19 April 2024

Book Report: January, February, and March 2024

You will probably not be at all surprised that I have been reading away, even when I haven't felt like doing much else. Here are my thoughts on the books I've read during the first three months of this year.

The Mortal Groove, by Ellen Hart. This book started in an interesting way,and had my interest for a while. But a little more than halfway through, I got bored and antsy reading it. I wanted to know what happened in the end, but only skimmed to find out. And even then it was underwhelming.

In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende. Once again, Isabel Allende does not disappoint. Though I was not familiar with this book, which was apparently published in 2017. 

It takes place during a blizzard that happens between Christmas and New Year's Day. Richard Bowmaster, a professor and human rights scholar who lives in Brooklyn, hits a car driven by Evelyn Ortega, an undocumented worker from Guatemala. After giving her his insurance information, Richard returns home and doesn't give it much more thought. But then Evelyn turns up on his doorstep, frightened and asking for help. Richard turns to Lucia Maraz, a lecturer from Chile and his basement tenant, for help. And thus begins a truly amazing story, not just of what happened leading to the car accident, but what led each of the three to where they are today.

Each character has the chance to share their story with the others, making them each feel closer to one another, as well as creating sort of a family among them. There is one serious complication to the story that forces them to make a difficult decision and a difficult journey. But to be perfectly honest, it's the lives of each of them to that point that makes the book even more interesting.

The stories are even more timely, given the current issues with immigration and the southern border of the United States.

You can't go wrong giving this book a read.

I Have Some Questions For You, by Rebecca Makkai. When Bodie Kane, a film professor and well known Podcaster, is asked to return to the New Hampshire boarding school where she spent her high school years to teach a mini-mester after thr Christmas break, she welcomes the opportunity.  She is separated from her husband, looks forward to seeing her good friend who is currently still employed at the school, and has recently been drawn into online speculation about a classmate's murder their senior year.

As a couple of her students choose the girl's murder for their class podcast topic, Bodie begins to review her memories of that time from a more adult perspective. Honing in on a faculty member and his interactions with students, she has more and more questions about how she thought things were then as opposed to now.

There is a lot in this book. Bodie's life has been a messy one, and boarding school was a place slightly more important to her than shenanigans have realized at the time.  Being back tests her memories and her feelingssbout herself.  

There is something here. I think the book is extremely readable,  and well worth the read. This is the second book I've read by this author, and it did not disappoint.

Wintering : The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May. I found this book interesting and very nicely written. May has taken a period of her life when things came tumbling down all at once - her husband gets seriously ill, her son doesn't want to attend school, and her career is giving her immense stress - and written the story of how she taught herself to cope. 

Beginning by pointing out that animals prepare for winter without question,  she wants to acquire a mindset that allows her to not just prepare for winter, but make it meaningful - experience it, not just survive it.

It is obviously written by someone with a degree of privilege - she can afford to leave her job, when her son has problems in school, she can keep him at home with her - but there are things her that anyone can take away from her writing and take to heart. I'm not a person who struggles with winter (I love it, and find summer depressing), but there was a lot to like and to consider in this book.

My Husband, by Maud Ventura. Good God this book was annoying. I got almost halfway through and returned it to the library.

We Are All the Same In the Dark, by Julia Heaberlin. I rated this book 3 stars because it did make me read to the end to see what had happened.  But I can't say I enjoyed the book.

It's basically a story of family violence, mysteries, and severe dysfunction.  It starts with Odette, a cop in a small rural Texas town, trying to solve a mystery of a missing girl. It ends with a girl called Angelica solving the mystery of the missing girl as well as the murder of Odette.

Like I said, I read to the end because I wanted to know if there was resolution and if so, what it was. But the whole thing was pretty unpleasant in my opinion.

Things You Save In a Fire, by Katherine Center. When Cassie Hanwell's life implodes, she reluctantly moves from her beloved Texas to the Massachusetts shore to help her estranged mother deal with some health problems. She gad managed to get work as a firefighter in a small town nearby, but it's nothing like her firehouse and colleagues back in Austin. 

Cassie has managed to develop a hard shell of protction around herself and regarding her feelings, but the longer she stays with her mother, the more things start to change. And through she is pretty much not that well accepted by her new colleagues, she manages to get them to grudgingly accept that she's good at her job.

When she is faced with both personal and professional life changing situations,  Cassie really begins to learn about the person she is and wants to be.

This was a pretty good read.

