enduring love and good triumphing over evil. Zeke falls for his soul mate Molly in their early twenties. She strays for bad boy radical adventure and life happens to both of them. They reunite in a swirl of mayhem from the past. Zeke’s voice is authentic, poignant. His character the most deeply drawn. The narrative wavers a bit when the point of view changes and can get confusing. Some words and dialogue seem forced at times. But, nit-picking aside, I would recommend this read as well worth the investment.

The Paying Guests, Sarah Waters
A once grand Victorian house as stage for post-WWI English drama. The rooms and setting of the forlorn home are better drawn than its occupants. An uncomfortable and unlikely situation where a newlywed couple become renters of this rambling house, sharing an upstairs with the owner/quirky spinster daughter’s bedroom. She and her mother mostly live on the main level but the WC in the backyard has to be used by everyone so all are bumping into each other on landings and in the kitchen. A nightmare on its own.

Worse, the mother and daughter have lost their husband/father, sons/brothers in the war. They live a humdrum daily routine of chores, frustration and regret. The newlyweds aren’t much fun either. They have their own issues. Suffice it to say that it’s a bit dreary. Misandry muddled with major misdeeds dominate the theme. A little bit of boring sex. Lots of bloody mess. However, shocking events ensue and there is a reason to keep reading. It takes a couple hundred pages too long to get there, but the end is compelling.

The Children Act, Ian McEwan
Conflicted. Fiona Maye, an English family court Judge makes a caring ruling about Adam, a Jehovah’s Witness teen who is bound by the literal dogma he has been raised to believe. His parents and religious community are the fabric of his being. So, when the Judge frees the deeply talented and troubled young man, she gives him no safety net to fall into. Gillick Competence is an interesting concept for anyone of any age. Fiona made the best decision in that context. No Judge has the responsibility to do more than she did. Yet, Fiona’s detached actions in her work in Family Law, spilled into her marriage. It overlapped with her childless reality and becoming 60 years old. But, she was ultimately unlikeable. Yet, she couldn’t be blamed for what happened to Adam. He was too mired in his rigid religious constructs. Even though it was anticipated, one is left unsettled.

Her, Harriet Lane
Hell hath no fury like a daughter scorned. Hell is too cool for “Her”, Harriet Lane’s horrible Nina. Personification of veiled hatred and evil. If only Joan Crawford were around to play the lead. She is the only one who could. Chilling read. It is hard to imagine a seemingly loving mother do these things to another. The parallel stories sometimes seemed muddled, and slow at spots. But, it was hard not to want to know what made Nina tick. In the end, it never felt as if the rationale justified her actions. Clearly, she was insane. Had to throw the book in the trash bin after I finished. Bad karma.

We Were Liars, E. Lockhart
Cadence is a troubled yet privileged teen. She was not appealing for good reason as you’ll read. Neither was her Sinclair family. 3 cloistered divorcees and their nasty patriarch on their own private island off Massachusetts. Forbes-esque? Nashon Island? Anyway. The mystery was well done. Parallel fairy tales interspersed added to the intrigue. Tragic consequences of misguided teens. More than Cadence and the other characters, I did like the cadence of E. Lockhart’s writing. Poetic at times. The intonations and musicality struck my fancy. Liked the crisp clean style. A quick porch read worth a day or two.

Reviews 2011-2013

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
Dickens meets Nietzsche meets Dostoevsky in Tartt’s third novel. The Goldfinch, Fabritius’ master painting, is the centerpiece of this epic tale. It becomes young Theodore Decker’s only glimmer of light as his life is blown to smithereens one afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum post- 9/11. As fate fractures, the tethered bird on the shelf also foretells shackles of self-loathing. Theo’s teen years are collateral damage of adults’ bad choices. Even when he’s given sanctuary, he rarely feels worthy. Life with an eccentric wealthy uptown family is muddled. In the Village, he apprentices with an antiques restorer father-figure, but later squanders opportunities. He spends tedious amount of chapters in another American locale, where the saga goes sour. We all waste way too much time with stereotypically corrupt Ukranian “friend” Boris. All semblance of clarity is lost in an increasingly substance-abused haze ending in Amsterdam. Would I recommend this book? I kept returning to it, hoping that Theo would kick his demons. It’s an absurdist journey. Tartt leaves the reader with art as hope and redemption. Without it, life is left both troubled and empty.

