Sunday, December 10, 2017

My Top Five (or more) Books of 2017

Those of my readers who have been following this blog for a while, know that I had to stuff seven novels into my favorites of 2016 list, and eight books ended up on list for 2015. This year, I have nine books that deserved a full five stars. Notably, one of these is a non-fiction book. Since I usually make these lists about fiction, that one non-fiction five-star book will get a special award. That means that once again, I need to cram eight books into this list. With no further ado required, let the countdown begin.

#5 – Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney – this novel took its inspiration from real-life poet and Macy's ad-writer Margaret Fishback, who gained fame for her clever ads and humorous poetry in the 1930s. This delightful book of historical fiction brings an essentially unknown woman into the limelight at last. (Oh, and by the way, where have you been all my reading life, Kathleen Rooney?)

#4 – Girl in Disguise by Greer McCallister – in McCallister's second novel, she takes on telling the story of Kate Warne, America's (and maybe the world's) first female detective, who walked into the Pinkerton's Detective Agency in 1856 and insisted Pinkerton take her on as an agent. With the little information left about Warne and her escapades, Macallister succeeds in weaving a story of intrigue and mystery in a tale that will fascinate as well as educate.

#3 – Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss TIED with The Golden House by Salman Rushdie – Krauss’ long awaited fourth novel is, to my mind her best yet. In this book, Krauss gives us parallel stories of two characters that travel from New York to Tel Aviv, while neither of them ever meets the other. Despite these disconnected tales, Krauss leads us to draw our own comparisons and contrasts with what she both reveals from and hides underneath their adventures. Rushdie’s latest novel moves back into the realm of solid reality, to revolve around the newest wealthy family at "The Gardens," a gated New York Community - the Golden family. Not only do they all have strange names (straight out of ancient Roman and Greek history and mythology), but they themselves seem a bit odd. René is a fellow resident, with ambitions in filmmaking, including a project to document the Golden family, but René hasn't decided if he should tell their true story or make up something fictional; either way, René can't seem to stay away from the Golden House.

#2 – See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt – the infamous Lizzie Borden was a woman that the public (but not a jury) believed murdered her father and stepmother with an axe. Since the science of forensics at the time was primitive at best, they found neither proof of Lizzie's guilt nor any other suspects. That means we will never know the whole truth. Using this mystery, Sarah Schmidt devises her own ideas about Lizzie Borden, her family and the murders, all of which she put into her dark and highly emotive debut novel.

#1 – The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce TIED with the novel Beartown by Fredrik Backman AND the novella The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman – last year, Backman’s novel and novella got demoted (after grabbing the first-place spots in 2014 and 2015) to the second-place spot, but both of his two works of this year left me breathless. However, Joyce’s fourth book had me bawling like a baby, so I couldn’t place her novel any lower on this list.

NON-FICTION Award Not Quite Lost: Travels without a Sense of Direction by Roz Morris – who would have thought that a self-published book would be so absolutely delightful, but this one certainly is just that. Morris, who is an accomplished ghost-writer, took the step to finally publish under her own name, and the world is better for it. This lovingly written diary takes us along Morris' many travels (mostly across Britain), where random entries in hotel or B&B guest books spark the imagination and become new adventures both thrilling and beautiful. Although I haven’t read her fiction (not really my thing, as they’re kinda fantasy/Sci-Fi books), if this little memoir is anything to go by, they must be wonderful.

That’s it for this year, and here's wishing everyone a 2018 filled with more amazing books. (Who knows, but maybe I'll need to make that list a "top ten" one!) You can find my previous lists here:

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Mysterious Models

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

“On an autumn day in 1686, eight-year-old Nella Oortman arrives at a grand house in Amsterdam to begin her new life as the wife of wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. Though curiously distant, he presents her with an extraordinary wedding give: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. it is to be furnished by an elusive miniaturist, whose tiny creations ring eerily true. As Nella uncovers the secrets of her new household she realizes the escalating dangers they face. The miniaturist seems to hold their fate in her hands – but does she plan to save or destroy them?”

