08 April 2019

First Book Report for 2019 - January, February, March

Hello!  Thank you so much for all of your kind words and well wishes after my post about having the flu.  I really appreciated everyone being so kind.  I am finally starting to feel like I can function again, which is a nice change from the past couple of weeks, let me tell you.

Anyway, I didn't want April to get much further underway without sharing what I've read and how I felt about it in the past three months.  Without further blather, here you go, in no particular order.

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty.  This book got good reviews overall, and I was looking forward to reading it.  Sadly, I didn't really like it. 

There were some funny moments, and I understand (I think) what it was trying to say - but it didn't work well for me, and I just felt like it was trying too hard.  The book begins with the main character (aka The Sellout) preparing to go into the courtroom of the United States Supreme Court who is hearing his case.  Which involves charges of owning a slave, and fighting to re-segregate schools.

The bulk of the book tells the story of how he got there.  I don't know, maybe it was all brillian, maybe not.  I just didn't feel like I "got" it.

Working Stiff, by Annelise Ryan.  I've had this one on my Nook for a while, and decided to give it a try. 

Mattie Winston is new at her job as assistant coroner.  A former OR nurse, she left her job when she found her surgeon husband cheating on her with another nurse.  When that nurse if found dead in her house, Mattie gets involved so that she can hopefully clear her ex's name.  But things get even more complicated when it turns out the the dead nurse was not necessarily who everyone thought she was.

I enjoyed this book.  There were some funny moments, and the story moved along well, without a lot of extra and unnecessary sidebars.  Mattie is an interesting character, and her co-workers at the coroner's office have the potential to be fun down the road.

The Witch Elm, by Tana French.  This particular book is completely different than French's Dublin Murder Squad series, but is just as good on its own.

Toby Hennessey has a nice life.  But one night after he is in bed after a night in the pub with his friends, he hears something in the living room of his apartment.  When he goes out of his bedroom to investigate, there are two men, and the resulting scuffle leaves Toby hospitalized with major injuries, including a serious head injury.  During his time in the hospital, when questioned by detectives, he realizes that large chunks of his memory of that night - and of the other parts of his life - is either gone altogether, or only piecemeal.

He and his girlfriend Melissa eventually go to Ivy House, a family homestead, where Toby's bachelor Uncle Hugo has been living since the death of Toby's grandparents.  They move there because Hugo has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and the family wants to make sure someone is always with him.  This also provides Toby with a chance to recover away from his job and other friends.

All is going well until one evening when Toby's cousin's children find a skull in the Witch Elm tree in the backyard of Ivy House.  Toby and his cousins spent most of their summers through high school at Ivy House, but were never allowed to climb that tree.  So everyone is surprised.

Once the detectives investigate, the skull is found to belong to a high school classmate of Toby's that everyone thought took his own life.  Toby remembers the guy as a nice enough person, but as more people are interviewed, their memories are completely different from Toby's.  Then he also learns that his cousins had completely different experiences with the guy than Toby remembers.

As the story continues, Toby begins to wonder if he was the murderer.  Then Uncle Hugo confesses to the deed, but dies in custody before any details or motive can be discovered.

Was Uncle Hugo a murderer?  Was it Toby or someone else he knew?  This book takes you on quite a ride as the story develops and Toby tries to figure out if he has a future, and if so, what it might be.

Lethal White, by Robert Galbraith.  I really liked this book.  I have enjoyed all of the Cormoran Strike books, but this one was much more complex and invovled than the previous ones.

Professionally, Cormoran's agency has gotten a lot of good press from his last success, and he has hired two more investigators.  Robin is still a partner, but their relationship has been strained, and her wedding did not help it to thaw.  A cabinet Minister asks Strike to help him with a case of blackmail, though he is unwilling to provide crucial details.  However, they take the case, and Robin goes undercover in the Minister's office.  The case becomes much more than originally presented, and when the Minister is found dead, both Strike and Robin think it's not likely a suicide.  When the Minister's daughter asks them to investigate, things become more complicated and often a lot murkier before things are resolved.

Personally, Strike is dealing with issues related to his relationship with his current girlfriend, Lorelai.  They entered the relationship with a no-strings attitude, but she is clearly more invested, and he is thinking it's time to try and get out.  As for Robin, she is incredibly unhappy in her marriage, and trying to get the right time to leave worked out. 