Hiss Me Deadly, by Miranda James. Charlie Harris and his cat Diesel end up involved in another murder case in this installment of the series. When Wil Threadgill, who was a couple of years ahead if Charlie in high school and is now a successful composer in Hollywood,  returns to Athena for a series of seminars for the college's music students, his past seems to want to even a score. As past and current members of his band and entourage are killed or attacked, the question is who is behind all of it?

The story definitely keeps you reading, and I sort of - but not really- figured out the identity of the killer. But once again there is mention of Charlie's job as a rare book librarian and cataloger, which always makes my nerdy cataloger heart happy.

After a few serious and intense books in a row, this was an enjoyable  read.

Played By the Book, by Lucy Arlington. This series is doing well, I think.

Lila Wilkins is feeling excited. Her boyfriend - who also happens to be the chief of police - has arranged a dinner at one of the nicest restaurants in town. Lila had recently overheard him ask her son if it would be OK with him if they got married, so she is expecting a proposal. Except it doesn't happen, since his work keeps him from meeting her for dinner.

In the meantime, Lila's boss has informed her that she is not only helping plan a book signing and dinner for a visiting garden and lifestyle expert, but that her own garden has been added to the garden tour happening on the same day. When Lila's son and his friends are helping her dig up some plants to move elsewhere, they discover a human skull.

Then a popular member of the garden club is found murdered in her garden. With everything going on, Lila is stressed, busy, and concerned, not to mention irritated with her boyfriend.

A lot happens in this book, with various stories swirling around at the same time. I wondered how they were going to tie things up with so many little side things, but I think the author did reasonable job.

A Murder of Crows, by Sarah Yarwood-Lovett. Dr. Nell Ward, a respected ecologist, is working on a land survey and is partway in a hidden tunnel on the site when she thinks she hears something. She talks herself out of worrying and finishes her study. 

Then she learns that a socialite was murdered in that very tunnel - and she is the primary suspect! What follows is an interesting and quite involved organization and series of events. We also learn that Nell is actually Lady Eleanor Ward-Beaumont, which throws her colleague and friend Adam into a tizzy, and causes headaches for the police investigation. 

A really interesting book, with some natural science thrown in. I will definitely read  the next one.

We All Want Impossible Things, by Catherine Newman. Ash and Edi have been best friends since they met in kindergarten when both were four years old. As the book begins, Edi's doctors tell Ash and Edi's husband Jude that it's time to arrange for hospice care for her. Jude hopes to find one near them in NYC where they live, so that he can still be near their young son Dash. But when none of them have available space, they decide to move Edi to one near Ash's home in New England.

And so, Ash becomes the constant at Edi's side at the end of her life. While also trying to care for her own family, Ash recalls their lives together and just how intertwined they are. She also starts to realize that love and loss are so much more than ehat we believe they are.

This book is sad, funny, frustrating, poignant, and true. It describes caring for someone at the end of their lives in a way that can only really be understood if you've done it. You know going in that there's heartbreak, but there's so much more to be found. And when Edi dies, her son experiences something that is so similar to my own, I had to stop reading for a moment.

A beautiful story of love and friendship,  but also a reminder to make the most of what's in front of you.

Everything I Know About Love, by Dolly Alderton. This sounded like it would be enjoyable when I read a review of it. 

It was not. Back to the library unfinished, and on to something else.

Beartown, by Fredrik Backman. The story of a very small town where everyone knows everyone and hockey is king. When the young men's hockey team makes it to the finals, everything seems to be on the upswing. Until an event that threatens one boy's future, and people take sides. 

A classic tale of boys will be boys, and do we believe women and girls when they could mess up something great.

Madness : Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum, by Antonia Hylton. This book should be read by everyone. 

The author tells the history of Crownsville State Hospital, originally established as a Maryland hospital facility for the "Negro insane." It is a story of racism, institutional neglect and overcrowding,  and lack of funds from government agencies. But it is also a harrowing history of how some of the most vulnerable members of society were thrown into places ill-prepared to care for them. The history of our care for those with mental health problems is dismaying at best.

But at Crownsville, the problems were exacerbated because of prejudice against black people and the lack of black psychiatrists and other health care workers. "Be good or you might get sent to Crownsville" was used as a threat to children to get them to behave.