The Night CircusErin Morgenstern
A magical clockworks metaphor, it’s a tightly wound time piece. Nocturnal wonderment. Transcendent love. Boundless imagination. Morgenstern’s first novel is a tour de force.  5 stars. As you read it, and you must, pay close attention to chapter headings and dates. When I finally got the “Bailey” joke, I laughed out loud. Morgenstern writes with gorgeous detail about clothing design, decor, dance, architecture. This was one of the best books I’ve read in a very long time.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
Nothing can prepare for the journey designed by Flynn’s cleverly structured story. It is anything but a formulaic plot. Well-developed real characters. Everyone can relate to many aspects of this couple’s relationship. But, hopefully not everything. They take it to a new level of complication. Hyperbole? Yes. It leaves the reader with a conflicted reaction to these two people. That’s good.

Spoiler Sequel Alert!  The only way Nick will be able to protect himself and his family will be to do away with Amy. It will come down to his loved ones or her.

Defending Jacob, William Landay
A legal mystery that gut-wrenchingly explores nature vs. nurture. An horrific family crisis turns blithe normalcy into a twisted tempest of contempt, blame, guilt. A 35-year marriage changes in a day. Regrets. Redemption? Compelling.

Wolf  Hall, Hilary Mantel
Mantel takes us inside Thomas Cromwell and his mature macro worldly view. She changes Cromwell’s voice from first to third to omniscient with a literary facility that transcends tense and time. In doing so, she reduces Henry VIII and the English aristocracy to parochial, debauched, naive pawns.

The Deptford Trilogy, Robertson Davies
Written in the 1970’s. Three unique novels revolve around the murder/death of Boy Staunton from Deptford, a rural village in Ontario, Canada. But, more so, lifelong ramifications of the flight of an errant snowball on three boys. 

Pre-WWI, the first novel, Fifth Business, is told from Dunstan Ramsay’s point of view. He is an unwitting catalyst in the snowball saga and his obsession with its victim and her family. It was an okay story, but the writing kept me captivated.

The Manticore is the story of Boy’s family from his son David’s perspective. It focused on Jungian theory of psychology. Other than an interesting education about that school of thought, nothing about this novel really made sense for books 1 and 3. Anima/Shadow maybe.

The third book, my favorite, World of Wonders, was a tragic intricate tale told by the snowball victim’s premature baby turned magician. It takes us from the depths of Deptford to London, Paris, the mountains of Switzerland. The most colorful book of the three that tied up plot lines intriguingly.

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles
Written by a man, the voice is decidedly feminine. Disconcerting in a good way. New York-phillic, it’s an architectural nod to the landmarks and real estate in their heyday. A slice of late-30’s Village, Jazz, Upper Manhattan Swell Scene. Sparkling twenty-something lives; some that fade with time, others shine. Longed for more Evie, Valentine.

Derby Day, D.J. Taylor
An homage to the Victorian novel. Taylor deftly conjures the genre. He defies any period in his portrayal of Rebecca, the central female figure. She is the epitome of enigmatic evil. Delicious. More Hardy than Thackeray, Taylor paints bleak Lincolnshire countryside mist or decrepit Fitzrovia alley blight with a finer brush than Belgrave Square’s West End Society.

The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
Runner-up to Wolf Hall for the 2010 Booker Prize it’s 900 pages of twisted wonderland starring a wicked mother. The Carroll-esque maze of subterranean tales is interspersed with dysfunctional family drama in pre-WWI England. Byatt gets mired a bit in social, political, artistic mores of the day. Reading as a writer, it’s a lesson in ‘know when to end it’. Yet, it’s a compelling sojourn on sultry nights under the porch light.

That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
Marriage in the ‘sandwich years’. Relatable to us of a certain age. Coming to grips with elderly parents, young adult kids while our generation is trying to navigate retirement and the next phase. It ain’t easy to make sense of life in that context. Russo shines a sweet glimmer of hope in this light yet poignant quick novel.

The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
This wonderful story draws you up the gangplank of the Oronsay as it sets sail from Ceylon and engrosses until it docks in England in the 1950’s. Three young boys form a tight trio of cast-offs, members of a remote table of secretive passengers adrift in their respective worlds. I’m no fan of cats. But the cats v. dogs metaphor is subtle and beautifully intertwined in story lines portrayed against the dominant backdrop of the ship’s intrigues. A voyage from childhood’s unencumbered innocence to muddled adult memories crashes on the rocks of atonement and forgiveness. Ondaatje’s the writer in this cubistic reminiscence.

