09 July 2021

Book Report - April, May, and June 2021

Hello and Happy Friday!  Though between heat waves and tropical storms, it seems that there is only a teeny bit of the U.S. having OK weather ...

Before July carries on much more, I wanted to post about the books I read during April, May, and June of this year.  I always get a lot of comments from people saying they enjoy these posts, so I'm happy to hear that.  😀

Just a reminder - if you are interested in being part of the current giveaway, don't forget to check out this post.  Sunday at noon, Philadelphia time is your last chance to add a comment!

OK, here is what I have read in the past three months, and what I thought about each title - don't forget to let me know what you have loved, or even what you haven't, during your reading these days.

The Book of Longings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  This book really didn't take me as long to read as the start/end dates imply. I started reading it shortly after I checked it out of the library, and then got sidetracked by other things, and finished reading it in a three day period.

The narrator of this book is a young woman named Ana. She is the daughter of a man who works at the palace of Herod Antipas, and as such has a fairly comfortable life and existence. She is more fortunate than most females of the time, since her father has allowed her to learn to read and to write.  Ana is encouraged in these endeavors by her father's sister, Yaltha, who was sent to live with them when her husband died, and it was suspected that she had killed him (she did not, but that did not keep those in charge from thinking she had). There is also another member of the household, the son of Ana's mother's brother. The brother and his wife were killed by the Romans when their son was young. So he has been living in the household as part of the family, and though he is Ana's cousin, she considers him a brother, and they are very close. His name is Judas.

The "longings" in the title are of two different kinds: Ana's desires to write down the stories of brave women she has only heard about from others, so that there stories could be kept forever, giving them, and herself a voice. Her other longing comes as an adult, when her husband leaves to go forward and spread the story of God and his love for all peoples. Though she is originally betrothed to an older man who she has no desire to marry, after that man dies before the marriage can actually take place, she marries a young man she met by chance, whose name is Jesus. Because he is not of their social class, her parents reject her, and she moves with him to live with his mother Mary, and his family.

So yes, the narrator of the book is the wife of Jesus. Which adds a whole other level interest and plot (so to speak) to the story. Presenting a young man who works as a tradesman (carpenter) but also appears to have an extremely personal relationship with God, the Jesus in this book is extremely human, with the kinds of feelings, existence, and worries of the average person in this time. He is also presented as someone with a good sense of humor, and who is only different in the way that he seems to be able to embrace and feel love for all kinds of people. When he lives to take on a bigger role in his ministry, Ana is left behind. She continues with her chores, and her writing, but at one point she receives a letter from Judas which alarms her and makes her feel Jesus may be in danger.

At this point in the book, the entire story taking place between Palm Sunday and Good Friday occurs, with Ana as a witness to her beloved's suffering, crucifixion, and death. And though this is a major event in the book, the real story in the book is that of Ana, her aunt, and the community of women they return to after Jesus' death. It is a group of people who worship, pray, work, and take time for contemplation. Ana works in the library, where she finds a place to store her stories and scrolls, having made them into codices.

Needless to say, I've left out a lot of the events and characters in the book, mainly because there are so many layers and pivotal moments, to recount them all would give away the book. But I found Ana's story fascinating, as much for the descriptions of her daily life and the lives of people during these times, as for her desires - "longings" - to have a voice and to keep the voices of other women alive after they had been silenced for so long.

I found the book a tad difficult to get into at the beginning, but very soon I was interested in the story and how it was planning to develop. I thought it was a good read.

Gone to Dust, by Matt Goldman.  This was an intersting, and slightly different kind of book.

Nils Shapiro is a private investigator in Minneapolis.  He was formerly on the police force, but things didn't work out.  He is divorced from Micaela, but still loves her, and they can't really stay out of each others' lives.

When a friend from the police academy who is on the force in Edina, Minnesota calls him to work on a murder case, he figures it's another open and shut deal.  But when he gets to the scene, the victim and her house are covered in a weird gray dust.  And no one in her friends and family circle can imagine why anyone would want to kill her.  Nils starts looking into it, and finds a couple of "mystery" characters as well as an old friend and his brother who are involved.