The author has done a deep dive into the surviving - and terribly incomplete  - archival records of the institution,  and tracked down some of the people who worked there or otherwise were affiliated. It is an amazing and eye-opening story. Hylton also weaves in the story of someone dear to her who struggles with their mental health, but also struggles to find care and someone in the mental health field who can be trusted.

Crownsville is closed now, having been closed by the state in the early 2000s, and Anne Arundel County where it is located is deciding what should be done with the grounds. 

Maryland history, Annapolis history are the focus here, but sadly there are likely many other examples we will never know. 

Such a good book, and hard to summarize here, because it just contains so much.

Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate. Avery Stafford is back home, on leave from her job as a US Attorney in Washington,  DC, to be with her father on campaign stops while his health is faltering. She is considered the heir apparent to his Senate seat, so she wants to become familiar with things as well as help him out. During a photo-op visit at a nursing home, an elderly woman mistakes her for someone else, and takes her bracelet, a gift from her grandmother,  who has dementia and has just moved to a different nursing home.

In 1939, Rill Foss is trying to keep her siblings together while her parents head to the hospital miles away when her mother faces complications in childbirth. Rill's family are dirt poor, and live on a river shanty, a shack-like structure that poor people used for housing and traveled along rivers. Without warning, strangers arrive one day and, claiming to be there to take the children, get them all off the boat. Instead of what they are promised, they are taken to the Tennessee Children's Home, known now as a place of horror and illegal adoptions.

The separate stories converge in this book,  based on actual historical events and the writings and interviews of the children who actually experienced life there.  It is both heartbreaking and appalling,  and seems like something completely made up. Instead, it continued for years, and some families were never reunited. The author does a good job if making a terrible story very readable.

The Woman Who Died a Lot, by Jasper Fforde. Another visit to the world of Thursday Next, where things are familiar enough that you know what's happening,  but crazy enough that it's hard to keep up. 

In this book, Thursday is named chief librarian in her town, with the budget problems and complaints from the public you'd expect.  But the Goliath Corporation is still trying to grab hold of control if the world through the actions of Thursday's nemesis, Jack Schitt and Braxton Hicks. It doesn't help that Thursday keeps being replaced by temporary versions of herself.

Meanwhile, her teenage daughter Tuesday, who is a girl genius, is trying to perfect her Anti-Smite shield, so that when the Almighty smiles the town square, it will be deflected (it's all happening that week,  by the way), andher son Friday is trying to deal with his Letter of Destiny, which gives him a dreary future. 

There's a lot going on. But with the usual amusing literary references, and Thursday's determination, the world is safe again. At least for a while ...

These books are so much fun to read!

One Summer in Savannah, by Terah Shelton Harris. Sara Lancaster never had plans to return to Savannah. But when her father suffers an aneurysm and his partner tells her she needs to return, she takes her 8-year-old daughter Alana, a child genius, and they leave their home in Maine.

Things are going OK until one day when she is helping out in the bookstore her father owns, and her rapist's twin brother walks in. No one in town knows that Sara was impregnated by the rape, and she does not want his family - who are prominent in town - to find out, in case they try to take custody of Alana.

There are a lot of emotional parts of this book, and of everyone's story. But in the end it is a story about what it takes to reach forgiveness, and what it can mean to take yourself on the journey.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus. Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant female chemist. But in the early 1960s, none of her coworkers at the Hastings Institute take her seriously. From asking her to make coffee, to stealing her research, and even sexual assault, she is constantly forced to try and prove herself.  Then she meets one of the other scientists in another lab - Calvin Evans is a brilliant, Nobel Prize winner who is also an odd man out, so to speak. He and Elizabeth become partners,  but when he is killed in an accident, and she realizes she is pregnant with his child,  she is even more of an outcast as an unwed mother.

A few years later, an encounter with the father of one of her daughter's classmates leads to Elizabeth as the host of a cooking show - which she approaches as a chemistry lesson. In spite of herself, she becomes a celebrity. But a magazine articles turns her life upside down. 

I liked this book, in spite of the fact that it reminded me of how extremely limited women were not that long ago. One of my older sisters graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1970, and she has so many stories that echo events experienced by Elizabeth. She was fortunate to have a research job in a cancer lab at the National Institutes of Health, but even as someone low in the pecking order, she dealt with a lot of crap from male scientists and members of society.

Anyway, Elizabeth's journey is an interesting one, and the relationships she builds throughout the book are really interesting. 

There's a dog in this book. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised that the dog was my favorite character.