A lot happens in this book - to Cormoran Strike, to Robin, and to a lot of characters in their paths.  The political intrigue is just as interesting (to me at least) as the other aspects of the story, as the book takes place when London is getting ready for the 2012 Olympics, and for every person/group who supports the idea, there are as many protesting. 

This is a long book, but definitely worthwhile.

Murder at Midnight, by C.S. Challinor.  This was my final holiday book for Christmastime 2018.  I have never read anything in this series before, and though it may have fleshed out some characters more, I also was able to read the book without a problem.

Rex Graves and his fiancee Helen are holding a New Year's Eve party at his home in rural Scotland.  We meet the various guests, and get some background on them.  One couple, the Frasers, have just moved nearby to an abandoned castle that has belonged to Clan Fraser as long as anyone remembers.  There is a legend of a stolen fortune buried somewhere on the site.

At midnight, when the new year comes in, the power goes out (because of course there is a violent storm outside).  Once everyone is re-settled with candle power, it's discovered that both of the Frasers are dead - and further investigation shows they were likely murdered!  Rex hopes to solve the case before the police arrive.

I enjoyed the book, though it was really hard to get into it until about 30+ pages into the story.  I'm glad I stuck it out, since it did turn out to be an interesting mystery, with some unexpected twists and a murderer that I didn't suspect.

I also realized that this was the third book I read this Christmastime where most of it took place in Scotland.  Hm.

Famous Father Girl : A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, by Jamie Bernstein.  This is an insider's look at life with Leonard Bernstein, the larger-than-life conductor/composer who was a major influence on 20th century music.  The book does talk about his music, in that he really could not be separated from it, but this is told by his eldest daughter, Jamie, and is more about family life and how she grew up than anything else.

Of course, growing up with a famous father (the book's title is from a name another student called Jamie Bernstein in second grade), recognizable names and various celebrities are part and parcel of everyday life.  And I always find it interesting and also amusing to hear snippets about famous people that are not supplied by their publicists or agents. 

Anyway, this memoir is a very comprehensive look at the author's life, with no unpleasantness left out.  Leonard Bernstein comes across as larger-than-life, even to his family, but as someone who enjoyed his children and thought life was just amazing.  His children seemed to have led lives that don't differ that much from lives of other wealthy families - Park Avenue apartments, summer homes, international travel, fancy educations - but the author makes it interesting and also often amusing.  Overall I enjoyed the book, but there were a few things that I questioned:

1.  Why do rich children seem to often refer to their parents (even when they are adults) as "Mummy and Daddy?"
2.  It seems to be a right of passage for rich kids to either skip entering college, or interrupt it in the middle to do something that is either "finding" themselves or just getting kicked out for poor grades.  This always annoys me, since most of the rest of us see college as a lucky privilege and work as hard as we can to be there, and once there, stay there not always because it's so great, but because it is the path to a job/career after graduation.
3.  As much as the author goes on for the bulk of the book about not wanting to be hired/successful/whatever simply as a result of her last name, the opportunities she is given are 100% because of that. 
4.  I was appalled at how both parents communicated bad news to their children.

I understand that growing up with money is very different than how most of us experience life, but I truly wonder if the author and her siblings really "get it."  Not that they have to, but it does make me curious.

Having said all of this, I thought the book was really good, and there were times when it was laugh out loud funny.  Leonard Bernstein seemed to be a lot like his public persona, which was not necessarily surprising to me, but interesting nonetheless.

The Dinner List, by Rebecca Serle.  I think at one time or another, we have all made one of those lists of people - living and dead - who we would like to have dinner with. 

The main character in this book, Sabrina, arrives at a restaurant in New York City on her 30th birthday to meet her friend Jessica, as is their custom.  Except when she gets there, there are other guests - the people from *her* list:  Audrey Hepburn, her favorite philosophy professor, her father who left when she was six years old, and her ex, Tobias.  At first she is put off, but as the evening wears on, we learn more about her and her story, as well as about the lives of the others. 

This was an interesting, sometimes heartbreaking, and mostly bittersweet book about those we love, growing up, learning to deal with loss, and just overall how life doesn't go the way you expect it to be. 

On the one hand, after reading this, I think it might be nice to have the opportunity to talk to those who are gone that we may have included on our list.  Then again, perhaps sometimes closure isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Who really can say?

