03 November 2017

July, August, September, October Book Report

Guys - I can't believe I forgot to do a book report for so many months!  To be honest, I was pretty proud of myself, thinking I'd only missed three months, but as you can see that's not the case.  Sigh.

I'm hoping I'll get back to being more regular about these, but in the meantime, here's what I read and what I thought about it over the past four months.

A Catered Fourth of July, by Isis Crawford.  A quick, holiday-themed mystery that I read over the long holiday weekend.  Bernie and Libby are catering a re-enactment of a local event that may or may not have actually happened in their town during colonial times.  When the local man-about-town is killed by a musket to the face, they undertake an investigation to clear Libby's boyfriend Marvin, who was in charge of picking things up and delivering them to the re-enactment site.

There are a lot of red herrings, and the final resolution was more complex than usual.  But it was a fun holiday read.

The Gilded Hour, by Sara Donati.  Well.  I only gave this book two stars because I got really irritated by it by the time I was at the end.

Topics in this historical fiction novel:
1. Women physicians in 1880s New York City, one of whom is mixed race.
2. Issues related to orphaned poor children during this time.
3. Andrew Comstock and his crusade against birth control and particularly abortion.  (An actual person and his actual crusade.)

The main characters are Anna and Sophie Savard, cousins who are both graduates of Women's Medical College.  Both of them work to treat the poor of the city; Anna as a surgeon, and Sophie as an obstetrician.  Through her work, Anna becomes involved with the lives of four Italian orphans - two girls and two boys, one a baby - and eventually brings the two girls to live with her and her family, while they try to determine what became of the the boys, and where they were placed.  She meets a cop, Jack Mezzanotte, who not only helps her, but eventually becomes her husband.  Sophie marries her childhood sweetheart and they go to Europe for an experimental cure for his tuberculosis.

One day when Sophie is unavailable, a patient of hers is brought to the hospital where Anna works, near death.  Anna realizes that the woman either tried to perform an abortion on herself, or someone terribly unqualified has basically butchered her.  Enter Andrew Comstock, who insists that Anna and Sophie are responsible for illegal abortions, and they face a trial.  Though cleared of all charges, more and more women begin to show up who have died or are dying after brutal abortion procedures.  Anna, Jack, and Jack's partner all begin to investigate.

So - interesting stuff, right?  Well, the last part of the book focuses almost completely on Anna and Jack's courtship and marriage.  Lots of descriptions of passion, etc.  Some resolution occurs in finding out about the orphaned brothers of the two girls living with Anna, and they get to the point of finding two individuals who very well may be responsible for the deadly abortions.

At this point, I felt that things would get interesting again because the story was barreling towards catching the criminals, and it was REALLY interesting.  But what happens?  The last part of the book entails Anna and Jack spending a day with his family so they can meet Anna, and ends with them sitting together at the end of the day talking about how lucky they are.

The book is 700+ pages long.  And was unfortunately time wasted, at least as far as I'm concerned.

This book will fill the "Historical Fiction" square on my Summer Book Bingo.

The Dogs of Rome, by Conor Fitzgerald.  I started this book, and decided to give up.

It's about an American-born detective working in Italy, investigating the murder of an animal-rights activist.  I stopped reading because the main suspect early in the book is a person running dog fights, and the main character doesn't like dogs.  All of which would be upsetting enough to me, but today is the day we have to take our oldest kitty to the vet for the last time, and I just couldn't read the book any more.  Since I didn't feel invested in any of the characters,  it's not that big of a deal.

I am however, counting this for my Summer Book Bingo square, "Debut."

Maybe some day I'll give it another try, but right now it's not happening.

While My Pretty One Knits, by Anne Canadeo.  I started and finished this book in one day.  It was a good cozy mystery.

Maggie Messina owns a yarn store called The Black Sheep.  At the beginning of the book, she is hosting a booksigning for one of her students from her former life (as a high school art teacher), and is excitedly preparing, with the friends from her knitting group helping out.  A woman named Amanda Goran, who owns a shop in another part of town, shows up and seems very excited about the event the next day.  Which is odd, because ever since Maggie opened her shop, Amanda has made her life hell.

