28 Book Reviews!
December 15, 2014 2 Comments
For some reason, growing a new life makes me want to read books I’ve never read before. Starting last fall during my exhausted queasy phase and continuing up until now, when Lydia is seven months old, I’ve reread only a few books and read many more that were new to me. Only a few of them are recent releases, but perhaps you missed the older books, so they’ll be new to you, too.
This list includes several books that my life-partner Daniel recommended when I was casting about restlessly with no immediate opportunity to go to the library or a used-book sale, as well as some from the stack he handed me when I said, “What science fiction would I like that I haven’t read?” a few weeks before attending Capclave. If you are in a long-term relationship, try asking your partner for books he or she would like you to read: They’ll give you something new to talk about, which can teach you new things about each other, and they’ll give you even more in common.
Anyway, on with the books! (They are in alphabetical order by author and then by title.)
Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine
This travelogue of Earth by the author of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (and a zoologist co-author) was obviously right up my alley, yet for some reason I’d never noticed it on our shelf until Daniel recommended it to me. Adams and Carwardine visited a bunch of endangered species in their exotic habitats and wrote about it with a highly entertaining blend of interesting zoological facts and, well, Douglas Adams. WARNING: Do not read the part about the Komodo dragons when you are struggling with nausea and/or all alone downstairs in the middle of the night, let alone both.
The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams
This is Adams’s final book, released after his very sudden death from a heart attack at age 49. It includes an unfinished Dirk Gently novel about a mysterious half-cat, a bunch of essays about technology, some stories about his own life, and basically every bit of writing that was found on his computer. It’s an uneven mix but lots of fun.
Cluster by Piers Anthony
There is a plot in this highly imaginative science fiction–it’s something about energy-transfer and related politics–but what I enjoyed was the alien sex! The protagonist is sent on a mission which involves becoming another species and getting laid, and then he does that a few more times on other planets. Not only the physical aspects of the various species’ sexual activities but also the inner psychological realities of the experiences are vividly evoked. You can imagine how confusing this mission is! I’ll have to read this book a few more times to be able to remember it better.
Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood
I wanted to like this story of two couples in the 1970s with interesting relationship issues, but it was a bit too dark and sad for me to really enjoy. Also, the fact that one of the main characters is named Lesje–and the book opens with, even before the mood-setting quotations, a stark note on a page all by itself telling you that it’s pronounced “Lashia” so you can try to get your head around that–bugged me all the way through, and I ended up calling her Leslie in my mental narration most of the time. Still, it’s filled with well-phrased insights on Earth life, and the characters are interesting enough that I’ll want to hang out with them again someday.
The Fermata by Nicholson Baker
This is a wonderfully weird book about a guy who can make time stop for everyone except himself, and who tends to use this power to see what women look like under their clothes. He’s also using it to write the story–because in the normal time-stream, he works as an office temp and doesn’t have time for all this writing–but worrying about how that will affect his aging process. Science fiction, social commentary, and lewdness abound, and I ended up being very fond of the narrator for his earnest attempts to be ethical and respectful in his dealings with women both in his time-stopped world and in ordinary life.
In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
The author of the hilarious-yet-educational Notes from a Small Island (reviewed here) and The Lost Continent also wrote this book about Australia, so I had to read it. I felt that this one was less funny than the others, but it certainly had its moments, and I also learned a lot; I was surprised to realize just how little I knew about Australia.
The Shadow of the Sun by A.S. Byatt
An intelligent young woman comes of age in 1950s England. Her father is a famous writer prone to spells of manic hiking. I kind of hated this book because of the unlikeable characters and predictable plot, but I read the whole thing out of fascination with the prose and the beautifully unhurried way it details each moment.
John Ellis was in fact asleep in one corner; a small man, with a leather face in a deep leather armchair, with his short legs in their breeches crossed neatly above the level of his head, and resting on the glass case which contained the ribbons, the rosettes, and the cups. Around him, like a liana jungle, the dark bridles dangled from the ceiling, smelling of leather soap and wax, bits and chains snaking between them. John Ellis snored, no more than the whisper of a whistle.
That’s just a randomly selected passage. John Ellis isn’t anything like a main character, just someone who appears for about three pages, but can’t you picture him and the place he’s in?