This alone would pique anyone’s interest, but to follow that with the opening lines of this book was what grabbed me and had me in thrall from start to finish. The book begins “The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends. But words are water in Amsterdam, they flood your ears and set the rot, and the church’s east corner is crowded.” Okay, so you tell me if that doesn’t just blow you away? This simply sets an amazing tone with its poetry, that you might wonder if Burton can keep it up. Yet she does, and without it ever sounding overtly flowery or heavy. In fact, although these awe-inspiring turns of phrase pop up regularly throughout the text, for the most part, the language and style here is ultimately accessible and straight forward. Furthermore, Burton chooses her words carefully so that together with the plot, she builds an atmosphere that feels like this could easily be a memoir written in the late 17th century.

Now, rather than continue to be totally effusive and gushing about this novel, I’ll point out a few things that other reviewers might not touch on. For example, one thing that surprised me about this book is that there is a real-life cabinet house that sits in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which was once owned by one Petronella Oortman (and there’s a picture of it included in the book). Apparently, this was the inspiration for Burton’s debut novel, which I think is fascinating. When people ask where writers get their inspiration, certainly this is proof that they can get it from practically anywhere, anyone and anything. Obviously, seeing this cabinet house spurred Burton so much that she ended up doing what feels like extensive research about the era and place, some of the findings of which she includes after the end of the book, with other information, among which also includes a small glossary and some guidelines for what things cost at the time. I found this a lovely touch, and it certainly put some things into perspective.

Another thing was the slightest hints of magical realism that Burton includes here. All of this surrounds the titular character, and that artisan’s peculiar talents. Not only can this miniaturist make breathtakingly accurate replicas of people, animals and inanimate objects, but these reproductions have an uncanny way of revealing things that no one outside of the Brandt house could possibly know, as well as indicate things that have not yet happened. Burton uses this magical realism to further the various twists and turns in the story, including Nella’s various attempts to contact the person responsible for these strange objects.

Essentially, what we have here is a simply lusciously written, inspired work of genius with a complex plot that Burton carefully unfolds while avoiding confusing the readers, and a cast of characters that are both human and endearing. What more can I say but kudos to Burton for this amazing work of historical fiction that deserves a full five out of five stars! 

PS: Had I read this book in 2014, it would certainly have been a front runner in that year’s list of my top five books of the year! Also, I see from IMDb that they’re making a mini-series of this book, but that shouldn’t stop you from reading it; no screen version could ever portray Burton’s truly stunningly beautiful prose.

Picador released "The Miniaturist" by Jessie Burton in 2014. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo eBooks, Kobo audiobooks,, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase supports literacy and libraries) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Unraveling the Complexes

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

During the first World War, the British government employed many people as spies in German-occupied Europe, and many of them were women. One of those women was code-named Alice DuBois (who preferred to be called Lili), and became their "Queen of Spies," managing an underground slew of informants that became known as the Alice Network. After the second World War, Charlotte (aka Charlie) St. Clair is searching for her missing cousin, which brings her to Evelyn Gardiner, one of the women in that network. These two set out on a journey, together with Evelyn’s driver and helper Finn Kilgore, not only to find Charlie’s cousin, but also to resolve unanswered questions from both devastating wars.

Yet again, I find myself of two minds about a novel. On the one hand Quinn writes this novel with true aplomb, where the excitement grows into veritable fireworks for the climax scene. Mind you, I think Quinn’s pacing accelerated somewhat slower in the book than I would have liked, and for most of the book I would say it felt like the tension built at a carefully insistent pace. However, when I got to about the 80% mark, that speed increased into something absolutely exhilarating. (Admittedly, before I got to that point, I was wondering if I could give this even four stars.) With this, I was surprisingly pleased with how Quinn carefully slowed that rhythm down for the aftermath and conclusion of the story. This fast let-down could have felt much more abrupt, but I think it was the perfect antidote to the almost frenzy that Quinn worked up to prior to that.

As for Quinn’s writing style, I found this mostly transparent, which allowed the characters and the plot to shine through, with a few jarring things sprinkled throughout the text. For example, it didn’t feel comfortable with Charlie referring to her being pregnant as having gotten “knocked up.” It isn’t that this slang didn’t exist back then, because it did. However, I think that Charlie probably would have used some other, more delicate euphemism early in the book, and only allowed herself to use this lower-class sounding slang after her increased exposure to Evelyn’s very rough-and-tumble personality which came with some outright vulgar vocabulary.

