Woman in Gold

We’re off to participate in the Golden Triangle bike ride this Canadian long weekend and will be unplugged from gadgets. I’ll be bringing a paperback copy of Lily King’s 2014 novel “Euphoria” with me to finish. So I plan to review that next week.

Meanwhile the hub and I finally saw the Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds movie “Woman in Gold” last night, which came out in April, and we both really enjoyed it. It’s much better than all the previews made it seem, or the reviews for that matter. I was surprised that the Rotten Tomatoes’ summary called it a “disappointingly dull treatment of a fascinating true story.”

I didn’t find the movie dull in the least, and was utterly absorbed by Maria Altmann’s real life story. Most know by now, that the “Woman in Gold” is about an elderly Jewish woman living in Los Angeles who embarks in 2004, along with her inexperienced young lawyer, on a battle to reclaim her family’s paintings seized by the Nazis during WWII. Among the paintings was Gustav Klimt’s famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, who was Maria’s aunt and lived with her family while Maria was growing up in Austria.

Helen Mirren, who plays Maria, is once again terrific in her role as is Ryan Reynolds as her nerdy lawyer, Randol Schoenberg. Both give dynamic performances in their quest of court cases to get the paintings back. Though what really makes the movie come to life are its frequent flashbacks to Maria’s younger years with her aunt and family in Austria and what happens to them when Nazi Germany takes over the country in 1938. There’s chilling and heartbreaking scenes that make the latter story of the paintings reclamation all the more significant.

It’s truly a remarkable story about remembrance and justice for Holocaust victims and one that continues to play out for other Jewish refugees and heirs who are reclaiming possessions and art works from the war. Just today the New York Times reported a Matisse painting was returned to a descendant of Paul Rosenberg’s, a leading art dealer of the times whose collection was looted by the Nazis. See the story here.

For more on Nazi Germany’s plundering of Europe’s great art works during WWII, I would also like to see the 2006 documentary “The Rape of Europa,” which was adapted from the prize-winning 1994 book by Lynn H. Nicholas, and I’ve read is good. I have seen George Clooney’s 2014 movie “The Monuments Men” and unfortunately that movie didn’t seem half as good to me as “Woman in Gold.”

What about you — have you seen the “Woman in Gold,” or any films on that similar topic? And if so, what did you think?

A God in Every Stone

Spring continues to unfold here. More trees are in bloom and I’ll be planting the annual geraniums and other flowers soon. Meanwhile the hub and I are training on the side for a couple of upcoming bike ride events that we optimistically signed up for. Hopefully they won’t kill us. So we are bicycling most weekends over hill and dale. It’s nice but also a bit exhausting.

See my chariot at left. Our first event takes place in the mountains next weekend so I’ll try to take some good photos to post. Meanwhile below is a review of the book I finished this week.

I don’t think I knew exactly what I was getting into when I picked up Kamila Shamsie’s 2014 novel “A God in Every Stone.” I got it at the library after it was shortlisted for the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, both of which will announce their winners in early June.

I thought “A God in Every Stone” would be a bit of a love story about a couple of archaeologists from different backgrounds, searching ancient ruins, during tempestuous historical times. Maybe I thought it’d be a bit like Lily King’s 2014 novel “Euphoria.” Sure the novel starts out like that but then it focuses more on the struggle for Indian independence, spanning World War I to the waning days of the British Empire.

In the novel, Vivian Rose is a young British woman who goes to Turkey in 1914 on an archaeological dig and ends up falling for an older Turkish archaeologist who’s searching for a silver circlet from the early days of the Persian Empire. All seems good and on track, but then World War I intervenes and she loses touch with her love. She spends most of the war as a nurse, witnessing horrific casualties.

Years later she travels to the Peshawar Valley (part of India then), continuing the quest for the mysterious silver circlet. She meets two brothers there, one a Pashtun soldier who fought for Britain in WWI, losing an eye, and a much younger boy who becomes her pupil and many years later an archaeologist who takes up her search for the silver circlet. The older brother gets caught up in India’s independence movement and the younger one eventually does at the book’s end when a massacre in 1930 by the British Army of nonviolent protestors brings things to a brutal head.

