Eager reader of history, mystery, biography, YA, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, paranormal, and etc. My reviews are usually positive--there are too many books I adore to finish those I don't.
In this mystery, the setting is as integral a part of the story as the plot and characters. Written by a practicing Mormon, The Bishop’s Wife takes place in a mainstream (not polygamous fundamentalist) Utah Mormon community, which the author acknowledges will seem like a foreign country to many readers--me included--because of its distinct worldviews and unique organization.
Main character Linda Wallheim is mostly devout, but not without some troubling questions and opinions about her church’s structure, politics, and penchant for secrecy. She’s an almost empty nest mother, increasingly at loose ends, and her husband is their ward’s bishop, an honor and responsibility that rotates among member men. When he’s called to assist a family after a young wife goes missing in suspicious circumstances Linda gets deeply involved in the mystery, driven by a lingering grief from her past. Was it murder? Could there have been abuse? Or did the woman run away, abandoning her husband and child to start a new life outside the confines of the community?
There are actually two ominous and gripping mysteries in The Bishop’s Wife, one decades old and one new, and the thoughtful treatment of the subject matter gives the story more emotional depth than the average whodunit. Mormon perspectives on community, gender roles, motherhood, family, the afterlife, and life purpose are seamlessly woven into the plot and make this an extra interesting novel.
I always fall hard for the novels Miriam Toews writes and the characters she creates. A best selling author in Canada, most of her books involve individualistically inclined or exiled Mennonites balancing their traditional upbringing with the modern world in distinctive stories of personal struggle and family connection. The details about Mennonite culture and its fringes give the stories added interest and a strong sense of place, but it’s the characters that really set her novels apart.
In All My Puny Sorrows one sister has it all. Elfrieda Von Riese has always been eccentric, passionate, talented and intense--a dances to her own drummer Mennonite--and now as an adult she’s a wealthy, beloved, beautiful, world acclaimed pianist in a wonderfully loving marriage, but in spite of all that goodness Elf is determined to kill herself, somehow never having developed a tolerance for living in the world. Her sister Yolandi, in contrast, is a twice divorced now single mother, drifting in and out of relationships and perennially broke, who desperately wants to keep Elf alive. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
It’s not a plotline that would normally attract me, and the story is more character than plot anyway, but Toews gives her characters such captivating, heart-piercing voices that I sank deep and only reluctantly put down this thoughtfully nuanced, non-condescending, family celebrating book. The title comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Since Samantha (Sam) Clair is a non-flashy middle-aged woman who works as a book editor and lives a quiet somewhat solitary life with just a few close friends, people tend to seriously underestimate her intellect, her powers of observation, her pointed sarcastic wit, and her won’t be brushed off or appeased determination. When one of her authors goes missing and police seem more interested in his yet to be published tell-all exposé than finding him Sam starts her own investigation.
Readers who enjoy the challenge of puzzles may feel differently, but while I loved this smart, funny book and its good-hearted but sometimes grumpy main character, the solving of the mystery was the least interesting part of the story for me, especially when characters were systematically analyzing the meaning of clues. What I did like was following Sam around to see what she’d say and do next. One moment she’d be flattering an egotistical bigwig, lulling him into thinking this frumpy older woman respects and reveres him, but when that bigwig was dismissive or not forthcoming with information she was hoping to sweet-talk out of him she’d turn on a dime and dish out a devastating faux-innocent put down that would silence the room and then walk out without looking back, no longer interested, with me running along behind her.
I also enjoyed being there for Sam’s interactions with her high-style gossipy author, her whip-sharp ultra-competent lawyer mother, her willing to innovate outside the box editorial assistant, and her reclusive never leaves his apartment neighbor. Sam has a somewhat skeptical attitude toward the nascent romance developing between her and the lead detective that’s refreshing because it’s so non-starry-eyed, and this book’s inside look at the world of publishing can’t help but be entertaining for bibliophiles. A fun book, especially if you’d like a slightly older, intelligent, independent woman as your main character.
I read an advanced review copy of this book given to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.
For those of you who loved Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, its sequel Shadow Scale is now available at NetGalley--AND it was a Read Now book when I was just on the site.