The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
Moriarty successfully conflates non-fiction and fiction. A soon-to-be famous true-life actress, Louise Brooks, and her chaperone Cora face childhood demons on a trip from Kansas to New York in the 1920’s. Cora’s profound epiphany emanates from her meeting with the past and the realization that life should not be bound by superficial morality.

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, Elizabeth Speller
Downton Abbey meets Easton. As with Downton this year, the brutally devastating impact of World War I is sharply drawn in daily English country life at Easton. Heiress of the manor, little Kitty’s accidental disappearance provokes pervasive rampant guilt upstairs, downstairs, all around the village. Plot twists and turns, an ancient church, a maze. Fun not to have guessed the ending.

The Sea The Sea, Iris Murdoch
1978 ManBooker Prize Winner. Good writing stands the test of time. Muddled relationships. Obsessive possession. Nothing is ever as it seems in a ramshackle antique on a rocky English shore. Wonderful read.

Back to Blood, Tom Wolfe
Although this work does not rise to the brilliance of Bonfire of the Vanities, or I Am Charlotte Simmons, there is no one who can coin a culture like Tom Wolfe. Sharp, keen, stripped bare to the bone. Society, humanity, individual vulnerability. Glad I pre-ordered before all the reviews are in. Another cherished journey courtesy of one of our greatest writers. Miami as a glimpse into the global demographic tipping point.

Snowdrops, A.D. Miller
This short Man Booker short-listed novel got mixed reviews in our house. I thought the narrator’s confession style was good, but the story of a mature man getting sucked in by two pretty Russian grifters silly. Dr.Husband found this ex-pat’s descent into debauchery and immoral behavior under the spell of corrupt modern Russia compelling. There you go.

The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer
Six New York kids meet at a summer arts camp in the Berkshires during their 70’s high school years. They call themselves “The Interestings”. Mostly they are not, except for Ethan. He has real talent as a cartoonist and creator of an imaginary world. It becomes a long-running television show in the Simpsons or FamilyGuy genre. He is forever smitten with the middle-class girl from Long Island who is on scholarship to the camp. But, she forever can only love him as a friend. She ends up having a mundane existence with an average depressed husband. Ethan marries the camp group’s rich girl from the Upper West Side and they become jet-set class. The 2 couples stay “friends”. As the rich couple gets richer, the inevitable envy ensues. But, of course, the really rich couple has its own problems, which leaves middle-class camp friend schadenfreudey.

The Perfect Prey, The Fall of ABN AMRO, or What Went Wrong in the Banking Industry, Jeroen Smit
After the April 2014 tragic family murder-suicide by former CEO Schmittmann was reported in the NY Post, I did some research as an ABN AMRO Bank alum and former Managing Director. I found this paperback and it read like a novel. The story was well told and compelling- the demise of a once prestigious global financial institution. A lot of the players are known to me from my tenure at the Bank in San Francisco and Boston in the 80’s and 90’s. Lex Kloosterman, my former boss, went on to Fortis and was instrumental in the tale and ultimate sale with Mr. Schmittmann. Probably not a wide audience for this book. I would recommend it as an allegory- too big yet failed. A moral tragedy.

The Secret Life of Violet Grant, Beatriz Williams
After A Hundred Summers, I expected a light read. This novel’s 1960’s era Vivian is a smart, independent Manhattanite journalist and her connection with Dr. Paul seemed both plausible and interesting until the plot just went berserk in a direction that even a soap opera would be ashamed to try. That did it for me. Inconsistent and silly. Her “Aunt” Violet’s mysterious story from 2 generations past is compelling and kept me finishing the book.

Maya’s Notebook, Isabel Allende
Men portrayed as strong, caring characters. Refreshing. Maya is the story’s young tortured woman protagonist. Her quirky Chilean Grandma Nidia’s men are her heroes. Nidia’s husband is Maya’s beautifully drawn African-American Berkeley Grandpa. Her Popo. When he died I cried. Nidia’s lifelong Chilean friend, Manuel Arias is a stalwart in its remote archipelago, with whom Maya goes to stay. Both are loving forces who bring spirituality and magic to Maya’s world. Nidia’s best friend, an Irish social worker in Berkeley is a third influential male force in Maya’s life.  Good men and a good read.