“A God in Every Stone” is a novel with a wide scope, a sweeping history, and it encompasses ideas about Indian independence, ethnic differences, the suffragist movement, and the Armenian genocide among other things. I found it best in its vivid atmosphere of the times and place, and many of its eloquent passages. No wonder author Kamila Shamsie was included on the Granta list in 2013 as one of Britain’s 20 best young writers today. Interestingly, she grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and just recently became a British citizen, who now resides in London.

The troubles I had with the novel were that I was sometimes confused by the foreign names and geography of where they were, and a bit of the history and circumstances. Happenings were assumed perhaps and not explained at times. Luckily I finally found a map at the back of the book, which would’ve helped earlier if I’d seen it at the front of the book. Also I seemed to get into the characters, only to have their personal stories dropped later. Vivian Rose and the brothers were intriguing but then the closeness to them and their perspectives were lost along the way. So unfortunately I had to concentrate pretty diligently to finish the book. It wasn’t an easy read. It’s sweeping and at times disjointed. I’m glad I read it though. It gave me more perspective on a region I don’t know enough about and a feel for the turbulent days under colonialism.

How about you — have you read or heard of this author before? Or what is one of your favorite historical fiction books?

May Preview

Today in honor of Independent Bookstore Day in the U.S., or what is called Authors for Indies Day in Canada, my hub and I visited our closest independent bookstore (Owl’s Nest Books) and ended up buying three books a piece (what a splurge). None of which are the ones I was looking for when I went in there. I didn’t see those instead I saw these: I got Lily King’s novel “Euphoria,” David McCullough’s new biography on “The Wright Brothers” and a novel called “Wolf Winter” by Cecilia Ekback, who was at the store for Indies Day and signed a copy for me. “Wolf Winter” seems to be a murder mystery set in Swedish Lapland in the 1700s. It looks good and has been compared to Hannah Kent’s bestselling novel “Burial Rites” so we’ll see.

I try to support the local indie bookstores when I can and also my local library. In my twenties, I worked at a couple of good indie bookstores — namely Explore Booksellers in Colorado and the University Book Store in Seattle, Washington, which shaped my existence. I still recall being gripped by Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides” in the employee lunch lounge there, LOL. I’m so glad both bookstores are still alive. It’s not easy I’m sure with everything online or on e-readers. Do you have a favorite independent bookstore you visit where you live?

Meanwhile, it’s the beginning of May and I’ve been checking over new releases this month. As I mentioned above, I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s just-released biography on “The Wright Brothers,” which I plan to tear into. Although I know snippets about the Wright family and that they were the first to fly a motor-powered airplane in 1903, I’m curious to read the brothers’ whole story. With a last name like Wright — no relation unfortunately — I need to get to the bottom of these flyers at Kitty Hawk once and for all.

I’m also looking at Kate Atkinson’s novel “A God in Ruins,” which is the follow-up companion to her bestselling 2013 novel “Life After Life.” Granted, I’m one of the few who didn’t read “Life After Life” yet, but I think her second one might perhaps interest me more. In the first one, I wasn’t totally sold on reading about Ursula’s continual lives and bleak deaths as a storyline but reading about how her brother Teddy comes to grips with his post-War life and with a modern world and family — does capture my imagination a bit. So I’ve put my name on a list for it at the library. I’m #50 out of 45 copies! How about you, are you into this?

In movies out this month, I can’t say I’m a big fan of fantasy-action blockbusters. So I will have to bypass “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” (sorry action fans), though I have watched the old Mad Max films with Mel Gibson on TV. Those contain some classic moments. If an old Mad Max is on when I’m flicking around stations, I’ll always stop and watch Mel battle the motorcycle gangs. Don’t you?

And usually I like Cameron Crowe’s films — such as “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous” — but the trailer for his upcoming movie “Aloha” didn’t capture my interest too much (despite Bradley Cooper being in it), sigh. So I’ll go with the period drama “Far From the Madding Crowd” this month as my movie pick; it’s adapted from the 1874 Thomas Hardy novel and is a story about a headstrong woman who attracts three very different suitors. Nothing wrong with that! Her name is Bathsheba Everdene, which as a name for this role seems almost too good to be true, LOL. As for a sleeper gem this month, I’ll pick the Blythe Danner movie “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” which looks a bit fun as a movie about a widow and former songstress who gets a new lease on life.