James Patterson’s new book set to self-destruct
I've never read anything by James Patterson but he has some innovative ideas about how to sell books. If you don't have the $294,038 needed to buy the edition of Private Vegas that you can then watch being destroyed by a SWAT team you can instead have 24 hours to read the novel for free with a special self-destructing app--each page disappears as soon as you finish it.
The article about it that I've linked is by Ron Charles of the Washington Post--one of the most energetic and entertaining professional book reviewers around. He has an absolutely wonderful hilarious SHADES OF GREY video on YouTube. http://youtu.be/Hqy8zAdfNEU
This lighthearted Downton Abbey era 1920’s mystery totally charmed me. Daisy Dalrymple comes from a titled family, but after her brother was killed in the Great War and her father died in the flu epidemic their estate passed to a distant relative (shades of Jane Austen!) leaving the remaining female family members somewhat impoverished. Daisy is quite cheerful about working for a living though, and being a society girl doors open for her, so she’s off to Wentwater Court to to write a story for Town & Country magazine. Then nasty Lord Stephen Astwick dies in what looks like an early morning ice skating accident bringing police on the scene. Naturally Daisy is ready to help officials and the family in any way she can, placing her in the heart of the investigation. The handsome detective in charge isn’t, of course, in her class, but Daisy is an open minded young woman so who knows what may develop in the course of this series? This is the first of so far 21 books and another is coming out in June 2015 so I envision many happy hours of reading.
An interesting article from the New York Times about sky wandering Mercury, retrograde planetary motion, geocentric visions of the universe, astrological predictions of disruption, and craters named for artists--including author Madeleine L'Engle who the article's author revered as a child, trying to live her life as if everything in A Wrinkle in Time was true.
CreditScience Photo Library
While I like the idea of cozy mysteries I don’t actually end up reading them a lot, but in the middle of George Eliot’s dense, idea-rich Daniel Deronda I needed something light--like sherbet--to refresh my reading palate. Killer Wasps did the trick. I don’t know how it stacks up with others in the genre, but it’s certainly a playful, effervescent diversion. Having grown-up in the suburbs of Philadelphia I loved all the southeastern Pennsylvania references (Lancaster County!), Philly based food (hoagies!), and local neighborhood ambiance (the Main Line!) that flavored the story.
The romance is just a series of ridiculous non sequiturs, thirty-three year old Kristin Clark would have a spontaneous makeout session with one guy then moments later be crushing on another, and the book’s other characters are mostly old-line upper crust Bryn Mawr (WASP country) eccentrics or colorful New Jersey nouveau riche types (think Mob connections)--all somewhat over the top but lots of fun. Kristin is perpetually low on funds but she’s inherited her grandparents’ quaint little antique store, so in between solving the mystery (this really is a cozy because there are injuries but nobody dies) she attends Amish and hippie flea markets with her basset hound Waffles to restock her tiny showroom, all of which adds more entertaining elements to the plot.
The story races breathlessly along as Kristin juggles an increasing assortment of mismatched clues, missing neighbors, hunky heartthrobs, flamboyant customers, and discombobulated friends. At first I wasn’t planning to read the sequel, but there’s a love triangle (of course) that’s left hanging at the end (picture Joe Morelli and Ranger of the Stephanie Plum series, but less macho) and I kind of want to know what happens. . .
A Spool of Blue Thread doesn’t have a traditional plot arc or straight through storyline, but after twenty novels Anne Tyler knows exactly what she’s doing and I was completely hooked. Set in Baltimore the novel follows four generations of the Whitshank family, originally from an impoverished county in the rural south they’ve been working their way up the social class ladder, but their story feels intimate rather than broad or sweeping. The Whitshanks are a close, ordinary family--mostly loving, sometimes fractious--and their idiosyncrasies, distinct personalities, long held secrets, and personal dramas unfold as the plot moves back and forth in time.
The genuineness of the characters made me care about them immensely. They aren’t revealed with a lot of explicit descriptions, but just as in life I came to know them over time through how they acted and what they said, and the luminous realism of the story extends to its setting. I live near Baltimore, whose streets Tyler obviously knows well, and several recent weather events--the 2012 derecho and Hurricane Sandy--became pivotal points of the plot.