Communion Town, Sam Thompson
Loosely absurd. Allegorical characters in ten chapters depicting mortals, para-persons and monsters in parallel universes. Mostly. I think. Although well-written, it came off as a tad self-indulgent and lyrically pretentious. I kept searching for the thread that connected each piece. This intricately imagined City could have provided a perfect architecture for ten distinct yet intertwined short stories. It just didn’t. I guess Thompson was attempting the Persian rug as a foundational concept for his work. Each thread exists on its own. But, neither Sartre nor Camus is he. For me.

An Unexpected Guest, Anne Korkeakivi
A day in the life of American-born Clare living as the wife of a Brit ambassador in Paris. Her obsession with an old boyfriend goes beyond reason. Maybe it’s just me, but this guy Niall and her behavior with him as a young adult did not warrant her excessive fretting. Especially as she mostly neglects her children to put on diplomatic dinner parties in the present. Her tolerant husband never gets her heart nor soul. The political preaching was a distracting stretch. On the upside, detailed descriptions of les rues, food, event prep. Servants in supporting roles were good.

The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
Marriage Plod. It’s never good when you start skimming the first pages of a novel. There were too many skippable spots. Tedious listings which read like BrownU’s syllabi of the early 80’s in Derrida deconstruction detail. Relevance was in then. A mangled menage a trois struggles with religion, manic depression, and feminism. The triangle confronts difficult life choices after college with some compassion and strength of character. I did like the ending.

Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead
This first novel is a split lobster. A weekend wedding on a Nantuckety island focuses on silly problems of the very rich. Written by a woman, it is told from a father’s point of view about having daughters. Winn’s inability to relate to the women in his life is both poignant and distasteful. But well-done. His social-climbing wanna-be-WASP obsession was annoying. As was the ending.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef , Gabrielle Hamilton
Glass Castle-esque memoir. Gabrielle Hamilton learns butchering and natural cooking from erratic eccentric parents in a ramshackle Pennsylvania silk mill. When she finds herself on her own at 14, she survives by working in catering and camp kitchens from Northampton to New York City. Sporting scars, tatoos, and drug history of a migrant cook, she develops into a wife, mother, featured food writer and James Beard award-winning chef. Her acclaimed East Village restaurant, Prune, opened 1999.

It’s no wonder that Northampton restaurateur Linda Schwartz didn’t recognize her former quirky college line cook from the 80’s. “After retiring from the restaurant business in the 90’s, Schwartz became a culinary arts professor and enjoyed reading essays by a young food writer who shared her distaste for pretentious chefs posing at farmers’ markets with baskets on their arms. Schwartz learned that this writer, Gabrielle Hamilton, had opened a restaurant called Prune in New York. Schwartz couldn’t wait to go to meet her, so went to the East Village and introduced herself to Hamilton after dinner. Looks of familiarity passed between them. Hamilton shrieked, ‘I worked for you when I was at Hampshire College!’ This sophisticated chef-owner looked very different from the avant-garde student who worked at Curtis & Schwartz Cafe back in the day.” –excerpted from Table’s Edge, 2005.

The Vacationers, Emma Straub
Problems of the 1%. Beach read pure and simple. Rich New Yorkers rent a beautiful home on Mallorca. They all have issues which get mostly resolved during their two week island vacation. Gorgeous Mallorcan boy toy provides eye candy. If it’s the only book in your beach bag, it’ll get you through the day. Or, just take a long summer nap.

The Tour, Jean Grainger
A short very very sweet read. Ms. Grainger led tours of Ireland for twelve years, and this must be a compilation of her fantasy group of nine. Great literature it is not. Badly in need of copyediting. I’m not sure how this indie paperback found its way to my shelf. But, if you like things Ireland, its tourist landmarks, a one-dimensional history lesson, syrupy contrived story lines and ludicrously happy endings and you find it on your shelf, give it a quick go.

The Paris Wife, Paula McLain
Ernest Hemingway’s early years after World War I when he lived in Paris, skiied in Austria, and was married to first wife Hadley from St. Louis. During this period he frequently traveled to Spain where he became obsessed with the bullfighting corridas, producing ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and later ‘Death in the Afternoon’. It’s hard to believe that Hemingway and all of the famous and notorious of the times could be portrayed as boring as they seem in this novel. John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald, painted as pale characters. Hemingway and especially Hadley are drawn as two-dimensional, vapid lovers. Found it absurd.