However, what struck me the most was how Quinn developed her three main characters. Quinn made sure that all three of them were very sympathetic, realistic and humanly flawed. Although neither Evelyn nor Finn seemed terribly lovable to begin with, there was something about them both that felt worthy of giving them a chance, and they certainly grew on me by the end of the novel. In fact, all three of them start out at one place in their lives and change throughout the story in one way or another. However, I did feel Quinn allowed some inconsistencies to creep in here. For example, there were times when I thought that Charlie’s part in the story felt superfluous, only for her to come back into the fore later. Also, I felt the title of book was a bit misleading, because the story didn’t give me more than a second-hand view of Louise de Bettignies, the “Alice” of the network, where I was expecting we’d get at least something from her viewpoint. This is my biggest bone of contention with this book, the fact that we aren’t served what was on the menu.

Of course, this isn’t to say that this isn’t an absorbing novel, because it is. Quinn artfully melds Charlie’s search for her cousin and Evelyn’s fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) past, making for an excellent plot basis, which Quinn respectfully and notably develops, practically irrespective of Alice/Louise/Lili and her famous network of spies. My problem is that Quinn piqued my interest about this amazing “Queen of Spies,” and after learning about her (mostly in the afterward), I wished this book had focused more on her exploits and life. Sadly, from what I can see, that historical fiction book hasn’t yet been written. Despite this, I can still recommend this book warmly and give it a solid four out of five stars.

The Gale Group of William Morrow released "The Alice Network" by Kate Quinn in June 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank author Elisabeth Storrs for giving me this book via her ‘Inspiration Newsletter’ giveaway contest!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Hybrid of a Family

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg

According to Goodreads this is “a moving novel about three people who find their way back from loss and loneliness to a different kind of happiness. Arthur, a widow, meets Maddy, a troubled teenage girl who is avoiding school by hiding out at the cemetery, where Arthur goes every day for lunch to have imaginary conversations with his late wife, and think about the lives of others. The two strike up a friendship that draws them out of isolation. Maddy gives Arthur the name Truluv, for his loving and positive responses to every outrageous thing she says or does. With Arthur’s nosy neighbor Lucille, they create a loving and unconventional family, proving that life’s most precious moments are sweeter when shared.” Well, I couldn’t have summarized this book better, so let’s leave it at that.

At the outset, I have to admit that I’m of two minds about this book. In general, I really did enjoy it. Berg’s prose is so gentle and inviting, we cannot help but feel for these characters, while totally understanding their motives and actions. Plus, as the story progresses, Berg builds them so lovingly that it’s almost like watching flowers come into bloom. Furthermore, Berg seems to have an excellent knack for pacing her story so that we never get bored nor feel confused with too many things happening. Berg also constructed a plot that makes good sense, and runs faultlessly from beginning to end. Everything Berg is trying to show here comes through with empathy and care. These include the need people have to feel appreciated, the desire to help others and share our lives with them, and the feeling of being in control while at the same time, having people in our lives we can also depend upon.

One thing I really must commend Berg for is the ending of this novel. In my mind, I can imagine a certain scene that Berg could easily have included here, just before the final chapter. Thankfully, Berg (or her editors) didn’t include that scene, and instead jumped ahead in the story, and allowed the readers to assume this situation. Had it been included, I’m certain it would have lessened the effect of the final chapter, so kudos to Berg and/or her editors for that exclusion.

However, despite all this praise, I still have some reservations about this book. Now, perhaps this might seem unfair but early on in reading this book, I got the distinct feeling that Berg was attempting to mold Arthur into an American version of Ove (as in, from Backman’s debut novel). Yes, Ove is far more curmudgeonly and judgmental than Arthur, and also unlike Ove, he certainly hasn’t given up on life. But there are many versions of the old man who you might not always like, but you can’t help loving them nonetheless. Unfortunately, Arthur isn’t the best example of any of them, since for me, Berg wasn’t able to evoke any strong emotions out of me for Arthur. It took me a long while to put my finger on why Arthur didn’t move me, and I think the reason was that Arthur was simply too nice, too often, and it didn’t balance well with the smaller incidences of when he was being difficult. That may sound silly, but I have to be honest, and I feel I needed more harshness in Arthur, so that Berg could convince me to fall for him despite his faults. I’m certain that Berg could have done this, since essentially, we learn to love Lucille in exactly that manner, as Berg knew exactly how terribly infuriating she could be, and we still end up adoring her, both because of and despite her many faults. So, although this is a truly warm and heartwarming tale, tenderly written that just flows softly from beginning to end, it will make you smile, but I’m afraid it won’t make you cry. For this, I can still warmly recommend it, and give it a solid four out of five stars.