Behind Closed Doors, by J.J. Marsh.  I heard of this series through one of those ads on Facebook that I usually ignore.  Anyway, we are introduced to DI Beatrice Stubbs of Scotland Yard, assigned to her first big case after returning to work after some time off to deal with a personal situation (we learn what happened near the end of the book).  She is sent to lead an Interpol investigation, as a series of deaths have occurred over the course of a few years that have raised suspicion.  Appearing to be suicides, the victims are all men who are larger-than-life characters of questionable moral practice.   All of them are known to be shrewd and successful businessmen who had no discernible reasons to take their own lives.  Beatrice and her team are tasked with taking a closer look to see if these "suicides" were instead the act of a serial killer.

This book was interesting, given the team lead by Beatrice were all from different places and used to working in a certain way.  It also takes place in Switzerland, and the descriptions of the locations are very appealing.

The reader knows how the murders were actually carried out, but nothing about the murderer, other than it is a female.  Beatrice's team digs and digs and is successful in the end about sussing out the killer.  However, they do not manage to be completely successful.  I'll leave it at that.

There was a lot that was creepy about this book, related to poisons and the killings.  But it was a good read overall.

Probable Claws, by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown.  I am well-aware that a) these books are not everyone's cup of tea, and b) some people also think they are just downright stupid.  The good thing is, no one else is forced to read them.  I enjoy them, and especially enjoy the idea that animals observe and discuss things among themselves (which I believe happens somehow, even if it is far-fetched).

Anyway, in this book, a prominent and well-liked architect in Crozer, Virginia is gunned down on the street in the light of day, surrounded by friends, shoppers, and other citizens.  The question is not just who would do this, but why?  Harry and her friends (furry and otherwise) investigate, but there is also a parallel story being told that takes place shortly after the Revolutionary War, when delegates are meeting in Philadelphia to write the Constitution.

I found both stories interesting, and learned some things I didn't know regarding poisons.  Apparently the historical story follows a previous book, which I have not read, but probably will at some point.  Having said that, the main and current day story is interesting and stands on its own.

Plus, Harry and her family end up with an Irish Wolfhound puppy joining their family, and I'm definitely here for that.

Prescription to Die For, by Bridget Bowman.  Admittedly, I had very low expectations for this book.

Good thing:  It was short.
Bad thing:  Everything else.  I only read to the end because I knew it would come quickly, and I wanted to know how this would all end. 

My low expectations were actually being generous.

Little Comfort, by Edwin Hill.  This book was really interesting.  The main character, Hester Thursby, is a research librarian at Harvard's Widener Library.  When the book begins, she is on leave because her best friend and the sister of her boyfriend has left her young daughter with Hester and her boyfriend and disappeared.  They are adjusting to a life as "parents" that had not been part of their plans. 

As a side activity, Hester tracks down missing people, or helps people with their geneaology.  A woman asks her to try to find her brother, who has been missing for years.  Hester is somewhat hesitant after interviewing the woman, who didn't seem to make a concerted search when the brother first left.  However, the woman has been receiving post cards from her brother from various cities, and that intrigues Hester.

Somewhat quickly, she finds that the woman's brother and his best friend (who disappeared at the same time) are currently living in Boston.  Before letting the woman know, she decides to do some poking around to see what the whole story might be. 

At this point, the book focuses on the two young men, their relationship to each other, and the secrets that have kept them together and moving to different places all of the time.

The book is interesting, and kind of creepy.  It's the kind of story that makes you realize that you likely don't know most people around you every day as well as you think you do.

Hope Never Dies, by Andrew Schaffer.  This was very entertaining to me, mainly because the idea of Barack Obama and Joe Biden solving mysteries now that they are out of the White House cracks me up. 

At the beginning of the book, Joe Biden is feeling bad because Obama never returns his calls - instead, he sees him partying with celebrities, going on vacations, etc.  He's feeling that maybe he misunderstood their relationship.  But one evening, Obama and a Secret Service agent show up and tell Biden that it appears that a conductor on the Amtrak Wilmington line committed suicide by being on the tracks.  Which is sad enough, but the Secret Service is involved because the deceased had a map to Biden's house in his pocket.