As the story goes forward, there seem to be more things going on - political corruption?  A lesbian lover?  What is the dust?  By the end, Nils has figured it out, but not until there have been a lot of twists and turns.  

I will most likely read others in this series.  I enjoyed this one.

Break In Case of Emergency, by Jessica Winter.  Jen is the main character in this book, and after beimg laid off from her job as a communications director at a foundation that supported women's causes after the recession, she eventually finds a similar position at LIFt.  This foundation is the brainchild of a former TV star, reality star, and now ex-millionaire's wife.  

The really good part of this book was its skewering of the kinds of organizations that are everywhere these days: they have a mission to help a certain group and pursestrings to get off the ground, along with a founder with a wide network. But internally, they are full of people who are only interested in being seen and heard to do wonders, and treat the actual workers with either no respect or complete disrespect.  The author managed to get the true feel for the jargon used in today's workplaces ("empowerment" "team" "we are in this together") while also showing how in practice that is not the case.

In this book, LIFt is the place where Jen eventually realizes that she is being used and abused.  Her workplace is trying to control her life, leading to her having real resentment towards her husband and her two best friends, who happen to be in much better financial standing than she can ever imagine being.

I will admit that I did a lot of eye-rolling and some chuckling at situations and people in this book that we all know or have either worked with or spent time with.  They are not necessarily bad people, they just live to be "yes" people to the nearby shining star.  In that way, this was an amusing read.  But it was hard to feel a lot of sympathy for Jen, because for so much of the book, she was in a place that supposedly empowered women, where she felt completely unempowered for so long.

The Sweeney Sisters, by Lian Dolan.  The book begins as each Sweeney sister - Liza, Maggie, and Tricia - learn about the death of their father, William Sweeney.  He was a literary lion, with all of the complicated behaviors and acts that come with it.  But for the three girls, they remember their happy lives in Southport, Connecticut in the family home, where there father did his writing and commuted back and forth to his teaching job at Yale University, and their mother, who died too young, wrote her poetry and made their lives magical.

Each sister has something else going on their life that is brought to the fore by their return home to bury their father, and deal with what they learn about his life and his estate.  In the middle of all of this, they also learn there is another Sweeney sister, the result of their father's affair with the next-door neighbor.  Serena is a well-known journalist, who just learned her father's identity through a DNA test.  At first their interactions are uneasy, and somewhat suspicious, but when they find their father's final manuscript that he wanted published only after his death, the revelations within bring them together more than any of them expected.

This was a good read.  Not as soapy as it could have been, and more of a character study of how each daughter carved their own identity in a family where the parents were bright lights, but also managed to build a support system for each other within.  And how the sudden appearance of a new sibling rocks all of their worlds, but in the end strengthens the bond among all four of them. 

The book also did an excellent job of portraying the character of someone seen by the world as one sort of person and experienced differently by his own family.

The Stranger Diaries, by Elly Griffiths.  Clare Cassidy is a high school English teacher, teaching in a school that was the former home of R.M. Holland, a Gothic horror writer who Clare is also writing a book about.  When a colleague is found murdered, and a note is nearby that contains a quote from Holland's well-known work, "The Stranger," it seems not just horrible and creepy, but more than a coincidence.

Then one day, Clare goes to write in her diary, and notices handwriting that isn't hers, which says, "Hallo, Clare. You don't know me."

Between trying to figure out what is going on with the murder investigation and who might have gotten into her house to write in her diary, Clare is busy enough - but when another murder happens, with another Holland note nearby, things ratchet up a notch and seem to be heading out of control.  The question becomes who is the murderer, who may be someone Clare knows, who is reading her diary, and is her life in danger as well?

This was really interesting, and the newly-introduced character of the detective - Harbinder Kaur - who turns out to have attended the high school where Clare teaches, is an interesting addition to literary detectives.  I enjoyed this book, and suspected almost everyone of being the murderer except who actually was.

Crampton Hodnet, by Barbara Pym.  Oh how I adore Barbara Pym!  The worlds she creates in her books, and the interior commentaries of the characters are so exquisite.