Random House will release "The Story of Arthur Truluv" by Elizabeth Berg on November 21, 2017. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A New Christmas Carol

The Deal of a Lifetime: A Novella by Fredrik Backman

The protagonist of this novella is a father who is wealthy, successful and famous. He also has cancer, but so does the adorable five-year-old girl he meets in the hospital. Both of them are going to die eventually. The question is, does it really matter when, how or even why they die? That, together with the question of what differences the choices we make have on our lives, is the essence of Backman’s latest work. (Dear Amazon and/or Atria Books: this is how you write a concise summary of such a brief work of poetic prose, and not the four paragraphs describing half the story, which I found on Amazon.)

In the introduction to this novella, Backman writes “Every day, everywhere, we go down one road or another. We play around; we stay at home; we fall in love and fall asleep right next to each other. We discover we need someone to sweep us off our feet to realize what time really is. So I tried to tell a story about that.” Backman also adds, “Maybe you will find this to be a strange story, I don’t know. It’s not very long, so at least it will be over quickly in that case.” Of course, reading a short work by Backman can be disheartening, simply because I never want to stop reading whatever he writes. Despite that, I understood fully why this story was so short, and why its ending was absolutely perfectly timed.

More importantly, what Backman gives us here is a type of fairy-tale, or if you will, a new Christmas Carol for the 21st century. Our unnamed protagonist is not a nice person – much like Scrooge – who cares more about money than he does about people. In fact, it took him several days to discover that his wife had left him, taking their son with her. This tidbit about the protagonist is exactly the way in which Backman shows the reader what kind of man this is, together with his own admissions of guilt. However, with this callousness, Backman gives us this man’s first-person account of his interactions with this sweet, dying little girl, and his spying on his son, happily working at his bar-tending job. Backman counters these solidly credible connections to this man’s life with an aspect of magical-reality from this mysterious woman with a folder, hence the “Christmas Carol” feeling.

Where this novella seems to depart from his other works, is that here Backman’s prose sounds like this man was speaking directly to his son, and in that, he makes all of his readers into this character. Because this man has never been a good father, and more importantly, isn’t a caring person in general, using this method, Backman succeeds in gaining some level of sympathy for this protagonist, and not just because we know he has an incurable case of cancer, just like the little girl (who we adore at the outset). Of course, Backman has always known how to make us fall in love with less-than-lovable characters, but this man never becomes truly lovable. Instead, Backman only makes us feel somewhat sorry for him. Furthermore, although we still don’t like him very much, when this story ends, we certainly feel better about him, and almost proud of what he does. I’m pretty sure that this was Backman’s intention. Mind you, these conflicting feelings also meant that, for the first time, I didn’t cry while reading a Backman book. On the other hand, after I read the last paragraph, I did sit there stunned for a good five minutes, while the words “oh, wow” went through my head. (Yes, Backman has done it again!)

However, I did have two gripes with this book. The first, as mentioned above, was the blurb I found on Amazon, which is far too detailed for my liking. Hello! This is a work by Fredrik Backman, people! He’s already got a huge following; you don’t need to give so much away. I promise you, it will sell even if all you say is “Fredrik Backman’s newest work is a thought-provoking novella about love, death, choices and consequences”! My other problem was that they sold the Kindle file of this book together with an excerpt from “Beartown” and lots and lots of promos of all Backman’s other books. With all these additions, the novella itself ended at just past the 50% mark of the file! I suspect they did it just to fool people like me into thinking we had more Backman to read. Although this did tick me off somewhat, it didn’t really distract from the novella itself, and I cannot give it less than a full five out of five stars (surprise, surprise - NOT!).