The next morning at the beginning of the booksigning program and demo, one of the group arrives late, with the news that Amanda Goran has been bludgeoned to death and that her husband found her in the shop.  Maggie immediately becomes a suspect, along with Amanda Goran's husband, from whom she was separated, and who becomes a suspect as well.

Maggie's friends are determined to help her clear her name, and only when one of them finds an unlikely clue as a result of adopting one of Amanda's dogs, do we learn the truth.

A good read, especially on a day that was particularly sad for me.  Good enough to be distracting and not requiring intense concentration.  For that, I will always be grateful.

The Beach Street Knitting Society and Yarn Club, by Gil McNeil.  This book was not what I was expecting - no, it was much better!

When the book opens, Jo McKenzie is trying to keep her two young sons entertained until the moving trucks arrive to move them from London to a beachside town about an hour away, where her grandmother lives, and where Jo will take over the wool shop, since her Gran is ready to retire.  Jo is a former BBC television producer who has since become a stay-at-home mom.  When her husband Nick (who still works for the BBC) returned from a trip, and told her he was in love with someone else, her life was turned upside down.  But that same evening, when Nick left the house, he was killed in a fatal car accident.  Jo's Gran wants to help her get back on her feet, and Jo is looking forward to a fresh start.

At first, things seem iffy.  The remaining woman working in the wool shop, Elsie, is a long-timer, who doesn't like change, and resents Jo's ideas and to some degree, even her presence.  But things move along.  Jo relies on her best friend Ellen, a new anchor at the BBC, for support and sanity.

As things move along, Jo and her boys feel more and more at home, and begin making friends through school and through the Stitch and Bitch evenings at the shop.  When a major movie star who is pregnant stops in the shop to escape the paparazzi, she and Jo begin a friendship, and Jo even teachers her to knit.

OK, that is the basic plot, but this book has much more.  There is humor, feelings that actual people have, and even many of the supporting characters are so well done, they seem to be real people.  This book is like meeting new friends and hearing all their stories, warts and all.  I was impressed with this book, and feel that it would appeal to non-knitters as well.

This book is not saccharine, and Jo's main interest in life is not romance.  There are shades of romance, and maybe something big down the road, but it's not one of those I-hope-I-can-find-a-new-man stories.

Speaking From Among the Bones, by Alan Bradley.  I will say right off that I love Flavia de Luce!  Alan Bradley really makes her come to life, and she is beyond entertaining to me.

Flavia's latest adventure has her trying to determine who killed the organist at St. Tancred's church.  A lot is going on, as it is the 5ooth anniversary of the death of the saint, and they are planning to open his tomb.  But Flavia's investigation leads to her some shocking and macabre discoveries related to St. Tancred, the church graveyard, and some other residents of Bishop's Lacey.  At the same time, Buckshaw, the beloved de Luce family home, is being put up for sale!

This was an enjoyable read, and though it doesn't fit into my Summer Book Bingo, it's another book that helped to keep my mind occupied and pleased during a hard time in my personal life.  And the last line in the book is not just a real surprise, but could be a major game-changer for the de Luce family!

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren.  I threw in the towel on this one.  I made myself read at least half of it, thinking that it would "catch on" but it just did not.  I had looked forward to reading it, and was pleased when it was my turn on the library's hold list.  It had a lot of good reviews, and I knew people who enjoyed it.

The book is the story of the author's love of science, and her life as a scientist.  Interested in the natural world from the time she was a child (her father was a science professor), she always wanted to succeed in that world.  As an adult, she learns that it's not that simple, since a) she is a woman, and b) most academics rely on government funding for their research, and there's a small pool of money for a lot of candidates.

She also talks about a personal relationship with a laboratory assistant who is an odd character, and talks a lot about the inner life of trees and plants.

There's a lot of potential here, but I just don't think the author is a very good writer.   So this will be a book I don't finish.

This will, however, count in my Summer Book Bingo as "Recommended by another Book Bingo player."