In this, one of her earliest books, a small group of people in North Oxford interact as only they can in a Barbara Pym novel.  There is the very proper older woman who considers herself the arbiter of all that is good in society; her companion, the unnoticed but mentally sharp woman; the Oxford don who has a fling with one of his female students; and the young curate who boards at the older woman's house.  Their interactions, the "scandals," and the whole milieu makes you never really want the book to end.

If you have never read a Barbara Pym book, be sure to check your local library - I sincerely doubt you will be disappointed.

The Fortune of War, by Patrick O'Brian.  This audiobook finds our heroes enmeshed in the War of 1812, and being held as prisoners of war in Boston.  Stephen Maturin discovers through a mutual acquaintance that his former love, Diana Villiers, is in town and he is invited to a dinner that she will be attending.  Jack Aubrey, meanwhile, is hospitalized with a serious injury that happened during the battle where their ship was lost.

As usual, there are some funny segments here, and the aggravation of Jack often seeming to be really out of the realm of reason a lot of the time.  And though I knew from the get-go that Jack and Stephen would somehow prevail, I still was hoping that the Americans would win in the final skirmish of the book.

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell.  This is a lovely, but also very sad book.  It tells the story of Hamnet, the young son of William Shakespeare, who died at a young age from the plague that was houding Europe during the 16th century.

In the book, we meet all of the family, including the mostly absent father who is in London writing plays.  Most of the story is of course, fictional, but it is based on the facts we do know about Shakespeare and his family.  Though he is present in the book, we come to know his parents, brothers, wife, and children much better than we know him - he "drops in" so to seap, when his schedule allows.  So in a way, we experience the story much like his family experienced it, without a lot of direct involvement from him.

Hamnet (a name which apparently was not just common at the time, but interchangeable in records with Hamlet) is a young boy who dearly loves his family, particularly his twin sister Judith.  He has a quick mind, and though he enjoys school and learning, he is easily bored and distracted.  Through this book, you realize not just that he was a real child, but also a child that is not that different from someone of his age today.

The first part of the book is about his life, and that of his parents - particularly his mother - leading up to his death.  The second part is a heartbreaking tale of the family trying to adjust to their loss.  In the very end, when Agnes Shakespeare travels to London in a fury, because her husband has dared to write a play, a "tragedie" called "Hamlet," you are not prepared (much like she is) for the absolutely heartbreaking way the book ends, when she has the chance to see a performance of the play.

You don't have to know anything about literature or Shakespeare to enjoy this book - it's a wonderful work all on its own.

Love in an Undead Age, by A.M. Geever.  I will admit that this is not the kind of book I usually read, or that usually appeals to me.  But a friend of a friend had written it, and my friend gave me a copy.  I found myself in one of those moods where I wanted to read something, but couldn't settle.  So I thought I'd give it another try, given that my first attempt soon after receiving it ended after about the first 10 pages.

This time around, I actually finished it, and it was pretty interesting, if still not exactly my favorite kind of reading.  

It takes place in the future, after the Zombie Apocalypse (aka ZA), in Silicon Valley, California.  To quote the character of Stefon from "Saturday Night Live" - this book has everything: Zombies, Jesuits, vaccines, romance, and even a cult.  One very reassuring thing in this book is that the main character has a dog, and by the end of the book, even with everything that has happened, the dog is still alive.  That alone gives it a positive spin from me.

But it was an entertaining read, and though I don't know I'll go any further, seeing now that it's a series and this was the first installment, I am glad that I finally sat down and gave it a chance.

A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny.  Armand Gamache is starting his term as the new Commandant at the academy where officers are trained for the Surete - the same place where he trained years ago. But he has come out of retirement to get things back in order after a serious corruption scandal. 

But when one of the professors is found dead in his room - one Gamache allowed to stay, hoping to find out more about the corruption and where some of the money came from/still is - things get complicated very quickly.

Between the murder and a mysterious map found in the wall of the bistro back in Three Pines, there are a lot of mysteries, as well as an interesting reveal in this book. But as usual, I was not disappointed.

His & Hers, by Alice Feeney.  Another Alice Feeney novel that draws you in, and keeps you guessing the whole time.  Just when you think you know who did what, something happens to throw you off again.  Creepy but a good read.