Atria Books released "The Deal of a Lifetime: A Novella" by Fredrik Backman on October 31, 2017. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Reconstructing Music

The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow

The publishers describe this book as follows:

In the early days of the new millennium, pages of a weathered original sonata manuscript—the gift of a Czech immigrant living out her final days in Queens—come into the hands of Meta Taverner, a young musicologist whose concert piano career was cut short by an injury. To Meta’s eye, it appears to be an authentic eighteenth-century work; to her discerning ear, the music rendered there is hauntingly beautiful, clearly the composition of a master. But there is no indication of who the composer might be. The gift comes with the request that Meta attempt to find the manuscript’s true owner—a Prague friend the old woman has not heard from since the Second World War forced them apart—and to make the three-part sonata whole again. Leaving New York behind for the land of Dvorák and Kafka, Meta sets out on an unforgettable search to locate the remaining movements of the sonata and uncover a story that has influenced the course of many lives, even as it becomes clear that she isn’t the only one after the music’s secrets.

Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe, and that, combined with my musical background made this book very appealing to me, and thankfully this book lived up to at least some of my expectations. First, I love historical fiction, and Morrow gave me a good portion of this, with pieces of the action taking place during both World Wars and the Czech “Velvet Revolution,” although most of this novel takes place at the early part of the 21st century. Of course, my love of Prague was satisfied by many loving descriptions of that city, which made me nostalgic to walk those charming streets again. In addition, Morrow is either very musically knowledgeable, or he has done some excellent research for this book (I understand it took him 10 years to complete it), because he certainly seemed to know his stuff in that area. For example, not many people would know what a WoO is, or understand so fully how a sonata is constructed. Finally, there’s a nice little romance that runs through the book, balanced with a good heaping of mystery and intrigue, to keep the emotional tensions up and move the plot along. All this, together with a gently lyrical, yet unpretentious writing style gave this book a surprisingly relaxed atmosphere, despite the present complexities and clandestine history of this manuscript.

Another good thing about this book is the way Morrow develops his characters. When we are introduced to Meta, we are almost automatically sympathetic to her, and seeing as she’s the major protagonist here, that’s certainly a good thing. Also, early in the book we’re introduced to Jonathan, Meta’s boyfriend, who doesn’t seem a good fit for her, which is something that works out well later in the book. The other characters all seem to fall quietly into place like pieces of a puzzle. There’s Otylie, the manuscript’s owner, Mandelbaum, Meta’s mentor and Gerrit, an American-Czech journalist living in Prague, and Meta’s eventual romantic interest. Along with them Morrow carefully builds a set of antagonists who all seem to want to get their hands on the manuscript for various reasons. There are other characters along the way as well, all of whom seem to get about equal minor billing, and are rounded enough to be both believable and work nicely to enhance the overall story.

While all this sounds pretty good, there are several reasons why I can’t give this book five stars. One problem I had with this book was that several of the lesser characters, although realistic, felt a bit clichéd, and somewhat romanticized, as if Morrow liked them too much to give them any real flaws. There were also some inconsistencies in the plot that bothered me. For example, I wasn’t terribly convinced that Otylie’s husband would have been so protective of this manuscript that Otylie’s father gave her. Furthermore, I felt that Morrow tried to get a bit too much intrigue into this story, and that not only lengthened it (perhaps a bit too much), but also frustrated me as a reader during these passages, since I just wanted Morrow to get back to the essence of the story. On the other hand, I also felt that Morrow should have fleshed some of the sections about Otylie out a bit more, and possibly placed some of them earlier in the book, since their relative thinness and late appearance in the novel was probably what made the climax fall a bit flat for me. In other words, there were some things that were built up too much, while others didn’t get enough buildup for my taste. Finally, I was slightly disappointed that Morrow decided to attribute this sonata to such a famous composer, but I’m guessing that with everything else Morrow needed to research, raising up a lesser known maestro might have been a bit too much.

In any case, overall, this book deserves a whole lot of praise, from the fascinating story idea, to the excellent research into the music world, and with a cast of characters, most of whom were drawn beautifully, and developed with a very loving hand. The fact that it didn’t bother me that this story hits on the Holocaust, but has only one Jewish character, is also noteworthy. I think that most historical fiction lovers will enjoy this book, and despite my few niggles, I can confidently recommend it with four out of five stars.

Grove Atlantic released "The Prague Sonata" by Bradford Morrow on October 13, 2017. This book is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), Kobo audio books (USA, Canada & Australia), eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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