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst
Strange book. It’s the contorted, hacked up tale of a semi-famous mediocre gay poet who dies fighting for England in WWI. As generations evolve, other gay guys become obsessed with him. The author seems to think every guy is gay whether they know it or not. OK. Finally, a vengeful gay jerk decides to “out” the dying old hapless central female character, Daphne, for being a slut. A big so what. The only thing to recommend this novel is that it gave me something to read by flashlight in the Oct ’11 snow storm

A Hundred Summers, Beatriz Williams
I knew what I was getting. I wanted a light read for a few days on the beach. The characters were stereotypically girlie, even the guys. Idiotic loyalties for no particular reason to frenemies beyond the pale. Yes, we all know mothers and friends like this, but at some point, get a backbone! I guessed the hackneyed plot after a very few chapters. It didn’t have much historical heft, either. Research was lacking and location references flawed. For example, Smith College, Massachusetts was the heading of chapters as if it were a place. Later in the book, it correctly referred to Smith College being in Northampton, Ma. But, pancakes served at a nearby diner were said to be the best in the Berkshires. Smith and Northampton are not in the Berkshires, but in Hampshire County. The writing itself was good enough and book was long enough that it kept me reading on the beach. It served that purpose.

The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg
I love food. This book made me lose my appetite. Subject, style, story. Heavy, bland, brisket. A Jewish family deals with over-eating disorders, surgeries, disease, divorce. Blech. A slice of life better left on the plate.

Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
It is the sequel to Wolf Hall, which was wonderful and deserved the ManBooker in 2010. I strongly disagree with this choice. How can you make the story of Ann Boleyn boring? Seeing it through Cromwell’s eyes had so much potential. Bring Up the Bodies doesn’t rise to Mantel’s usual standard. Cromwell was a complex, well-developed, empathetic character in Wolf Hall. In this sequel, he and all of the characters are two-dimensional names that fleet by and crowd a drab narrative. Lazy rehashed research. Poorly crafted plot.

Porch Lights, Dorothea Benton
Betsey Levine’s review:
“Summer beach read and so much of it was familiar to me. Used to vacation on Pawley’s Island and eat at restaurants on Murrell’s Inlet so I was able to visualize the area. Also, when my great-grandson Henry was born said I didn’t want to be called Granny or Great Granny, I wanted the children to call me Glamma and little Charlie in the book called his grandmother Glam.  I was right at home from start to finish. Also, Dr. Steve’s last name was Plofker. If I didn’t cover pudding with saran wrap it would form a skin on top that my husband, Ellis, called plufker. Yup, I was right at home. In her acknowledgments the author admitted that she used the real names of her friends as characters in the book.  There really is a Steve Plofker. I figured that she wouldn’t have made that name up.”

15 thoughts on “Book Treks

  1. The Postmistress is worse than The Help. But perhaps marginally better than The Little Book. I’m ready to throw it down.

    Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes is just terrific!!

  2. Favorite of the year was truly Wolf Hall, a masterful portrait of human beings. I can’t wait for the sequel.
    Right now I am enjoying The Hare with Amber Eyes, about a European (Russia, Vienna, Paris) Jewish family of bankers and what the events of the mid-twentieth century did to them and the collection of Japanese netsukes belonging to one. This is a true story in the form of a novel and beautiful.
    I must put in a vote for Room, hard to read and impossible to put down.
    Also loved The Immortal Life of Henriett Lacks, The Imperfectionists, The Finkler Question and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin who wrote that beautiful book, The Master.

    • Thanks for your great article. I will be posting about it soon and have actually submitted an “anxiety” essay to the Times because of your inspiration. Even if it isn’t published, it was cathartic.

      Carol

      • That’s great, Carol. I wish you the best of luck with it. I found the editor of that series to be extremely thoughtful in his approach and easy to work with. I haven’t met many people other than myself with the financial/writing transition in life. People seem to think the analytical and creative don’t go together, but I think they do.

  3. Since you’ve supported Roland Merullo’s work in the past, I wanted to let you know that Roland has chosen my firm, PFP / AJAR Contemporaries to publish the sequel to his highly successful book, Breakfast with Buddha. The new novel is entitled Lunch with Buddha and will be released on November 13th. We’ve launched a Kickstarter Campaign to support promotional efforts etc. Some additional info can be found here: http://www.lunchwithbuddha.com
    Thank you very much, Peter

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