The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson.  I really liked this book.  It was what I had hoped it would be, which is an evocative tale of time and place.  Rye is a small town in East Sussex, England, and it is the last summer before England enters World War I.  The people in the town are busy with their usual activities, and the social hierarchy is well in place.

Agatha Kent is a little bit nervous, as she has convinced the powers that be to hire a woman (!), Beatrice Nash, as the Latin teacher at the local school.  Many are already suspicious that a woman could successfully handle young boys, much less teach Latin, and when Beatrice arrives, she is a little bit more independent than anyone was expecting.

Agatha Kent's nephews are also visiting for the summer.  Hugh is a medical student, and his cousin Daniel is a self-described artist and poet.  They are a close group, particularly since Agatha's husband John, works as a government official in London.

This is a quiet book about a time when people were not convinced such a thing as a war would really happen - and then even when it does, they truly believe it will be over quickly.  When a group of Belgian refugees are brought to stay with families in Rye, the residents are shocked to hear their stories of the invasion there by German troops.  Between the refugees, the uncertain feeling about the upcoming war, and various things relating to, and resulting from these experiences, no one in the book is left unchanged.

I enjoyed this book, because the characters seemed like real people, a combination of good and bad. The author draws you in to the story, and the town with its inhabitants.  It's also a reminder of the extremely limited options available to women at this time in history, which in the grand scheme of things was not that long ago.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal  Ryan.  This book looks at the effect of the recent recession in Ireland, and how people deal with it.  Each chapter is narrated by a different person, but they are all intertwined.

For the most part, it's about how different people cope or do not cope when they learn that what they thought would cover their financial future collapses.  Pensions are suddenly non-existent, and savings are suddenly necessary to cover everyday expenses.  The most frustrating part is that it always seems that those who were already doing well are the ones who land on their feet.

This was a well-written book, and the characters did not feel like they were stock types at all.  I'm not really sure that I understood those who took the most drastic action, and why they felt it necessary to do so, but that could also be due to the fact that I have never had to go through something like this.

This is  a short book, but well worth reading.

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.  I really enjoyed this book.

Allan Karlsson is 100 years old. On the day he turns 100, a huge party and celebration is planned at the old folks' home where he has been living.  But Allan decides that he wants to be somewhere else, and that if he is going to continue to live, it won't be at the home.  So shortly before the festivities begin, he climbs out of the window of his room, and walks away to his next adventure.

And what a crazy adventure it is!  Through a series of events, Allan eventually ends up with a group of six other varied people, a dog, and an elephant (escaped from a travelling circus of course), who are living out their days in Bali.  How he gets there is as fantastical and as amusing as Allan's life has been.

Allan himself is a man who is completely apolitical and without any specific ambition.  But due to circumstances, we learn that during his lifetime, he has been involved in most of the major political events of the twentieth century as an important - if behind-the-scenes - player.  Beginning with Francisco Franco and the Spanish Civil War, to every other leader (good and bad) and event, Allan is involved with Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, Truman, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, usually in a tangential role at best, but often providing the information or the opportunity for history to be made.

This was a fun read, and if you are willing to suspend your disbelief, you will likely enjoy it and find it amusing.  Though Allan travels nearly everywhere during the course of his life, he was born in, and lives at varying times during the book in Sweden.  So I am counting this for my Summer Bingo Square "Takes place somewhere you would like to visit."

Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star, by William J. Mann.  I found this book when a friend on Goodreads put it on her to-read list.  I borrowed it from the library, and though it is a long book, it was hard to put down.

I had never heard of William Haines before reading this.  He was a big star in the silent movie era, and to some lesser extent, during the early talking movies.  And all of that is interesting, but what makes the book so readable and worthwhile is the way that the author researched not just Haines, but movie-making and surrounding society mores during the times he was working.

I found the stories about the early days of Hollywood so interesting - how it started with the emphasis on making the movies, and getting the actors and actresses do be convincing in their roles, with no one making a big deal out of their personal lives.  Yes, maybe homosexuals were closeted, but at the same time, when it was a known aspect of their lives, it didn't necessarily mean they couldn't get parts - it was just a well-known secret.  As time went on, and society changed, wars occurred, and the Legion of Decency gained power (ugh), it was important to the studios to have their people appear to be normal and upstanding - i.e., married to someone of the opposite sex.  William Haines was often the fly in the ointment, because he was unwilling to play the game.

