review · U.S.

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

chalk artistAllegra Goodman is on my auto-buy list. I really, really liked The Cookbook Collector about a pair of sisters in California, a bit of a taking down of dot com business culture, a bit of a love story with smart characters. I like her for the same reasons as I like Meg Wolitzer: sweeping drama, smart people, over a lengthy period of time. The Chalk Artist, unfortunately, didn’t quite work for me.

The Chalk Artist deals with a group of teenagers and a group of adults all somehow connected to Arkadia Systems, a videogame company. Goodman is so sympathetic towards her characters, and in that way it reminds me of My So-Called Life or other Herkowitz show. But I didn’t love the story because I’m not really into fantasy or video games, and while I was impressed by a couple of the scenes describing the immersive gaming-in-the-round universe of UnderWorld, I ultimately didn’t love it.

Another thing that sort of annoyed me is that the young-teacher storyline turned a bit into a teacher-as-savior story, which I loved when I was say, under 25 years old, but I don’t now.

My criticisms are because I loved other parts of the book. An intelligent take on young love was great- it’s what was missing from say, Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. The art stuff was very cool and very vivid. The technology part was sort of cool but I felt distanced because gaming is not my thing.

The Chalk Artist by Allegra Goodman

Dial Press, June 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

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review · U.S.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

startupI had high hopes when I started Startup by Doree Shafrir. It starts at a ridiculous MorningRave, a “clean living dance party” populated by all sorts of denizens of New York City’s startup scene, notably Mack, the founder of an app of questionable value, and Katja, a journalist covering the tech scene. I was expecting more satire, and instead the story was more heavy with ideas and a lot of characters who were kind of despicable at times and noble at other times.

Ultimately the characters never felt quite real to me and more representative of ideas: here’s the older journalist going off about how journalism has changed in the last ten years, here’s a young woman being sexually harassed in the supposedly-enlightened company she works for: the characters seemed more like ideas than people, if that makes sense. I’ve seen reviews talking about how readable and accurate the story was, and while I read it quickly, I just felt dissatisfied by the story. It’s a book filled with sad, disconnected people who work an awful lot, and it wasn’t my thing.

Startup by Doree Shafrir

Little Brown, April 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review · U.S.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

youwillknowmeYou Will Know Me fits into the last few Megan Abbott books centered on the heightened world of teenage girls (see Dare Me, The Fever, and The End of Everything). You Will Know Me is the story of Devon, a gymnast on the cusp of qualifying for elite status and trying out for the Olympics, her parents Eric and Katie, and the death of a guy connected to her gymnastics gym. At first I thought it would be a story more about gymnastics and the level of obsessiveness required to compete at an extremely high level, but it turns into a mystery about the death of Ryan, the boyfriend of a gymnastics coach at Devon’s gym. The book starts as a book obsessed with young gymnast’s bodies and ends up being a story about the secret inner lives of not only of Devon but of her entire family. And just a note about the title: by the end I realized while I knew more about Devon and her family, there was still a great deal I did not.

The mystery didn’t really grab me because my suspicions about what happened were pretty accurate. What was most gripping for me was the sadness of Katie and Eric’s lives. They were pretty desperate for Devon to succeed, and as the story went on the details of their lives supporting Devon’s training seemed overwhelming to me. And their ignoring their younger son felt extra sad by the end as well. All in all, this is a pretty moody book that didn’t really take off as a mystery for me though it was an enjoyable read.

You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Little Brown, July 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review · U.S.

Desert Vengeance by Betty Webb

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a PI book with a tough female main character, and I’m glad I read Desert Vengeance, book 9 in the Lena Jones series. Fair warning: the subject matter is incredibly tough. The book centers on the murder of Brian Wycoff, the foster parent who abused Lena when she was a child and who is released from prison as the book opens. While Lena did follow him after his release from jail, she did not murder him. Lena works alone during most of the book as she follows Wycoff to a small community hours outside of Phoenix, the Black Canyon City that I believe is in the cover photo, and the lone PI part of the story was not my favorite part of the story. I was more interested in Lena’s backstory, especially the bits of revelation of what happened to her family, which still isn’t entirely clear. Lena Jones clearly compartmentalizes to be able to go about her life, and in some ways that’s what frustrated me as a reader. I think I expected to know more about her since I jumped in so late in the series.