While not sugar-coated or simplistic A Spool of Blue Thread celebrates family connections. The conclusion is satisfying, both heartbreaking and heartwarming, but it doesn’t wrap everything up neatly and sweetly, keeping the Whitshanks alive in my mind and letting me wonder what they’ll do next.
You’d never know it from the way things turned out, but decades before his granddaughter Victoria was born George III had hoped to break the Hanover cycle of rampant family dysfunction to live a private life filled with affection, harmony, and virtue that would be a model for his people and prove British royalty worthy of the great tasks assigned to it by Providence. George III’s dream of a loving and prudent family fell apart long before madness claimed his mind, and ending up with a profligate heir like Regency Prince turned King George IV is just part of the story.
While the focus is on George III, A Royal Experiment begins with the first Hanover king, George I, who was imported from Germany to keep the British royalty Protestant and who was unimaginably cruel to both his wife and his son George II, and the book ends with Queen Victoria, who in some ways was able to bring her grandfather’s moral vision to life. In addition to covering the personal lives of several generations of the royal family, the book is filled with thought-provoking information about and reflections on the culture and attitudes of the time, including the differentiated roles of the sexes (not a good time to be an intelligent independent woman) and the changing views of marriage (love or practical alliance? equal partnership or male ruled household?), family life, childhood (coddled or challenged?), madness, religion, childbirth practices (female midwives or medically trained male doctors?), and the duties and/or rights of royalty.
As an American it was fascinating to read about the various ways the American Revolution looked to and affected George III, British politicians, the general population of Britain, and the French. Without being overly sensational, A Royal Experiment fully engaged my emotions as well as my mind--it was horrifying to witness George III’s descent into madness and heartbreaking to read about the early death of George IV’s daughter Princess Charlotte, a high-spirited young woman who self-identified with Marianne of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Thoroughly researched, well organized, accessibly written, and unrelentingly interesting.
2014 was a good reading year for me, but these novels are the non-series standouts that I loved so much I know I’ll be rereading them. In no particular order:
Station Eleven--A troupe of Shakespearean actors and orchestra musicians travels between widely scattered settlements of survivors in a dangerous, gritty, post-technological world decimated by flu but not without beauty, art, love, hope and a sense of community. Left me speechless.
The Home Place--A beautifully written novel that hooked me with its haunting opening pages sample before I ever had the book in my hands. Alma had escaped as far away from her Montana home as possible but when her troubled younger sister dies in questionable circumstances she returns to the family ranch house to take care of her niece and investigate. With the austere beauty of its Big Sky Midwestern setting this book has a strong sense of place.
The Possibilities--Normally I avoid stories about children abducted or killed, but there’s an approachability to main character Sarah St. John that drew me into this novel. Sarah’s son Cully was twenty-two when he was killed in an avalanche near their Colorado hometown, and now a few months later Sarah is overwhelmed but no longer crushed by sorrow and loss. I appreciate that this book took on a difficult topic without providing formulaic answers, over simplifying, wallowing in tragedy and doom, or tying everything up too neatly and sweetly. The setting is so thoroughly integrated into the story that crisp, cold, clear mountain air practically blows off the pages. Written by the author of The Descendants.
Pioneer Girl--Featuring book-nerdy Lee Lien who’s forced to straddle the contrasting cultures and conflicting expectations of modern America, where she was born, and traditional pre-war Vietnam, where her strong-willed mother and gracious grandfather spent the earlier parts of their lives. With her academic career is on hold she becomes so obsessed by a book related incident that may connect her family’s former Saigon restaurant to the author(s) of the Little House on the Prairie series that she chases clues across the country. A book-lover’s delight.
Anyone But You--An almost magical Romeo and Juliet update with rivaling Italian restaurant families in Chicago. The authors have also written wonderful modern versions of The Tempest and Macbeth.
Northanger Abbey--Forget Darcy, Henry Tilney is now my favorite Austen hero. Plus Jane lets her wicked humor loose in this book, poking gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) fun at just about everyone’s poses, pretensions, and delusions--but as silly as Austen makes novel-drama-obsessed Catherine she still allows her to be artlessly charming and a lively joy to spend time with.