The book discusses the details of the studio system and how restrictive it could be.  Names we are all familiar with - Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Joan Crawford (a true friend of William Haines his death), Clark Gable, Rudolph Valentino, Claudette Colbert - pop up in so many of the stories, and you learn things about them that are new to you (well, new to me at least).

(One thing I learned was something that made me feel even less charitable towards Ted Turner - when he purchase MGM, he also purchased their archives, and closed them to research.  What a jerk! (But I already thought that.))

William Haines' life - professionally and personally - almost seems like a movie of its own.  Once he was done as far as acting, he became one of the most well-known and popular interior decorators for both Hollywood types and other wealthy individuals and families.  He was with the same partner for over 25 years, and they were devoted to one another.  He managed to live the life he wanted to live, much of it at at time when that was "just not done."

I do have to say, that there were times when someone would be mentioned as being homosexual or lesbian, and I would be shocked - not because I disapprove, just because I'd never given it much thought one way or the other.  I would say to my husband, "Oh my God, I didn't know _____ was gay!," and nine times out of ten, he'd say, "Everyone knows that, Bridget."  Apparently not.

This was an interesting book, a fun book, and and in many ways, a sad book.  It provided so many insights into our collective social history, and made me aware of someone who was truly famous for his time, and that I had never heard of before.  It is a well-written and extremely well-researched book.  If you like film and social history, I highly  recommend it.

This also fits into my Summer Book Bingo reading, for the square "Title where the protagonist has a different sexual orientation than your own."

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken.  I should start by saying that I was already inclined towards liking this book, as I am a fan of Al Franken's and have been for years.  I listened the audiobook version, which made it even better, with his intonations and asides.

Also, the title - I'm sorry but every time I think of it, I laugh.

This book is really very good.  He starts from the beginning, truly - when he was a kid, growing up in Minnesota, going to elementary and high school there, etc.  Coming from a regular family who were close and happy - and originally Republican!  Then there are the college years, the Franken and Davis years, the SNL years, and finally becoming a U.S. Senator.

I like that he did not take, and still does not take, being a Senator for granted, and feels strongly that he is still responsible to his constituents in a personal way.  He is disgusted with the way things have become in our country, and in the halls of Washington, and finds Trump to be a terrible and dangerous person (as do I).  He is appalled that Trump appears to have no interest in learning what he needs to know, and much of the book is about everything that Franken needed to know - and often learned the hard way - once he decided to run for the Senate.

There are many wonderful quotes here, and a lot of them are from the late Paul Wellstone, whose seat Franken eventually filled in the Senate.  Two of my very favorite quotes are:

"We all do better when we all do better."

"It's hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you don't have boots in the first place."

Yes, this is a good book.  Interesting, really funny, and very thoughtful.  As I said, I liked Al Franken before, but this book only increased my admiration for him.

This books fills my Summer Book Bingo square "Audiobook read by the author."

Back to School Murder, by Leslie Meier.  Well, you know me - I like a themed mystery!  And I was in the mood for a quick and easy read.  This didn't disappoint.

Lucy Stone is filling in a the local weekly paper, and enjoying it.  On the first day of school, a huge news story happens - a bomb goes off a the school!  The assistant principal saves a disabled little boy who was locked in a supply closet - but how did THAT happen?

This turned out to be a good mystery in that there were a lot of side stories that were related.  It had a lot more going on than usual, and much of it was related to others in the town.

I have not read this series in order, so it was interesting to see how Lucy's husband was in the early books - he was kind of a douchebag, and not the kind person he is later.  That was interesting, but I was also glad to know he progressed as the series progressed.

Damaged, by Pamela Callow.  This was a freebie from Barnes & Noble for a Free Friday Nook Book.  It was an excellent read!