desert-vengeanceDesert Vengeance by Betty Webb

Poisoned Pen Press, February 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review · U.S.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

river-at-nightSo I picked out this book because I’m extremely fond of a little movie called The Edge, which is a thriller-in-the-wilderness movie that seriously has a bear attack or something incredibly exciting every 8 minutes. It’s not a movie I rewatch and rewatch, but it sticks in my head as a very memorable ride, and the description of The River at Night sounded like the sort of adventure movie I loved. It’s a story about a group of four female friends in their late thirties who embark on a whitewater rafting trip in northern Maine (nice way to work on my USA Fiction challenge reading).  I immediately thought Deliverance, I immediately thought something bad happens in the wilderness (the narrator I assumed was a survivor, since she narrates the story in the past tense), and after a brief but not too brief introduction, the paddling begins.

The River at Night is a brisk little book that is definitely an adventure story that doesn’t spend forever on characterizations. The characters aren’t flat but not perfectly round either. I could have used a little more rounding of the villain, but I say that about lots of books. The writing is quite lovely despite how menacing the plot becomes. I just wish that the people living in the hinterlands weren’t so menacing minus one character.

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Gallery/Scout Press, January 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · U.S.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

soulmates-jessica-groseI was interested in this book because I spotted the word thriller in the jacket copy and I was familiar with the author’s journalism in all sorts of places. I was even more interested when I found out the story is about a young lawyer investigating her estranged husband’s death outside a new age retreat in northern New Mexico: I figured the setup was sinister despite the sort of satirical spin the book starts with (the main character finds out her husband is dead in a headline beginning “Namaslay.” Ultimately, the shift in the book at the halfway mark made it very obvious this really wasn’t the kind of investigation I was looking for, and I ultimately wound up not a fan of the book since I was expecting more of a plot-driven ride instead of a book that, all in all, feels like an expose of a utopian yoga commune.

Here is what the book does well: it captures the emotional state of a woman left by her husband as he went off to lead his spiritually actualized life under the thumb of a guru named Yoni Brooks. The psychological portrait of the woman left behind trying to make sense of her life is the most vivid part of the story. When Dana,  our main character, goes to New Mexico to retrace her husband’s last days, it’s obvious that plot is not the strong  suit of the book. Dana stumbles across her ex-husband’s self-help pamphlet that describes the demise of his marriage, and instead of the book focusing on the investigating and the hunt for answers, it feels like the information magically appears in Dana’s lap. There aren’t really many tense interviews in the book. There aren’t a lot of showdowns in the book. Instead there are people who end up unburdening themselves, and there are some things about Dana making progress in letting go of her anger, but the drive as to finding out the mystery isn’t there. It’s an unexpected shift, and the ending is a bit creepy, but ultimately I’m dissatisfied because I feel duped by the jacket copy and the opening chapter.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of skewering of new-age gurus in what I’ve been reading lately. Unlike the Margaret Millar and Emma Straub books this reminds me of, this book, in contrast, gets into the psychology of why someone would get into the group, and it’s the uncomfortable most of all.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

HarperCollins, September 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review · U.S.

Not What I Expected: Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman

wilde lake 2My experience of reading Wilde Lake was a mixed one. I adored the first hundred pages, and I even went to so far to tell people to read it on the basis of the beginning alone. It’s so specific about growing up in a planned suburb in the 1970s that I  was fascinated. Now that I’m finished, there’s so much that bothers me about it, and it mainly has to do with the two main pleasures I look for in a crime novel: there’s some clarity about what happened, or there’s a thrilling chase or setpiece or two that keeps me interested. I think the openness of the ending, which wasn’t a total openness, to be fair, was what bothered me the most.

The Laura Lippman standalones I’ve read tend to deal with past timelines being uncovered in the present. Wilde Lake is no different: the intersecting timelines circle around Lu Brant, the first female state’s attorney in Howard County who prosecutes her first murder case as an elected official. The past storyline involves her older brother who accidentally killed someone when he was a teenager and when their father was state’s attorney. Lu is 10 years old in the bulk of the past storyline, so her memories are not reliable because of the significant passage of time.