Anna Andrews is a news presenter for the BBC who has been filling in for the regular person, who is out on maternity leave.  She runs into her ex-husband (a detective) when he is investigating, and she is reporting on, a murder in a small town near London.  It turns out that they both know the victim - she is former schoolmate of Anna's, and of Jack's younger sister, who went to school with Anna.  But that isn't the only twist, and as the story continues and other girls - now women - in the friends' group are killed, it all just gets weirder and creepier.

This book isn't really scary, or gory, it's just creepy, and then at the end you are left thinking, "Wait - ..."

Dear Child, by Romy Hausmann.  Well.  This book is pretty insane.

When a couple gets a phone call from a police friend of theirs, saying that their only child, a daughter who disappeard 13 years ago might have been found, they are excited and relieved.  However, when they get to the hospital, the person in the bed is not in fact their daughter.  But that person's daughter is a dead ringer for the missing daughter at the same age!  They feel sure that somehow, the little girl is their granddaughter.

The story is told by several narrators: Jasmin, the woman in the hospital; Hannah, the little girl; Matthias, the grandfather; and occasionally some other characters, but those three are the focus.  This book is disturbing, interesting, mysterious, and weird and every time you think you might know something you find out that you were completely off base.

This is a psychological thriller, and at the end, you are really not sure how to feel, or if anyone involved had a happy ending.  It's extremely readable, and puzzling at the same time.

According to summaries, it is supposedly evocative of "The Girl on the Train," and "Gone Girl."  I didn't read the second one, and absolutely hated the first, but I felt this one was actually pretty good.

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller.   read about a quarter of this, and just gave up.  It held some interest for me, but I just never felt hooked by the story or by the characters.

It's an interesting premise - a man looks out the window one day, and thinks he sees his missing wife walking down the street.  He follows her to the local beach, and takes a nasty fall.  His adult daughters return home to help him. 

No one knows or understands where the wife/lmother had gone.  Any clues are found in letters she wrote to her husband a long time ago, and hid in the books in his library.

I wanted to like this book, to read the story of the couple/family and what happened to them, but after really trying, I decided it just was not the book for me.

Beautiful Day, by Elin Hilderbrand.  This was just the book I needed to read at the time I read it - nothing but a story, descriptions of places and people that are beautiful but have problems, and though things end up fine basically, it's not a happy ending tied up in a bow.  My first book after Memorial Day this year, and starts the summer well.

When the Carmichael family all join together in Nantucket for the youngest's wedding, they all know that she - Jenna - will be following The Notebook that her mother wrote for her as she was dying to the letter.  It has all the information that her mother had planned herself for when Jenna got married, and it's become like the Bible to her.  Along with this, each family member comes with their own issues, and along with some of the bridesmaids, other guests, and the groom's family with their own stuff going on, the whole wedding weekend is not as perfect as it may look from the outside.

With excerpts from the Notebook, and chapters voiced by different characters, you get all of the hidden thoughts, problems, hopes, and disasters that happen over these days.

This was an enjoyable read, and as with most of the Elin Hilderbrand's books that I have read, manages to show families pretty close to how many of them actually are - loving, but not even close to perfect.

Afterlife, by Julia Alvarez.  I just loved this book. It tells the story of Antonia Vega, who is still adjusting a year later to both being retired and being widowed - her beloved husband was killed in a car accident on his way to meet her for a celebratory retirement dinner. 

While learning how to live alone and capably in their house in a small Vermont town, Antonia is faced with so many questions, added to by non-citizen workers on the farm next door, who trust her because she is like them - though she will point out to the reader that she is Dominican - and then also when a family crisis involving one of her sisters arises.

This story is a beautiful meditation about love, life, and learning how to pick up and move along without the usual anchors of your life.  Its about accepting your age, as well as your emotional limitations. Antonia is so identifiable,her character let's you see yourself as well.

A Crafty Killing, by Lorraine Bartlett.  When Katie Bonner's business partner, Ezra Hilton, is found murdered at Artisan's Alley, she becomes the main owner.  Not that she ever wanted it in the first place, but Katie's late husband invested, and his share come to her upon his death.  Now Katie is left not only wondering who would have killed Ezra, but how to deal with Artisan's Alley - a workspace for artists to sell their wares, but that hasn't been updated for years.  And once she starts going through the records, she finds that bills have piled up as well.