Lastly for albums out this month, I’m curious about the Mumford & Sons third studio album coming out called “Wilder Mind.” Though I’m not too keen on the British band’s harder rock songs, I do like their more folksy slower stuff. I’m also interested to listen to “Loyalty” the new album from The Weather Station, which is the name Canadian songwriter Tamara Lindeman sings under. She is a singer-songwriter who plays some beautiful songs and folk music. Check out her tunes if you get a chance.

That’s it for now. In books this week, I reviewed Mary Morony’s moving debut novel “Apron Strings,” a story about growing up in a dysfunctional family in the South in the late 1950s. For more on it, see the review below.

How about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Apron Strings

[Disclosure: This self-published novel was sent to me by New Shelves Distribution for review.]

Where we would be without the dysfunctional families in Southern lit? We’d miss out on the protagonists in “The Great Santini,” “Bastard Out of Carolina,” and the stories of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to name just a few. Mary Morony’s debut “Apron Strings” is another in that grand tradition of Southern families run amok. As Kirkus Reviews writes “Apron Strings” is about “a white Virginia family in the late 1950s that struggles to stay together while enduring a failing marriage and racist neighbors.” The parents employ a black maid, Ethel, who cares for the four Mackey children, ages 14, 9, 7, and 4 as the book begins. It’s the third child, Sallee, 7, who narrates most of the book, chronicling two years of a home life that’s not exactly 1950s Happy Days.

The problem is the mother is harsh and often neglectful, and the father is mostly away at work. The kids, especially Sallee, must rely on Ethel for everything — meals, dressing, supervision, love — you name it. Ever-curious Sallee pesters Ethel with questions about her mother’s life and her life when they first met years ago. Ethel though has her own problems and secrets, which become more clear in the intermingled chapters that she narrates. You get her much-sought perspective though her dialect isn’t always easy to understand.

It’s a 1950s household that is stifling and toxic — amid a town where schools, restaurants, and theaters are racially segregated, and overt racism and violence exist. Author Mary Morony vividly permeates the story with the atmosphere of the times, pinpointing everything from the culture and uptight manners to the pervasive cigarette smoking and the endless high ball drinks and alcoholism. Apparently Morony’s story comes from her own childhood in which she was born and raised in Charlottesville, Va., by her family’s black maid, who she says: “taught me love and acceptance with warm, loving humor and unending patience.”

I found “Apron Strings” an easy book to fall into. The young Sallee is an endearing narrator and the dialogue sounds just right. Sallee’s often trying to keep up with her brother Gordy and learns the hard way after a couple incidents to stay clear of the neighbors house. (I couldn’t help but be a bit reminded of Scout and Jem and Boo Radley’s dilapidated place in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”) But I eagerly followed along to find out what would happen to the Mackey family — if they would split apart and disintegrate or how it would conclude. Divorce back then was a terrible taboo, and what the kids go through pulls them in various directions. It’s not an action-packed book so to speak, the kids often sit around the house on pins and needles, with a mother that’s unavailable or cannot be disturbed and a black maid that’s busy working. At times the ebbs and pulls are more psychological and heart-tugging in nature — as most good dysfunctional family stories are.

For readers looking for a big story arc and climax with tied-up resolutions at the end, “Apron Strings” might be a bit disappointing, just judging by some of the comments on Goodreads. The novel reads at times like it’s chronicling a slice of the kids’ lives when times were very tough during their childhood. By the end, there’s loose ends that remain a bit loose and not all is resolved — there’s not a showdown between the mother and kids, or between the past and present, or any justice against the racist neighbors. It’s a subtle ending, and one that harkens back to the maid’s presence in their lives to pull them through. For me, the vivid atmosphere and Sallee’s narration resound powerfully at times, making it a moving novel through harsh times in the South of the late 1950s. I liked the book and the childhood journey it takes through its minefield of familial and societal mores.

How about you — have you read or heard of this novel, or what is your favorite book about a dysfunctional family?