The story takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Kate Lange has just landed a new job at a prestigious law firm.  It's part of her effort to start fresh after breaking up with her police detective boyfriend, and her strongest desire is to have the opportunity to work on cases other than family law for a change.  She wants to prove to herself to others that her past does not define her.

When the senior partner hands her a custody case, she is disappointed.  In addition, it doesn't seem that her client, a grandmother, has a good case for custody of her teenaged granddaughter.  The grandmother suspects that the girl is on drugs again, and that her mother is neglecting her.  When Kate suggests getting Child Services involved, the woman doesn't want to go forward, because the girl's mother is a powerful judge.  Kate suggests that the grandmother try to find more information and evidence, she senses that her client is less than pleased.

Shortly afterwards, the granddaughter's mutilated body is discovered.  This leads Kate on a journey she never expected to become part of, trying to find out what happened and learning that there are more things going on related to the entire case than she could have imagined.  The information she uncovers nearly gets her killed.

This is a story of a serial killer, of professional jealousies, and of ethical failures against people who are at their most vulnerable.  It's also the story of a woman fighting to start fresh after a life of being on the outside.  It's well written, and quite suspenseful.

Given what is happening currently in my life, books like these are providing excellent entertainment and distraction.

Knit, Purl, Die, by Anne Canadeo.  This was an enjoyable, quick read.  One of the new members of the Black Sheep Knitters is found drowned in her pool.  She was wealthy, and had recently returned to town with a new - and much younger - husband, but they were incredibly devoted to one another.  Gloria died while Jamie, her husband was out of town making arrangements with a gallery owner for an art show.

So it's not great or deep literature, but it's entertaining, and I have to say that the ending was a surprise to me.

I am currently having trouble concentrating on any book that is too involved, so this was a lovely way to do some reading and enjoy it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Sanders.  I've already read this, but several people have encouraged me to listen to the audiobook, so here goes!

Listening was a completely different experience to reading it - I think I got a lot more out of it, hearing different characters' voices.  It was also sadder upon listening.

Even though Summer Book Bingo is officially over, this would have been for my square "Audiobook read by different narrators."

The Nix, by Nathan Hill.  I had high hopes for this book, based on what others had said about it.  I read the first five chapters, and decided it just wasn't for me.  I felt it was just taking too long to get going, and I wasn't sucked in enough to keep trying.

The Love Object: Selected Stories, by Edna O'Brien.  I am a huge fan of Edna O'Brien, but I gave this book only three stars.  Why? Because I didn't finish it.

It is a collection of stories, and the ones I liked were extremely interesting and well-written, as I would expect from this author.  However, I skipped the last four stories, because it just seemed to me that they were all incredibly redundant and uninteresting.  Maybe if I had just dipped in and out of the book, I wouldn't have felt this way, and who knows maybe I'll go back sometime and try to read one and see if I like it when removed from the collection.

Double Booked for Death, by Ali Brandon.  I gave this book 4 stars because I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected.

Darla Pettistone has moved to NYC to take over her late aunt's bookstore.  As the book begins, preparations are underway for a booksigning by an extremely popular teen mystery writer, to publicize her latest book.  Things are going well, until Darla notices a protestor across the street whose sign claims that the author plagiarized *her* book.  She also receives a letter from a woman who lives next door to her sister back in Texas, who is part of a church group believing that the author's books are evil and encourage sin.

On the night of the booksigning, a series of events lead to the author leaving the bookstore and being hit and killed by a van driven by the woman in the church group.  Between trying to figure out what actually happened, and hoping she can still keep the bookstore afloat after such an event, Darla has a lot going on.  Her late aunt's cat, Hamlet - who doesn't seem to approve of Darla - ends up giving her some leads and some ideas about what might have happened.

I expected this book to be enjoyable in the usual cozy mystery sense, but it was actually better than that, as far as some of the writing and character development.

Forever Chic: Frenchwomen's Secrets for Timeless Beauty, Style, and Substance, by Tish Jett.  I gave this book 4 stars for the same reason I gave Marie Kondo's book 4 stars - I was glad to be reminded of some things I already knew, and to learn a couple of new practices/ideas.