Kramer vs. Kramer by Avery Corman
A used-book sale finally got me around to reading this sweet novel of paternal love. (No, I’ve never seen the movie. I did read the Mad Magazine parody….) Joanna Kramer strikes off to find herself, leaving Ted Kramer suddenly a single parent to their young son Billy. Like many fathers in the early 1970s, he’s way out of his depth at first, but over time he becomes more competent, rearranges his priorities, and develops a very special relationship with his little boy–just in time for Joanna to come back and screw it all up.
An Echo in the Bone and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
These are the seventh and eighth books in the series that began with Outlander, a book that blew my mind. I own the first six books and have read all of them at least twice. Daniel’s mother is a huge Outlander fan and buys all the books as soon as they come out; eager to encourage me to sit still and breastfeed her grandchild, she loaned me An Echo in the Bone right after Lydia was born and then Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (published in June) as soon as she finished reading it herself. I was very grateful to have 1,680 pages of epic adventure to amuse me, and I am proud that I managed to keep both of her beautiful new books free of milk, spit-up, coffee, and other contaminants–but I must say, these hefty books are physically harder to read in hardcover than in paperback!
Each of the previous six books had its own structure as a novel. These two were kind of all over the place. We’re in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War! We’re in Scotland in 1980! We’re jumping between six different viewpoint characters, whose stories are almost completely unrelated! As Daniel put it when I described this, it’s like Diana Gabaldon turned on the fire hose of MORE ADVENTURES and then shut it off when the book filled up to maximum page count. An Echo in the Bone ended with a bunch of severely dangling plot lines, and Written in My Own Heart’s Blood left some important things unexplained. And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot, to avoid spoilers for some of my readers who I know are still on book three or four. Despite my frustration with the overall structure, I enjoyed most of the individual scenes and the continuing development of the many, many interesting characters.
About those titles, though–An Echo in the Bone is a fine, creepy, serious-sounding title for a story of time travel and war, but let your brain sing it to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell” just once, and man, it will bug you forever! As for Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, I can’t even say it without smiting my forehead and pretending to swoon, and I felt ridiculous reading a book with such a maudlin title, so I had to place it face-down on my end table when not in use. Good thing the author photo on the back cover is so nice.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein
All right, I’ve finally read this classic of science fiction and free love. While only about half the length of an Outlander book, it seemed longer. Mike is the son of Earth scientists who went to Mars but died, leaving him to be raised by Martians. He returns to Earth as an adult and teaches the Earthlings all about what we can do if we question our assumptions. All we need is love! This book published in 1961 was ahead of the trend; it reads like something written by stoned hippies about a decade later. A lot of it is fun, but I got tired of the later sections about Mike’s persecution and increasing cult-leader status. My favorite parts are the updates about what’s going on in Earth culture at large, in the not-too-distant future.
Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan
This is the story of a mother of two little girls who suddenly remembers that her first-grade best friend disappeared and gets obsessed with investigating what happened. This is not the “provocative page-turner” or “exceptional, riveting novel” the back cover promised because the basic facts of April’s disappearance turn out to be easily available from newspaper archives, and those facts are (sadly) not unlike many similar cases. This is mostly the story of a woman who believes that her friend’s mother’s sad story is OMG so relevant to her own life and to What Motherhood Is Like, so now she can tell us all about her iffy marriage, her hot affair with a jerk, and that one time she was raped, and ultimately subject us to her imaginative retelling of April’s mother’s story, which totally deserves the wincing letter from April’s father quoted on the last page of the book.
Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Daniel and I should have read this book years earlier in our parenting of Nicholas, our almost-ten-year-old master negotiator who can make anyone’s head spin with his ceaseless stream of nearly-reasonable demands. While we still don’t have a perfect framework for getting along with him, we are doing much better thanks to insights and strategies from this book. This is the one to read if you have the kind of kid who keeps you moaning, “Why must he argue with every little thing?” or “How did I get talked into this–again?” or “Why do I feel so guilty for telling him No?” or “Why does he think he’s in charge?”. Especially helpful is the section on recognizing your child’s strongest personality traits and your own, and working with the ways they conflict or harmonize.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I could barely put down this fascinating novel! Alice falls and hits her head during exercise class and gets a very specific type of amnesia: She can’t remember anything that happened in the past ten years. She’s a mother of three in the process of divorce, but she thinks pregnant with her first child and giddily in love with her husband. What happened in those ten years that made her marriage go sour and turned her into (as she gradually discovers) such a snarky, selfish person? It’s not what you think, and the story really keeps you guessing.