Spring Days

Leaves and buds are just opening here, and it’s been a productive couple of weeks of home and yard projects. I’m excited that I might be able to do my spring planting earlier this year as the weather is being fairly cooperative. I almost forgot how nice spring can feel. We plan to take a long bike ride in the backcountry on Sunday.

The town here is all abuzz about the NHL hockey playoffs since our team can clinch a first-round series win tonight at home, if only they would. I’m hoping it doesn’t prove elusive. In terms of playoff hockey, it’s been a long dry spell here and the dream of another round is within reach. And from what I’ve learned: never underestimate hockey in a northern country.

Meanwhile this week I want to congratulate author Anthony Doerr for winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his World War II novel “All the Light We Cannot See.” My Dad gave me this book for Christmas, and I’m excited to dive into it this spring. It’s waiting for me on the shelf, and I’ve heard from others how good it is. Set in occupied France, it interweaves the story of a blind 14-year-old French girl and a young German soldier whose lives cross paths toward the end of the book. I hear it’s terrific. Have you read it?

Also congratulations to Siri Hustvedt who just won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction for her novel “The Blazing World.” According to the publisher, it tells the story of an enigmatic artist who, after years of having her work ignored, ignites an explosive scandal in New York’s art world when she recruits three young men to present her creations as their own. Yet when the shows succeed and she steps forward, one of the men betrays her and they get involved in a deadly game. I remember Barbara over at the blog wellwell touting this novel, and I’m sure it’s great as years ago I recall being pretty blown away by Hustvedt’s 2003 novel “What I Loved.” Her latest one seems to be brimming full of ideas, and Booklist calls it a “wrenching novel of creativity, identity, and longing.” Count me in for it.

In other book news, I came across a few cool articles this week that I thought I’d pass along. The first one in The Washington Post titled “I read books by only minority authors for a year. It showed me just how white our reading world is” by Sunili Govinnage definitely caught my eye. It makes a lot of strong points about the importance of reading diversity, and it seems like a great idea to take a year and read such a book list. I expect I’d explore novels in a number of countries and learn a lot. It seems a worthy, interesting goal.

The next article, “Owning a bookstore means you always get to tell people what to read,” is another good one by Ann Patchett, which was in The Washington Post. It extols the many joys of recommending books to people. I’m sure that’s why so many people like blogging about books. And many of today’s bloggers, like me, also worked in bookstores or the publishing industry along the way. Many still get a kick from pushing good reads.

The last article, “Romanticizing the Reader” by Diane Ackerman in the New York Times is a neat one about how “readers and writers provide a kind of outside family for one another” and that she sees the “reader as a collaborator” who “leaves individual imprints on a book they have read.” Just as a reader might romanticize an author so too does an author romanticize a reader. There’s “something inevitable and touchingly human about it,” she says. If you have time, you might want to check these articles out.

Meanwhile, the Noah Baumbach indie movie “While We’re Young” just made it to our neck of the woods and we saw it Friday night. It’s quite an enjoyable comedy about a mid-forties New York married couple — played by Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts — whose staid lives change when they start hanging out with a young hip couple they meet — played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Oh the film is funny, but it also touches on some truths about parenthood, friendship, ambition and aging that its viewers likely have had. It speaks to middle-agers mostly, but can be enjoyed by a variety perhaps. It reminded me a bit of an old Woody Allen New York comedy about married couples, and I liked it more than I thought I would.

It’s definitely my favorite Noah Baumbach movie so far … if you’ve seen “Frances Ha” (2012), “Greenberg” (2010), “Margot at the Wedding” (2007) or “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). They’re all sort of quirky, but in those earlier ones the protagonists are usually sort of grumpy and not very likable. “While We’re Young” is more accessible and the main characters are more sympathetic. It’s both funny and interesting and includes a great cast. Kudos to Ben Stiller for his best role in years? Something tells me I should go back and rent “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” — just to see his facial expressions.

What about you — have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies — and if so, what did you think?