As she tries to get a hold on things, she also becomes acquainted with the other merchants in Victoria Square and learns more about Ezra and how his nephew (the now only other shareholder) wants to buy Artisan's Alley to developers working on a new marina.  Slowly, Katie comes to know the other merchants better, as well as the people who have booths in her business.  She decides to quit the full-time job she hates, and devote herself to making a go of this new business.  Then one of the artisans is murdered in the building.  She begins to wonder if she has made the biggest mistake of her life.

This was much more of a story and mystery than I was expecting it to be.  Yes, it still falls into the cozy mystery category, but a lot of things you expect to be there are not.  For instance, Katie's crappy full-time job is one that most readers could understand and identify with; her conflicted feelings about her late husband - they had been separated - seem like those a real person might have.  And though things look promising by the end of the book, every single thing is not tied into a neat ribbon for the ending.

The Diva Serves High Tea, by Krista Davis.  I haven't read in this series for a while, and I forgot how entertaining the books are. 

In this installment, when Sophie Winston's friend Natasha faces an intruder in her home, and then shortly after a local antiques dealer is killed, Sophie wonders if there is a connection.  The antiques dealer died from botulism poisoning, and the last place he ate or drank anything was a new tea parlor in town. 

When Sophie's ex-husband - who has ever visited the tea place - comes down with a very mild case of botulism, things get even more puzzling. 

This was a fun read, and it did manage to keep me guessing.

I'll definitely read another in this series.

Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny.  This was the first time I have read any of this author's work, and I really am glad I found out about her, because at least with this particular title, I found her writing to be wonderful and enjoyable to read.

The story is narrated by Graham, who is currently married to Audra (much younger than he is), and they have a 10-year old son with Aspberger's named Matthew.  They live in New York City, and have a very comfortable existence.  One day at lunch, Graham ends up in line behind Elspeth, his first wife whom he has neither seen nor talked to for years. They have lunch together, and Graham pretty much thinks that's the end of it, but Audra insists that they arrange to have dinner with Elspeth and her current boyfriend.  And in this way, Elspeth re-enters Graham's life.

The bulk of the story is about how Graham's current life in no way resembles his life when he was starting out and was married to Elspeth.  She lived life by very strict rules, and was very steady, it was always easy to know what was or was not happening.

Audra, by contrast, is a whirlwind of actions, activities, conversation, and plans. She forms immediate and lasting relationships with people that Graham forgets they have even ever met.  A lot of Audra's commentary in the book is both amusing, and reminiscent of some people most of us know, who always seem to be talking, who know everyone and everything about them, and who are likable almost in spite of themselves. 

Graham cannot help but wonder how he went from one life to another, and was one better than another? In the middle of everything, each of the main characters in the book has something that changes them in the course of the story, and for a while, it seems as if things are starting to in a completely different direction. 

I found this book really amusing, and in some ways also really sad.  It emphasized that the connections we have with other people do matter in the end, and that we can always find ourselves surprised by our own actions.

Glass Houses, by Louise Penny.  There is a lot happening in this book.  It goes back and forth between our hero Armand Gamache testifying in a murder trial during a ridiculously hot summer, to the months before, in early November, when a mysterious figure robed in black appeared on the green in Gamache's home village of Three Pines.  But it also involves a detailed plan by Gamache and selected people who work with him to try and stop an international drug shipment heading from Canada into the U.S. through the border with Vermont.

The stories intersect, but there are a whole lot of twists and turns in each part of the book.  The robed figure is creepy, but the background provided about such a character is both creepy and interesting.  There are also some light moments, mainly in dialogue among characters.

As I have with most of the Inspector Gamache books, I really liked this one and found it to be an engrossing read.

Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman.  When Jen Dixon's friend talks her into being the class mom for her kindergartner's class, she gets more than expected in return.  Jen already has two college-age daughters (probably with different musician fathers), but now she has Max, and has the support system of her husband Ron as well.  