I will admit that I do have a fondness for France and French-ness - well, not the snobby stuff, but the country and the overall idea.  In this book the author talks about what makes French women "of a certain age" still vibrant and stylish.  She details how it can of course be helpful to have a lot of money, but most of the book is just talking about the importance of taking care of oneself, having a positive outlook, and an interest in the world around you. 

Frenchwomen are known for their seemingly effortless style, and Jett explains to us how they have a different approach to what they buy, what they wear, and how they live.  A lot of it is stuff I've heard and read before, but there was a lot of food for thought here.

I was reminded that the most important thing a person in any country of any financial level can have is confidence and self-regard.  That's never a bad thing.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman.  This book was fine, and in parts very entertaining.

Eleanor Oliphant is a young woman who works in an office in London as an accounts person.  She lives a very circumscribed life, and seems to be quite pleased with living along and being alone.

One day as she leaves the office at the same time as a co-worker, they witness an elderly man collapsing on the street.  Against her initial reaction, she is convinced by the co-worker to see what they can do to help him.  Upon realizing that the elderly man is not drunk (Eleanor's original thought), she does what she can until the ambulance arrives.

This single event leads to a series of other events that change both Eleanor, and the life she has known as an adult.

I liked this book, but didn't love it.  It's well written, and I did want to keep reading through to the end.  The characters are, for the most part, well-developed, and Eleanor's quirks are believable, interesting, and also sad.  I guess I was just not that surprised by the ending, as I was expecting that her peculiarities and personality were formed by a childhood incident.

And there you go - some good, some bad, and a mix of types of books.  Your mileage my vary, of course.  I'm always intrigued when people LOVE books that just didn't do it for me.  Anyway, let me know what you've been reading lately and what you did or did not like.


AsKatKnits said...

Wow, these are some really varied titles! Great reading!! I love that there are some titles I have read, but lots that I have not! Thank you for helping me grow my "to read" list! lol

Bonny said...

So many books and so much variety! I'm going to take a closer look at your thoughts and reviews; my next read may well be among these titles!

Juliann in WA said...

Thanks for these reviews. I see a few books that are on my list already.

Araignee said...

I love your reviews. I am definitely going to have to check some of these titles out!!

Nance said...

I love Al Franken and always have. His Stuart Smalley book was terrific!

Jeannie Gray Knits said...

I LOVE the Beach Street Knitting series. Thanks so much for the reminder. It's been years since I read it & I would love to revisit it.

Vera said...

Wow! That's a lot of books! I did read The Nix, but didn't enjoy - just too long winded and bogged down. Recently started and felt the same way, so returned it. Life's too short to read books you don't enjoy. Like you, I enjoyed The Summer Before the War. And, I couldn't get into Lab girl at all. I was so disappointed as I had really been looking forward to it.

Lorraine said...

Bridget- William Haines was a great friend of Joan Crawford. I think I would like to read that one because Hollywood history is fascinating.

sprite said...

I've added a few titles that I missed from Goodreads updates along the way. Thanks! (I'm planning to do some book updates as part of the NaBloPoMo event, too!)

Patty said...

So. Many. Books! :-) I'm one of the few that did not love Lincoln on the Bardo...but I did like The Nix. I listened to both of them and there is always a much better chance I will get it done! Nice reviews!

Honoré said...

Thank you for all these reviews! Lots of books to check into. No wonder you "forgot;" Youwere busy reading!

Claudia Bugh said...

You are a prolific reader Bridget! You've got me thinking about reading the beach knitting mystery story! So how about them Irish? Can't wait to pop a bowl of popcorn and see the next game :)

Kym said...

You always have wonderful reviews of VERY diverse books, Bridget! Thanks for your thorough and honest reviews; I always appreciate the time and effort you put into them. The Spinning Heart is a favorite of mine! I also loved The Nix. (I tend to listen to the really long books, rather than read them in print. Maybe that would help you enjoy it more???) Can't wait to hear about what you read next! XO

Mereknits said...

I think The Beach Street Knitting Club book has a few others in the series if I recall. I liked it very much.