A Recap and Fleetwood’s Story

Well tax week came and went — I survived it. April 15 is definitely a dreaded time each year. I have the joy of filing returns in two countries. Historically it’s not a great day either as both President Lincoln was killed and the Titanic sank on what’s become tax day. Also it’s the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing today (April 19), which was simply horrifying. I remember where I was when it happened — I was at work in the Longworth House Office Building in Washington D.C. where I interned for a Congressman when I was on a break in between jobs. We turned on the TV when we heard. It was awful and shocking. After that, legislation was passed to increase protection around federal buildings to deter future terrorist attacks. Today, 20 years later, it’s sobering to remember the 168 victims, including the 19 young children who were in the building’s day care facility. Who can forget. It’s a sad day to remember.

In much brigther news, this weekend is the Los Angeles Festival of Books. I’ve always wanted to go, but I’ve never gone! I simply must G-O some year soon. I checked the schedule and here’s just a smattering of authors they have at various book discussions going on: Hector Tobar, A. Scott Berg, Meg Wolitzer, Maggie Shipstead, Mona Simpson, Per Petterson, Peter Heller, Viet Thanh Nguyen, T.C. Boyle, Bich Minh Nguyen, Lisa See, Jenny Offill, Laird Hunt, Dennis Lehane, Jonathan Lethem, Kimberly McCreight, Jill Alexander Essbaum, Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell and Atticus Lish. Ugh I can’t believe I’m missing it once again. I need to plan in advance next time and get a flight to SoCal to visit my folks and attend the festival. There’s such literary star power there. Have you ever been?

In other book news, the shortlist for both the Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction were announced this past week. The Baileys shortlist includes the two heavyweights: Anne Tyler for “A Spool of Blue Thread” and Sarah Waters for “The Paying Guests.” Could it be Sarah’s year? The rest of the shortlist authors include — Ali Smith, Rachel Cusk, Laline Paull, and Kamila Shamsie — who aren’t too shabby either. I have Shamsie’s novel “A God in Every Stone” on hold at the library. The PEN shortlist includes Cynthia Bond’s “Ruby” and Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” along with three others. Have you read any of these? Stay tuned for the winners in May and June.

Meanwhile in reading this week, I picked up Jane Smiley’s novel “Some Luck” and 20 pages later I put it down. It felt staid to me though I’m sure I need to give it more time. I struggled with its style, though I wanted to read the trilogy its apart of. It’s sort of a bummer like Janet Maslin of the New York Times saying of Ann Packer’s new novel: “So the long, aimless slog through “The Children’s Crusade” begins with not that fascinating a family. And it ends with not that revelatory a resolution.” A slog?! Oh no, I so wanted to read Packer’s book too!

But instead of Smiley, I picked up a rock autobiography by Mick Fleetwood that I received for Christmas and consumed it. My brother gets me a good one almost every year. Over the years I’ve read books by or about: Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, and Neil Young among others. I’m still saving Keith Richards’ autobiography and Patti Smith’s “Just Kids” for a super storm weekend in the future.

Anyways, Mick Fleetwood’s book with Anthony Bozza “Play On,” which came out last fall, did the trick. This week, I relived the years of Fleetwood Mac and the mega-selling albums the band put out especially with its self-titled album in 1975 and with “Rumors” in 1977, which sold more than 40 million copies worldwide —one of the best-selling of all time. This was before the days of CDs or iTunes. Back when people still bought albums. You might recall? On vinyl too. Both albums include such an array of hits which have become ingrained in the brain from all the radio airplay they received decades ago.

Fleetwood’s book follows his life with the band and the many incarnations and highs and lows the band went through from its inception in 1967 through to the present. There were quite a few different musicians in it over the years, but the same 1975 members are still touring as Fleetwood Mac today. I missed seeing them in concert a couple times over the years. But their history as a band is quite notorious from their early days —because of their epic touring, various relationships, endless recording sessions, non-stop drug habits, and rock-star lifestyles.

Mick’s lucky to be alive for sure. His book touches upon each period the band went through as well as his personal life that included: three failed marriages, two bankruptcies, and a two-year affair with Stevie Nicks of which he said: “in terms of the intensity it was a proper Hollywood affair on a par with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.” (Really? Come on). You name it, he went through it. Though in the book he seems rather at peace with it all. Like he’s making amends to people and himself for the crazy life he’s been through. As if it’s all pudding under the rug for a legendary rock ringleader who did his best to keep the band together.