This book is pretty amusing, as long as you don't have to live it.  Jen sends e-mails to the parents about events, asking for volunteers, contributions for parties, etc. - what you would expect.  Besides just the usual things you expect, there is of course a super-aware mother of a kid with allergies, two moms who seem to have their own universe and see themselves as Kansas City's version of the Real Housewives, a kindergarten teacher who is beloved by the kids even if something seems off, and also the Big Man on Campus from Jen's high school years.

The book is amusing in a lot of ways, and I love that some of the parents just don't get Jen's sense of humor (being a person who has a sense of humor that is often lost on others).  It's not a great book, but it's a fun read.

The Last Thing He Told Me, by Laura Dave.  Hannah Hill has moved her woodworking business from New York City to Sausalito, California, to live on a houseboat with her new husband Owen Michaels, and his teenage daughter Bailey.  She feels as if her life is going along well, if she could only get Bailey to accept her.

One day, a young girl shows up at the door with a note from Owen to Hannah - the note says only, 'Protect her.'  Then when Hannah goes to pick up Bailey from school, she finds that Owen left a note for her as well, AND a duffel bag with thousands of dollars in cash!

It turns out that Owen's software company and the founder, Owen's boss, has been found to be doing some very iffy and very illegal things.  But - Owen has completely disappeared off the face of the earth.  The FBI is looking for him; a U.S. Marshal is looking for him; and needless to say, Hannah and Bailey would also like to know where he is.

This book took a few unexpected turns along the way, and even at the end, it was not exactly what I was expecting.  But it does raise questions about how well we know those we love, and whether or not we could keep loving them no matter what we might learn about them now or in their past.

Thistles and Thieves, by Molly MacRae.  Janet Evans and her moved-from-America-to-Scotland crew are feeling more and more at home in their new country of Scotland, and their bookstore and tea room are doing great business.  When Janet is riding her bicycle one morning in training for a local race, she stumbles across the body of a local doctor.  It's not clear what happened at first, but soon it is determined that he was murdered.  Which sets Janet and the others into action, trying to determine what and who.

A mysterious box of books left in front of the bookshop before opening one morning also supplies a mystery.  As other people are killed - the late physician's brother and a local district nurse - things get even more puzzling.  Did the books belong to the dead physician?  Were they in fact stolen, as the his sister claims?

This was an enjoyable read in the series, and at least to me, had a surprise ending.


So there you go - a little bit of a lot of different things.  

I hope you have a wonderful weekend, and have time for lots of reading, or anything else that YOU want to do!


Ellen D. said...

Nice long list! I think I will look into the Matt Goldman book as I do like mysteries. I enjoyed reading Hamnet, the Louise Penny's books, and Elly Griffiths' books too.

Nance said...

I read Hamnet a while ago and was incredibly moved by it. The writing is beautiful and detailed; it's like standing and looking carefully at a Dutch Reformation painting. It was an experience.

Standard Deviation sounds like a book I would like. I'll take a look into it and see about getting it.

I'm currently reading Conjure Women by Afia Atakora, and I finished up The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which was a little tough to get into but worth it.

Kim in Oregon said...

Thanks! I now have lots of new ideas for reading thanks to you!

KSD said...

Just added The Book of Longings to my Want-to-Read List. Thanks!

Shirley said...

Thank you for your book report! I read it with a library tab opened to the book catalog so I can request ones that appeal to me. My small town has an awesome library/library staff. Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

Araignee said...

I enjoyed The Stranger Diaries but had to abandon Hamnet. When the sister got sick I was so knee deep in Covid health anxiety that it gave me the heebie jeebies. I'll pick it up again someday. I was enjoying it up until then. I am still reading my way through my pile of Nancy Drew books which are perfect for me at the moment. I did make the mistake of watching the Nancy Drew TV show and was horrified. I have no idea why they would allow such a beloved figure to be portrayed like that. Having said that as long as I am not thinking of her as MY Nancy Drew I am enjoying the mystery.

Vera said...

Nice list and good reviews Bridget - thanks! I enjoyed the Goldman series and, of course, Louise Penny and Elly Griffiths. There are some titles here to add to my TBR list.

steph said...

and why can't I settle down with a good book??? obviously...didn't find your list! thanks. I'll be hitting the library soon.