The Patron Saint of Liars, by Ann Patchett. When Rose Clinton arrives at the St. Elizabeth Home for Unwed Mothers in Kentucky, she is pregnant, but married. She has driven from California to give birth there and then to give up her baby. Instead, she decides to stay and to keep her baby. 

Rose works in the kitchen at the home as the cook for years; she marries the handyman,  and as far as her daughter Cecilia is concerned,  he is her father - the only one she knows. But Cecilia always finds her mother mysterious and somewhat aloof, and wonders why she is like that.

When Rose walks away from everyone and everything with no explanation when Cecilia is a teen, she realizes that there are somd secrets people just never share.

Hello Beautiful, by Ann Napolitano. I wanted to like this book more than I did. 

William Waters grew up in a house where his parents showed him no love. His older sister died when he was only a few days old, and the parents seemed to lose all interest in everything and everyone when that happened. When he leaves home to attend Northwestern University, he meets Julia Padavano, and the rest of his life is intertwined with the Padavano family.

I didn't dislike this book per se, but I just never embraced any of the characters. It was all readable enough, just nothing that seemed to make it stand out to me.

The Guncle, by Stephen Rowley. Patrick O'Hara is a somewhat retired actor, living in Pal Springs, California. He loves his family in Connecticut - his best friend Sara,now his sister-in-law; his brother Greg; his sister Clara; his parents; and of course Sara and Greg's young children Maisie and Grant. 

But when Sara dies, and Greg has to go into rehab, it's decided that Patrick, their GUP/Guncle (Gay Uncle) should take the kids with him for the summer. Thus begins an adventure for all three them. 

I really enjoyed this book. Patrick's commentary and conversations with Maisie and Grant are highly entertaining, and the kids are drawn pretty accurately. 

It's a book with a little bit of everything, and clearly written by someone with a real heart.

The Diva Cooks Up a Storm, by Krista Davis. This was an enjoyable palate cleanser after some other, darker reads. Sophie Winston and her friends are back at it in Old Town, Alexandria,Virginia. 

This time, Sophie finds one of her neighbors in the street, gasping for air - after he had previously told her he feared he was being poisoned. When he dies, immediate suspicion falls on his young, second wife, who is believed to have broken up his marriage. But as Sophie gets to know the young woman, and learns more about the neighbor's ex-wife and associates, she finds it hard to think the second wife is the killer.

This one had a lot of possible suspects, and kept me guessing.

Persons Unknown, by Susie Steiner. Detective Manon Bradshaw is adapting to a lot of things: she is 5 months pregnant, has moved her family back to Cambridgeshire, where she is working on cold cases, and she isn't sure things are going to work out. She wanted her adopted son Fly to get in a better school,  and to be out of London, where he was suspected of everything due to the color of his skin. He isn't adjusting well, and when a wealthy man collapses in a woman's arms after being stabbed, Fly becomes the main suspect. But is he really guilty at all? Manon's former partner Davy wonders why the Superintendent is so intent on charging him.

But this book ends up having A LOT going on. Manon's sister is acting weird. Manon's personal investigation turns up international criminal activity, legal corruption, and she falls in love. I was surprised how all of the plot lines interacted.

A really good read.


So there you are. As you can see, there were some that I thought were real duds, but the majority of them were things I enjoyed, with a few that were standouts. 

What have you been reading? Anything good, or for that matter - particularly avoidable? Let me know.

I hope that all of you have a good weekend. I am currently sitting in the living room while our new door is being installed, so it's not exactly a quiet day at home. But it will be worth it. And then tomorrow, the city is planting a new tree for us, so one side of our house is definitely getting a "glow up." 😊

Take care, and I'll check in again next week.


Kim in Oregon said...

I haven't read anything lately that really captivated me, unfortunately, after a really good run of good reads.

Nance said...

I felt the same way as you did about Hello Beautiful. It had so much more potential. I wanted to connect more with someone, anyone. I was interested more in the plot, but that wasn't enough to completely sustain me.

I'm finding that more and more with contemporary fiction. Not much depth.

And I was annoyed with the romance inserted into Before We Were Yours. Totally unnecessary.

(Love your review of My Husband. LOL LOL)

KSD said...

I had a copy of Before We Were Yours forever, but never got around to reading it. I donated it to the library. After reading your review, though, I'm sorry I did.

Kym said...

I always enjoy your book review posts, Bridget! Thanks so much for taking the time to write such good and thorough reviews. XO