Eating Chinese Food Naked by Mei Ng
This is the typical “Generation X college graduate at loose ends gains new perspective on her parents” novel but from the perspective of a daughter of Chinese immigrants running a laundry in Queens. Ruby has moved back in with her parents just until she finds a job, but the whole idea of setting up a future for herself seems weird now that she’s back in her childhood home. Her non-Chinese boyfriend in Manhattan feels far away, and although he seems to love and respect her, she’s not sure if she can trust that or if it’s really what she wants. Ruby’s feelings, her parents’ behavior, and their home all are described with aching vividness.
The Integral Trees by Larry Niven
This is another of Daniel’s recommendations; he loves Niven and has read almost all of his many books. I’ve read about four of them, and I always end up feeling that the science-fiction ideas were really great but the characters were only 80% real people. That was the case here, too. In Niven’s carefully-imagined zone of interesting gravitational forces, trees grow in space, and the weird gravity causes them to form shapes like the integral symbols in calculus, but these trees also are integral to the people who live there, in the tufts of foliage at the two ends. The story follows an expedition sent out of their tuft along the trunk of the tree, where they encounter people from the other tuft’s tribe. Battle ensues, and they go on to have adventures in the floating jungle and the antique spaceship and such.
Model Home by Eric Puchner
I read it all the way through but dropped it off at Goodwill the next day. It started off as a fairly interesting story about parents and three kids who live in a gated community in California but aren’t typical rich suburbanites; each of them has some strangeness going on. The father is a real estate developer who’s put all of the family’s savings into a new development–which then fails so spectacularly that they lose everything and have to move into this otherwise vacant development. But just as that’s about to happen, the author throws in another of my least-favorite things over-done in novels: And Then Tragedy Struck. Aargh. The tragedy was too much and waaaay too graphically described, but I kept reading because I was interested in the characters, but I was less than satisfied with how they turned out. The one part that made this book really worth reading was the scene in which the little brother gets lost in a Grateful Dead concert campground–very funny and oddly sweet.
Lots of mysteries by Ruth Rendell!
When I was 7 months pregnant, I bought everything I wanted from a used-book store that was going out of business, and it happened to have a large supply of books by my favorite mystery author. I also got a couple of her books last Christmas. These are the ones I’d never read before:
- From Doon With Death. This is the first of Rendell’s books ever published and the first in her long series featuring Inspector Wexford. It’s just as good as a lot of the later ones! Wexford investigates the murder of a childless wife who seems so quiet and ordinary, yet for some reason she left the house suddenly, without even a coat, and wound up strangled. Clues are sparse, but in her otherwise modest home are many beautifully bound books of literature and poetry with romantic inscriptions from Doon to Minna. The victim had a secret past that kept me guessing until the very end.
- The Monster in the Box. This is book #22 featuring Inspector Wexford, so he’s quite late in his career and dealing with an irritatingly politically-correct young detective, Hannah Goldsmith, who is worried that a young Muslim woman might be about to get forced into an arranged marriage. Meanwhile, Wexford spots Eric Targo, a man he suspected of two murders decades ago but was never able to convict, who at one point seemed to be almost stalking Wexford. This brings back all sorts of memories, including the long story of how Wexford met his wife. I’ve read many reviews praising this book, but I thought it was kind of uneven: The way the various storylines tie together in the end is masterful, but they are so tangentially connected for so long that the narrative is awkward. Still, it’s always fun to ramble along with Inspector Wexford in his fictional town of Kingsmarkham, observing the inhabitants and their customs, and the multiple decades in this story gave it a nice layered effect.
- Shake Hands Forever. Inspector Wexford #9. The woman found strangled in her bedroom, with no signs of struggle, was not at all the type to let a stranger into the house–and she was normally a terrible housekeeper, so why was the place so clean and neat? I’m already wanting to read this one again because I remember the beginning so clearly but nothing at all about how it unfolds!
- A Sleeping Life. Inspector Wexford #10. A woman found dead under a hedge turns out to have been living under a fake identity. The investigation takes lots of twists and turns and has so many false leads that I began to feel like he’d never solve it, and (appropriate to the title!) during the nights when I was repeatedly having to sit up to nurse a newborn and consoling myself for the inconvenience by reading this book, I began to dream wildly implausible solutions. The true one was what I’d guessed very early in the story, so I got to feel clever about it.