So “Play On” is definitely very readable. You claw your way through it rapidly, reliving the band’s years, albums, and foibles. I especially liked when he discusses the songs and which band members created them and what they were about and how the band made the various albums. A song like Stevie Nicks’s “Sara” for example was apparently about how Mick took up with Nicks’s best friend Sara (she became wife #2) and it also might be about an unborn child she conceived with Don Henley. Oh my, you figure it out. Each band member brought such different things to the table, which in the end made the collaborations so successful. It was cool to read about their hit songs that so flooded the radio airwaves back then.

But unfortunately at times “Play On” seems to gloss over certain aspects of the band’s story and reads in places like a general outline of its trajectory. Some decades fly by while others are discussed more carefully. I only realized later that apparently much of Mick Fleetwood’s story was told in an earlier autobiography in 1990. This is his second one, which apparently goes over much of his and the band’s same history. How strange. He wanted to tell the story twice, this time it appears more sobered up and a bit more apologetic perhaps. It’s an entertaining read, but didn’t break a lot of new ground for me. As far as rock biographies go, it’s pretty standard fare but not as exemplary as perhaps Keith Richards’ or Patti Smith’s will be. Hooray the rock book genre will never die. They’re perfect reads for when you’re in between novels, or just curious about rock legends, their catapulted lives in the stratosphere, and classic songs of the rock era.

What about you do you recall the heyday and songs of Fleetwood Mac, or do you have a particular music autobiography that’s been a favorite?

The Weekly Recap

This week I was sad to read of the death of acclaimed author Ivan Doig of cancer at 75. Most of his books are set in Montana where my brother lives and he was one of my brother’s favorite writers. Doig was known for such novels as “Dancing at the Rascal Fair” from 1987 and the memoir “This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind” from 1979. He was referred to as “the dean of Western writers,” but he didn’t like being limited as a regional author. There’s still a slew of his novels that I want to read. Have you read any of his books, and if so, what did you think?

Also this past week congrats to author Atticus Lish for winning the 2015 Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction for his novel “Preparation for the Next Life.” I had not heard of this book before — it’s from the small press Tyrant Books — but I’m very glad to be introduced to it. Set in New York City, the novel follows the unlikely love story between a Chinese Muslim immigrant and a traumatized Iraq War veteran. It’s been called a stunning debut, so I’m eager to check it out. Have you read or come across this title yet?

Meanwhile we’ve had some spring-like weather here and I was able to go for a few bike rides this week (see attached photo). I love it! Bicycling the backcountry is tough to beat. Now I’ve got the Masters golf tournament on and will tune in on Sunday to see if youngster Jordan Spieth will be able to hold on to his lead despite the various other contenders knocking on the door. It should be tense and fun to watch. Moreover it’s always nice to see the azaleas blooming in Augusta.

This week I finished Heather O’Neill’s 2014 novel “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” which was discussed at our book club. It’s about a brother and sister who are 19-year-old twins, navigating the mean streets of Montreal in 1995. They were raised by their decrepit grandfather since their young mother left and their father, a famous folksinger, wasn’t around much. Hence the Tremblay twins are both a bit hellions with no money to spare. The girl is trying to straighten her life out (she finds love, marriage, and is taking classes to go to university), while the boy is sliding into more trouble. It’s the time of Quebec’s 1995 referendum, which asked voters whether the province should proclaim its national sovereignty and separate from Canada. The twins and their relatives are all in favor of Quebec’s separation, but when the vote loses by a minuscule margin, it seems at the same time there are consequences in all the characters’ lives.

I thought “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” was quite a wonderful novel, vibrantly told from the twin sister’s point of view. I read its 403 pages quickly in three days. It’s compulsively readable, and as my friend in the book club said, its story “gets under your skin.” It seems to paint Montreal at the time to the core. Set among the poor and grubby, the twins are trying to find themselves and pave their ways. It’s a coming-of-age story that is a bit of a different take. I found it to be darkly funny with some terrific sentences that I wanted to underline throughout. However a few in our book club said they didn’t care for the author’s writing style. For one thing, she uses an overabundance of similes (as well as metaphors and cats) to get her descriptions across, which can get a bit taxing along the way, but despite that I thought her writing on the whole to be lively, fresh, and noteworthy. I don’t know much about Montreal but definitely got an interesting flavor for it in this homage to the author’s home city.