Middlemarch--Before starting Middlemarch I mistakenly thought it was a depressing novel of thwarted love and ambition, but that’s far from the case though it does address serious issues that include marriage, religion, political reform, the expectations of society, and the status of women. What I maybe treasure most about the novel is how sympathetically it is written. There are villains of a sort, vapid selfish Rosamund, mean spirited Mr. Casaubon and hypocritical Mr Bulstrode, and there are certainly characters that make very bad decisions, like Lydgate and Dorothea, but George Eliot writes with such level-headed sensibility and understanding that their troubles touched me and I couldn’t condemn or belittle any of them.
For a few days after finishing this book I was almost without the ability to form a coherent sentence about it--at least one that came anywhere close to doing justice to the story. The set-up is that a deadly, fast acting, highly contagious, flu epidemic brings on the end of the world as we know it by wiping out almost everyone in just a matter of days, leaving small groups of widely scattered survivors coping in various ways with their new stripped down reality, but the aftermath while gritty and dangerous still isn’t without hope, beauty, art, and a sense of community. Told through a series of masterfully woven, interconnected stories revolving around a troupe of traveling orchestra musicians and Shakespearean actors, Station Eleven is one of my favorite books of the year.
Just as brilliant, mind-bending, and paradigm busting as its predecessor Ancillary Justice (my review here ), this second book of the trilogy has a social justice theme running through it that felt heavy handed to me at times and a main character who came a little too close to being an AI version of an all perfect Mary Sue, but the sophisticated world building, can’t-put-it-down storyline, and diverse, well developed characters kept me enthralled. I loved the first book so much, and its story is so complex, that I reread it--no skimming--before starting this one, even though my original reading was this summer. Can’t wait for the final book.
Past experience told me I don’t enjoy Dickens, but I have to reevaluate that now. Even though numerous viewings of various adaptations meant I knew all about the ghostly visitations in A Christmas Carol, the original story when (finally) read still managed to awe, thrill and delight me. I’m not quite ready to go back and retry one of his novels, but Dickens has several other Christmas stories so I plan to read another one next year.
He’s not exactly an American Founding Father--John Quincy Adams is actually the son of a Founding Father so he’s more like a Founding Son--but he’s become one of my favorite Revolutionary era personalities and I so enjoyed spending time with him in the pages of this book that I was a little heartbroken when I came to its end. Being the oldest son of John and Abigail Adams, John Quincy was raised to embrace the Puritan work ethic and absorb a strict moral compass that dictated self-improvement, good works, and public service, but unlike his parents he spent many of his formative years living, traveling, working, and studying in Europe so there’s a Continental enhancement to John Quincy’s personal outlook, political understandings, cultural appreciations, and love life. His wife Louisa was the only European born First Lady.
John Quincy’s European adventures are thoroughly covered in this book which focuses on the first half of his life. His extended trips abroad were during that turbulent but highly interesting time surrounding the French revolution, stretching from Louis XVI through Napoleon and beyond, and John Quincy got to meet and sometimes know well many of the era’s leading figures. As a young teenager John Quincy acted as secretary and translator for his father and other American government officials in countries that included France, England, Russia, and what became Germany, and later as a young man he himself had several diplomatic postings around Europe.
Well researched and written with clear-eyed sympathy and appreciation, The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams brings readers into the heart and mind of John Quincy before he became President. While John Quincy was born and bred an American patriot and eventually attended Harvard like his father, having the chance to enjoy and compare the arts, cultures, cities, governments, and landscapes of Europe gave him a broad political education that could not be duplicated in any classroom. Even just as a history of its time this book is fascinating, and I especially enjoyed the personal glimpses of rulers John Quincy became close to, like Alexander I of Russia and young King William III of Prussia and his family.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
I read this engrossing, unsettling short story as the first step of my holiday refresher re-read of the rich, complex, mind-bending, Ancillary Justice in preparation for the joyful tackling of its sequel Ancillary Sword.
I found the story on Tor.com, it doesn't seem to be available on Amazon or anywhere else. Link