- The Speaker of Mandarin. Inspector Wexford #12. He goes to China on holiday, which is interesting, but no mystery there–well, except for that old woman who seems to turn up everywhere he goes. Then, after he gets home to England, a woman from the tour group is murdered. As he interviews the other members of the tour group, various false leads emerge and all have to be followed. This may be my least favorite of all the Inspector Wexfords I have read. Very little of his own personality comes through except for attitudes that make him seem like a grumpy old white man, although he’s relatively young at this point in the series.
- Tigerlily’s Orchids. The interwoven stories of the people who live in an apartment building and two houses across the street all swirl together around, of course, a murder, but there’s a lot more to the story than that. The characters are great, and almost every one of them is wrapped up in some kind of secret. It’s kind of like an updated, adult, British version of The Westing Game (reviewed here). This is my favorite out of this batch of Rendell.
- To Fear a Painted Devil. A rich young ditz has a birthday party attended by everyone in her exclusive little cluster of homes. Her husband is attacked by wasps, but the doctor says he’ll be okay. Next morning he’s dead. Why? I guessed this one easily but enjoyed the story nonetheless.
The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
I read this, the first book in the Percy Jackson series, to my nine-year-old Nicholas as a bedtime story. I can see why it’s so popular–and it was obvious that it would make a good movie–but I had mixed feelings about it. The integration of Greek mythology into modern life is quite imaginative and sometimes very funny. Being somewhat familiar with the myths, I enjoyed recognizing the clues as to which monster was about to burst out of its disguise. However, the quality of the writing is not great; the story structure is too much, “Then things seemed to be calm, until we got into another crisis,” and the informal narration is sometimes too informal for the seriousness of the events, and the few fully-human characters are so flatly good or bad that they seem far less human than the half-bloods and immortals. Nicholas loved it, though, and is eager to read more, and it’s something he can talk about with his peers, so that’s all good. I think I’ll make him read further volumes to himself, while I read something else to him.
Our Lady of the Lost and Found by Diane Schoemperlein
I borrowed this book from someone who liked it a lot. I didn’t. The premise sounded great: Ordinary woman is surprised when the Virgin Mary shows up in her home and announces that she wants to hang out there for a week. The first chapter was fine. But then the narrator starts to talk about herself in excruciating detail, and she isn’t very interesting. That goes on until page 30 when Mary finally shows up. And then Mary isn’t all that interesting, but anyway we don’t get to hear much from her because the narrator (who claims to be a successful novelist…) keeps pausing the narrative of her week sharing her home with the Holy Mother of God to talk about herself some more or list every detail of a room in her boringly decorated home or tell lengthy stories in the third person present tense that she says are stories Mary told her during the week that she embellished with later research. I would so much rather have had Mary tell them! By page 97 I was tired of making myself read this book and flipped ahead to see if it got better. Looking at every thirtieth page or so, I didn’t find anything that made me want to read the rest. This book has added another layer to my loathing of authors who are too modern for quotation marks and instead indicate that someone is speaking by beginning the paragraph with an m-dash.
The Man In the Queue by Josephine Tey
This mystery first published in 1929 is similar to newer police detective murder mysteries, but it is well worth reading for the elegant prose and charming descriptions that take you through a pretty good plot. People are packed shoulder-to-shoulder to get into a popular musical theater show, and when the line finally moves, one man falls over dead. Somebody stabbed him–but nobody saw it happen. There is a frustrating lack of leads, then a break in the case, but the suspect gets wind of it and flees London. Inspector Grant has to take his investigation to a remote part of northern Scotland that (in this era when private automobiles were rare) he reaches by riding in a postal delivery vehicle on a one-lane road, where they encounter a vehicle going the other direction:
…the car proved to be a Ford, and with the mongrel adaptability of its kind took without parley to the moor, and with complete insouciance swept bumping past the stationary mail-car what time the drivers exchanged unintelligible greetings. This display of amphibiousness seemed to astonish no one, and though the car was now filled to overflowing, no remark was made.
It’s a lot of fun to read. The surprise twist was a bit too surprising to swallow at first, but I wound up satisfied with it. I have to share just one more sentence with you:
The light died on the window-sill as the last survivor of a charge dies on the enemy parapet, murdered but glorious.
Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner
This is the story of a woman who is horrified to discover that her ex-boyfriend is writing a magazine column about having sex with a fat lady, by which he means her. Over time, she learns that this isn’t the insult she thought it was, but in the process she snaps out of her career rut and has adventures, some of them hilarious. This is not the best of Jennifer Weiner’s books (Best Friends Forever and Little Earthquakes are both excellent) but I enjoyed it enough that I’m keeping it to read again someday.