I’m quite certain the novel will make the short list for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) when it’s announced this Monday. So far there are 20 books on the long list, which will be cut to 6 books for the short list. From those, the winner will be announced on June 3. I’d be very surprised if “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” doesn’t make the cut on Monday. If I were a gambler, I’d bet on it, but what do I know?

How about you — have you read this novel or author before? If so, what did you think? Or what are you up to or reading this Sunday?

April Preview

It’s hard to believe: March is over and done with. Now on to April and the transition to spring. As I will be away this weekend in Victoria, B.C., I am posting this early and wishing everybody a very Happy Easter! Perhaps some of you will be watching the Final Four college basketball finale, or maybe even the Miami Open if you follow tennis. Others will be at church and then maybe hiding or eating Easter eggs. Whatever it is, enjoy this lovely time of year!

March was a fairly good reading month for me so I hope to continue that into April. Next up is a novel I’m reading for my book club called “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill. So far, all I know about it is that the story is set in Montreal about a sister and brother who are twins who are trying to outrun the notoriety of their folk singer father. Booklist calls it “a marvelously intriguing novel of a family in dissolution.” Hmm. I better get going on it quickly as we are meeting to discuss it soon.

As for April, there’s a few big-name authors with books coming out this month, notably Toni Morrison will be releasing her 11th novel called “God Help the Child,” which apparently is “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult.” Also there’s books coming out by Jon Krakauer, Larry Kramer, Matthew Pearl, Per Petterson, and Lisa Genova among others.

After weeding through the April list, I’ve narrowed my sights on three novels that I probably can’t resist. First off, I must check out Ann Packer’s new novel “The Children’s Crusade,” which examines the bonds of a Northern California family over many years. I’ve heard so many good things about Packer’s 2002 novel “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” that I need to find out firsthand if Ann Packer is the real deal, which I’m sure she is.

Next off, I’m curious about the novel “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which deals with the fall of Saigon and its aftermath in 1975. So many seem to have high regards for this debut. Author Maxine Hong Kingston calls it “a novel of literary, historical, and political importance” and T.C. Boyle says it’s “destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.” Judging from the stream of other praise-worthy comments, I’m going need to find a copy.

Also I don’t think I can pass up the upcoming novel by Jane Smiley called “Early Warning,” which is the second novel in a trilogy that will span a century about the Langdon family from Iowa. I received the first book “Some Luck” for Christmas and I haven’t delved into it just yet, but plan to soon. The trilogy has been getting generally favorable reviews, but I won’t know for sure until I crack the spine, so to speak. Admittedly, I haven’t read Smiley since her award-winning 1991 novel “A Thousand Acres,” but goodness was that a killer.

As for movies in April, I’d like to see Noah Baumbach’s latest comedy-drama “While We’re Young,” which stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as a middle-age married couple whose lives are disrupted when they start hanging out with a young couple who enters their lives. It looks quite funny though officially it came out last weekend in March so it’s not really an April film, but I still need to see it. I liked Baumbach’s quirky other indie films “The Squid and the Whale” from 2005 and “Greenberg” from 2010. Have you seen these offbeat ones?

Other than that, I know they’ve advertised the heck out of the movie “Woman in Gold” as the trailer has been everywhere for months. It does look like an interesting story about a Jewish refugee who comes to sue the Austrian government to recover Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece painting that she believes belongs to her family. It stars Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, too. Though I’m surprised to see the movie’s rotten-tomato ratio isn’t too good, so I might wait to see it on pay-per-view.

In the meantime, I’m thinking the teeny-bopper romance movie “The Longest Ride” will probably win the box office in April. It’s another Nicholas Sparks’ novel adapted for the big screen, none of them I’ve seen or been really interested in — too much melodrama and drippiness. Instead, I’ll pick the film “Clouds of Sils Maria,” with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart, about an older actress who apparently is going through a crisis. I don’t know too much about it, but it seems to be getting some positive buzz. And judging by the trailer and the actresses in it, it could be an entertaining drama.