The conductor is one that Biden knew from all of his Amtrak commutes over the years from Wilmington to DC.  And he is convinced that the man would never commit suicide.  He starts poking around, and then Obama gets involved with it, and they head on a path that will either lead them to the answers or put them in real danger.

The mystery itself is a good one, in spite of the fact that those trying to solve it take it to a level of being fantastical.  There are some funny moments that also seem very believable, based on what we know about each of the main characters. 

I would say read this if you want to be entertained, but don't expect it to be a meaningful piece of literature.  My *very* favorite thing was the dedication of the book, which reads simply, "Thanks, Obama."  Pure gold.

Next Door, by Blake Pierce.  This was a freebie for my Nook, and it was extremely readable.

The book begins on the day that Chloe Fine and her sister Danielle come home from their respective activities at the age of about 10 years old, and find their mother dead at the foot of the stairs, covered in blood, and their father standing over her.  They are taken to live with their grandparents as their father is sent to prison for the murder of their mother.

Fast forward seventeen years, and Chloe and her fiance are moving into a house together in the town where she grew up.  Her sister Danielle lives nearby, and Chloe is hoping to reconnect with her, as they have not had much contact since their grandparents died.  Chloe is an intern FBI agent, but Danielle has never really settled into any meaningful career.  She also suffers from some mental health issues, and unknown to Chloe, has been receiving mysterious and threatening anonymous letters.

I will admit that this book completely deceived me.  Not that far into it, I thought I figured out the supposed plot twist.  But as I said, the book is very readable, and I was curious to see how the author would resolve it.

When Danielle's boyfriend turns up dead, suspicion falls on Danielle, and her DNA is found on the body.  Chloe feels really certain that even if her sister has other problems, she is still not a killer, and decides to dig deeper into it all, with the support of her FBI mentor.  She realizes that in doing so, she may have to delve deeper into the past.  She also discovers the letters being sent to her sister, and feels that they must have some relationship to the case.

Well, things go in a completely different direction than the one I was so certain was going to be the result.  Which is actually a good thing, since it means the whole story was not as simplistic as I was thinking it would be.  As a result, I think I will be likely to read the next book in the series to see if it is as interesting.

Poker Face : A Girlhood Among Gamblers, by Katy Lederer.  This book was fine, though not what I was expecting.  The author grew up on the campus of a fancy private school in the northeast US, where her father was a teacher.  In spite of the possibilities that could bring to mind for the family, each one of them at one point or another became deeply entrenched in the world of gambling. 

I grew up with parents who were gamblers - and by that, I mean that there was some kind of bet or game involved with nearly everything.  I understood the nuances of handicapping at the horse track and what was an excellent poker hand long before I had my first day at school.  There was no such think as just a card game at our house - nope, there had to be betting somehow involved.   I even remember when the game "Trivial Pursuit" came out, and my elderly mother figured out how we could play it for money.  I remember my mother telling me a few years before she died that one of her life's regrets was that she never got to be a dealer in Las Vegas.

So I guess I was expecting this book to be something similar, with stories of different events and characters that were part of the author's life.   In a way, I guess this book is more valuable, in that it describes the way that a gambling addiction/obsession/whatever you want to call it can skew a life and the life of a family.  And particularly as a cautionary tale, that is interesting.  But it wasn't really presented in a way that made you care that much.  Rather than explore what seemed to be the root of the entire family's gambling addiction, Lederer just talks about it all rather mechanically.

Granted, I didn't finish the book because it was due back to the library before I had gotten to the end.   But rather than renew it, I just returned it because though I was nearly finished, I really didn't care about any of the characters enough to make the effort.

Scone Cold Killer, by Lena Gregory.  This was entertaining enough for a time when I didn't want to have to concentrate too much. 

Gia Morelli has left NYC after an ugly divorce from her cheating husband, who was also guilty of cheating people out of huge sums of money.  She is starting over in Florida, where she hopes to open a cafe that serves breakfast food all day.  With the help of her friend, Savannah, who is from there, she finds a place for her business, and a house where she can live.

On the first day the cafe is open, Gia's ex-husband is found dead in the cafe's dumpster.  Things don't look good for Gia or her cafe, but she is convinced that his business dealings led to his murder.  As the story goes on, more bodies pile up, and Gia isn't sure who to trust.

