In Woman No. 17 Edan Lepucki, author of the dystopian debut California (on my to-read list), captures the hazy aura of summertime in Los Angeles. The plot revolves around Lady, a complicated mother of two sons, a teenager and a toddler, and S, the nanny she hires to take care of her toddler and live in the pool cottage behind her house. Lady is on a break from her husband and S, who fancies herself an artist, is determined to make some kind of mark on the world. Things get messy.
Though the back cover touts this book as a “sinister, sexy noir,” I just found it sadly tiresome. Lady and S are narcissists, emotionally damaged by their own mothers’ demons and inadequacies, and bent on disrupting whatever calm settles around them. While Lepucki is clearly a gifted writer and I’m looking forward to reading California, I was happy to leave this liquor-soaked, self-obsessed world of “posh” LA behind.
Wow. This book kept me up past midnight, furiously flipping page after page towards the bloody end and listening intently to the creaks and noises in my silent house with wide open eyes.
Beth Lewis’ The Wolf Road is intense and unflinching, terrifying and great. Looking for a well-written and suspenseful beach read? Well, here you go. (Maybe don’t read it in the forest in the dark by yourself.)
Like Nettie Lonesome, the heroine in Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, Lewis’ Elka is a strong young female protagonist fighting for survival and connection in a cruel, dangerous world. After a huge storm, Elka is taken in by Trapper, a quiet hunter harboring a secret. When Elka discovers the truth about Trapper, she escapes into the wilderness to survive. But will she survive with Trapper nipping at her heels?
The setting is post-apocalyptic, but not overtly so. The remote Canadian wilderness Elka escapes into is alive with trees and wildlife, but crater lakes formed by Russian bombs leak chemicals into the Earth, and mentions of old wars and bombs that destroyed large swaths of North America are peppered throughout the book and inform the fierce survivalist nature of the characters.
Diksha Basu’s debut novel The Windfall is light and funny, a quick read after my last book, The Name of the Wind.
Set in Delhi and New York, the story follows the newly rich Mr. and Mrs. Jha as they move from the housing complex where they’ve lived for years in East Delhi to the exclusive part of the city where everyone belongs to the Luxury Recreation Club and the neighbors constantly attempt to one-up each other. We’re also privy to the failings of their son who is secretly dating a white woman while at university in America, and their lonely widowed neighbor, the beautiful Mrs. Ray, as she searches for companionship.
Basu is a great writer of dialogue. The conversations between the characters are hilarious and sometimes cringe-worthy, and cleverly reveal the desires, expectations, fears, and inadequacies of the characters themselves.
About a month ago my husband asked what I like about fantasy books and, in all seriousness, I told him: “I just love magic.” He laughed. Loudly.
If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning of the year, you’ll know that I am new to the genre and am now on the hunt for well-written epic/high historical fantasy books with plenty of, yep, magic… preferably with a great cover treatment, which is surprisingly hard to find in that section of the bookstore.
So after reading about Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, praised by beloved fantasy writers like Ursula Le Guin and Terry Brooks, as well as genre aficionados, I was excited because MAGIC.
The coming-of-age story is a familiar one. A brilliant young boy named Kvothe, raised amid a band of traveling players, escapes death, endures loss, poverty and hunger, attends wizard university, gains some enemies, falls in love. There is conflict, longing, heartbreak, adventure, and some wizardly magic.
It’s a huge 700+ page book that took me 200 hundred pages to get into and a long week to get through. With a heavy edit and a greater focus on world-building it could have been fast-paced and intensely readable. As it was, my interest flagged towards boredom at various points, and I could never fully picture the characters or the world they inhabited.
Debut novel The Leavers by Lisa Ko tackles the Chinese immigrant experience in America from the perspectives of Deming Guo and his undocumented mother Peilan/Polly.
When Polly disappears one day, leaving eleven-year-old Deming in New York without explanation, money, or hope, her friends are forced to put him up for adoption. He is adopted by two white academics and renamed Daniel. Deming/Daniel’s adopted parents are well-meaning but emotionally clueless and culturally ignorant, unwilling or unable to recognize Deming’s old life, his fragile emotional state, and the unresolved loss of his birth mother.
Most of the relationships in this book are borderline uncomfortable and fraught, the characters hold each other at arm’s length and are divided by miscommunications and unspoken assumptions; they are unable to truly connect. While I understand the way this emotional divide gives voice to the immigrant experience, shows a cultural identity and character arc in flux, and explores a “them” and “us” dynamic, I ultimately felt sadly indifferent about the characters, couldn’t fully comprehend their decisions, and was left feeling lackluster about the story by the end of the book.
My book club mostly reads contemporary fiction but this month we decided to read and discuss Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus. Despite being a National Book Award finalist and receiving praise and accolades from multiple media outlets, we didn’t love the book.
Montgomery structures her narrative around visits to the New England Aquarium where she meets and interacts with a few different Octopuses and profiles the folks who care for them, and includes a basic overview of the body/brain of the octopus and some historical and cultural references. Overall the book is very repetitive (if I had to read one more paragraph about the author sticking her hand into the octopus tank I might gouge my eyes out) and I kept wishing Montgomery would focus less on her general awe of the octopus, and more on the octopus itself.
#50!! And just like that I’m halfway to my goal to read 100 books by the end of the year…
One of the things I appreciated about Berkeley-based Thi Bui’s gorgeously illustrated graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, is that she opens her book with an intense birth. She is in labor with her son, and, by way of her lovely illustrations, we are in the moment with her. I couldn’t help but find a parallel between the “birth” of the book, the creative impulse, and Bui’s labor, the creation of life; the book opens, she opens, the story unfolds, a life is brought forth.
The Best We Could Do is a story of life and survival, of family and identity. Bui tells the story of growing up between two cultures, the story of her parents – where they grew up in Vietnam, how they met, the dreams of their youths, the realities of adulthood. It is the story of a country and a people torn apart, by colonization, by the Vietnam War. It is the story of refugees. It is powerful and memorable, a fascinating and evocative read.
Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass is intimate and insightful and achingly beautiful and I loved it.
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, the sweet sting of memory, of aging.
“How do you suppose time works? A slippery succession of long hours adding up to ever-shorter days and years that disappear like falling dominoes? Near the end of her life Grace Paley once remarked that the decades between fifty and eighty feel not like minutes but seconds. I don’t know yet if this is the case, but I do know this: the decades that separate that young mother making her lists from the middle-aged woman discovering them feel like the membrane of a giant floating bubble. A pinprick and I’m back there. But is she here? How can I tell her that her lists will not protect her?”
Looking for a great Mother’s Day gift? Buy this.
Swedish author Fredrik Backman is a master storyteller. His novels, full of idiosyncratic characters and expertly-crafted dialogue, are heartwarming and entertaining, hypnotizing and transporting.
Where A Man Called Ove, which I read and loved back in January, centers on old cantankerous Ove and his fraught relationship with the world, the main character in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is Elsa, age 7. Her best and only friend is her quirky grandmother who weaves a world of fairy tales for Elsa, regularly stirs up trouble, and who dies suddenly leaving Elsa a task: to deliver apology letters to the folks she’s wronged and left behind. Backman’s characters leap off the page, they come to life fully flawed and perfectly odd, in a wonderful story that is funny and poignant, and rich with imagination. Another great read.