Why I liked the beginning: the book is like an update to To Kill a Mockingbird. Lu is a tomboy, her mom is dead, her dad is a prosecutor instead of a defense attorney. She’s wily. She’s trying to figure out her dad and her much older brother. They live in Columbia MD, a suburban dream of equality and egalitarianism halfway between Baltimore and Washington DC, and the political and suburban planning theories sounded great.

But there’s not a lot of forward momentum. What I ended up feeling is that everyone was hiding sordid parts of their past, and there was no resolution for most of the characters. And it ended with Lu alone, out of a job, and a father heading towards death. I’m not sure her goal of writing down her family’s secrets for her young children would really explain her family to them. People lie, people feel guilty, and the legal system can’t expose the truth necessarily. It may be a truthful book, but it left me in an odd place. I’m not saying all crime novels need to be a bit more thriller-like or resolve more issues/ more details about a crime, but those are two things that I like in a crime novel. I’m not as up-in-arms about this ending as, say, I was bothered by In the Woods by Tana French, but I’m feeling dissatisfied.

I borrowed this book from the library.

 

review · U.S.

Finishing Up Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy

golden ageI stayed up late this holiday weekend finishing up Golden Age, the last book of Jane Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy. It’s a sign that I liked the book and that I was involved in the book, but now that I’ve had time to reflect, I feel myself dissatisfied with it. Like I said in my review of the previous book, there were too many characters (sounds like a silly criticism, but I’ll explain more) and the plot felt a little too much like Forrest Gump. It’s hard to suspend my disbelief over three books when this admittedly sprawling family is somehow connected to so many key events/themes (Vietnam, the Middle East, 9/11, the financial crisis, climate change/disruption).

First, it’s been over a year since I read book 2 and it took me quite a bit of time to get family relationships and character names down. Smiley has said that the trilogy is really one big book, and there’s no way to jump into this book without having read the previous ones. Even having read the earlier books, I would have appreciated a color-coded genealogical chart: it would have been clearer than the detailed family tree in the book. Even when I felt more comfortable with my recollection about the characters’ lives in earlier books, the pacing of the story (each chapter covers one year) meant that Smiley had to skip over some characters for years at a time in order to stick to her structure.

Another note on characters: I’m still not enamored of her focus on the antiheroes in the Langdon family, Frank and his son Michael. I have a low tolerance for jerks, even if one of the points of the story was to show the effect of jerks on the people around them. But there were plenty of non-jerky characters, and several of their death-scenes hit me hard

Plot-wise, I was also disappointed because the environmentalist message that’s so explicit at the end of the book after being an undercurrent in the rest of the series just felt odd. Mixing a family saga with muckraking felt discordant here. I would have loved just a straight-up muckraking piece instead. It was a story about generations of Iowa farmers: she could have scrapped lots of other plots for the environmentalist ones!

Anyway, the trilogy is an interesting set of books with some elements that nagged at me.

I reviewed the rest of the trilogy here:

  1. Some Luck
  2. Early Warning

I bought my copy of the book.

review · U.S.

The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman

end of miraclesNext up in my heavy-themed reading is The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman. It feels a bit like a case history as novel. Starkman is a psychiatrist who studied phantom pregnancies, and this book deals with that subject in part. The story centers on Margo, in the midst of fertility treatments, who requires psychiatric care. The narrative arc is the arc of her mental health, and it’s fascinating and enlightening and incredibly sad in parts. This book is full of expertise.

It’s refreshing to read a book that’s not about someone in publishing or the restaurant/catering world. Margo works in hospital administration, which is a step removed from being a patient, which she becomes throughout the book, and it’s handled interestingly– how to be on the two sides of the hospital.

A psychiatrist writing about a character is not something I’ve read often, if ever. She feels real, which is not what I feel when I read some women-in-crisis books. Also, I’m glad Starkman doesn’t do the overused-slight-epiphany twist that I’m tired of in lots of more literary novels. I was delighted by this book, despite the sadness of the story: it didn’t feel like a book I’ve read before.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review · U.S.

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.