With the help of her friend, the friend's cousin - who is a cop - and the comfort of her new puppy, things finally work out, but not before there are a few more twists and turns in the story.

A Week in Winter, by Maeve Binchy.  This is a lovely book.  Again, one of those that is not really "about" anything per se, just a story of a group of people and how they come together from different places and walks of life, and what led them there.

Chicky Starr comes back to her home town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland after living in New York City for some years.  She decides to take the stone mansion which was the home of three maiden sisters - one of whom is still around - and turn it into a vacation destination.  Everyone thinks she is crazy to take on such a thing, and they also wonder who will ever come to Stoneybridge on holiday.  But she perseveres, and with the help of her nephew and the remaining sister who grew up in the house, the Old Stone House is reborn in all of its glory, and then some.

Each chapter after Chicky starts her project deals with a different person or couple and their journey that ends up at the Old Stone House.  From her nephew, Rigger, who is sent to work with her on getting the place up and running to avoid getting into more trouble, to a movie star who ends up at the Old Stone House because his flight to Germany was cancelled due to weather, each character who ends up there has their own story of a journey. 

Told in a leisurely and kind manner, but not in any way sentimental, the story of Chicky, her family, the Old Stone House and its visitors moves along in a way that makes you realize that for most of us, life does not always end up the way we thought it would.  But it also emphasizes that the twists and turns don't have to defeat us.

This book was a lovely break in reading, and it reminded me that quiet lives are rewarding lives.

I've Been Thinking ... Reflections, Prayers, and Meditations for a Meaningful Life, by Maria Shriver.  I don't remember how I found out about this book, but whoever had mentioned it to me said that it was not too overly religious, and was easy to read and enjoy in snippets.  Which is currently how my brain is functioning.

Full disclosure: I did not finish this book.  Not because it wasn't worth finishing, but because it was due back at the library, and at the time, I was so sick, I couldn't read anyway.  So I just returned it for the next person.

Each entry is about a certain theme in life - family, happiness, loss, change, etc.  Then at the end, there is a brief prayer related to the topic.  Nothing earth-shattering, but reminders that we are all experiencing the good, bad, and messiness of life, regardless of whether we have fame or money or anything else.  I think it was a good book to remind the reader to just think about what you have and can do and try do live the best you can be.

You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz.  I read this book on the recommendation of my husband, who described it as a "page turner."  We don't usually read the same books, so I was intrigued.  It is in fact a page turner, and though you aren't terribly far into the book before you suspect what is happening/has happened, it tricks you into thinking that you have figured it out.  But trust me, you haven't even scratched the surface.

Grace Reinhardt is a couples psychologist who is getting ready to have her first book published, titled "You Should Have Known."  Grace's theory is that people often delude themselves at the beginning of relationships about their partners, thinking that they will change, maybe their habits aren't really that bad, etc., when in truth, being in the first part of being in love makes you ignore or dismiss those things that will likely remain or sometimes even get worse.  It's an exciting time for Grace, and she is happy to be sharing it with her husband, and pediatric oncologist, and her 12-year-old son, Henry.  They have a wonderful life in New York City, living in the apartment where Grace grew up, which was given to her when her father remarried after her mother's death.

What throws a wrench into the whole thing is when one of the other mothers at the school that Henry attends, who Grace has only met in passing, is brutally murdered.  Grace quickly learns that her life is much different than she thought it was, and it's about to change drastically.

I thought this book was well-done, with a compelling story.  It's technically about Grace, but it's really about how she should have known.  And even then, she really didn't know anything.

Hm.  I didn't realize I'd gotten through so many books already.  Go figure.  Anyway, that's it.  Let me know if you have any recommendations - or even warnings of titles to avoid!


Kym said...

You always write such thoughtful book review posts, Bridget! Thanks for sharing you thoughts on such a diverse collection of "reads." (And I'm still chuckling at the thought of Barack Obama and Joe Biden as mystery sleuths!!!) :-)

AsKatKnits said...

Thanks for these recommendations! And, I am glad you are on the mend!

Kim in Oregon said...

Thanks! Adding a few to my list now.

Also, it has been my experience that east coast upper class women call their parents mommy and daddy way longer than I would expect them to.

Araignee said...

I love your book reports!!!!

Vera said...

Wow - you really did read a ton of books Bridget! Thanks for your reviews.