As for albums, there’s a lot of good ones coming out in May, but for April not as many notable ones. Still I’m looking to check out the new album from the Canadian indie band the Great Lake Swimmers called “A Forest of Arms,” and I’ll select the Alabama Shakes album “Sound & Color” for my pick this month. It includes the single “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which the Shakes performed quite coolly on Saturday Night Live recently.

So that’s what I see for April releases. How about you — which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Neverhome

Laird Hunt’s acclaimed 2014 novel “Neverhome” starts off simple enough. It’s narrated by a housewife and farmer named Constance from Indiana, who in 1862 decides to disguise herself as a man to enlist in the Union Army. She takes the name Ash Thompson and leaves behind her meek husband, Bartholomew, to care for the farm. The story follows her journey as she endures soldier life and harrowing battles of the war while trying not to be found out as a woman.

The novel’s prose is simple and stark but rich in its descriptions, especially of the battle scenes, and the syntax takes on the vernacular of the times, which seems a bit awkward at first, but gives a vivid feeling of being in the Civil War era and its settings.

The character Ash proves to be an excellent shot and sure fighter. She seems heroic and able to outmaneuver and shoot her way out of trouble. But there’s also baggage from her past that comes to her in dreams: her mother’s death haunts her, as well as the death, we learn in time, of her newborn son. There’s also letters from Bartholomew hoping for her return and fearing that she will not.

Along the way, Ash witnesses horrific bloodshed and is injured in battle. A nurse heals her, only later to give her over to authorities who chain her up in a prison, where she’s abused. The book is a bit of a page-turner as you wonder whether Ash will make it back home alive and what unfinished business will be awaiting for her once she gets there.

At first glimpse “Neverhome” appears to be a straightforward heroic story about a strong woman who overcomes great odds but not too far into it you become aware that Ash is carrying around secrets, which she doles out only here and there, and is talking to ghosts. Amid the war, her mind starts to unravel, too, and what is real or not real becomes hazy. She seems to undergo a transformation, and you have to wonder whether she’s telling the truth. The dark ending brings everything home, so to speak.

Judging by comments on Goodreads, quite a few readers thought the story’s ending went off the deep end, or they didn’t get it. I was one of those who had to reread it a few times to understand what it all suggested. I think I was lulled into the story going a certain way, and then it took a turn quite other than that, which left me a bit puzzled and not pleased. Ash is a character who definitely is more complex than she seems. Though I might not have wanted the story to go in that direction, I thought the novel’s writing was quite visual and beautiful in places. For a slim book, “Neverhome” wields a large takeaway.

It also makes me want to read more books about the Civil War, including last year’s nonfiction book by Karen Abbott called “Liar, Temptress, Soldier Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War.”

How about you — have you read “Neverhome” and if so what did you think? Or what books set in the Civil War era are your favorites?

Dark Rooms

I picked up Lili Anolik’s debut novel “Dark Rooms” at the library for a quick suspense read, a transition after a couple of denser books. I didn’t really know anything about it other than it appeared to be among the popular genre of crime novels set at private high schools. The publisher touted it as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” meets Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” with twists of Megan Abbott’s “Dare Me” along the way. Okay, okay, I think I get the picture?! I snapped it up and read it quickly this past week ready for something a little berserk.

“Dark Rooms” takes place at a private high school in Hartford, Connecticut, where one morning student Nica Baker, age 16, is found murdered in a nearby field. Her parents, both teachers at the school, and older sister Grace, who recently graduated, are grief-stricken and foggy amid the media circus that follows. The police though are able to close the case quickly when a student commits suicide a couple weeks later, leaving what appears to be a confessional note to the crime. Grace though begins to have her doubts about it. She puts college on hold, stays at home, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth about her sister’s murder. Though in the process, she opens a can full of worms about her family, herself, and those who knew her sister.

Nica, it turns out, was no angel; she was beautiful and also promiscuous — different than Grace, who sets out to tackle a long list of Nica’s admirers to find out what really happened. Meanwhile Grace finds herself pregnant after a drunken grief-laden escapade and with little time left to solve the murder. Oh my. One thing’s for sure: There’s considerable sleeping around going on at this high school: among the faculty, the kids, you name it. It’s a high school on hormones. The so-called adults or parents in the book aren’t exactly role models either; a few are downright creepy, so Grace must make her away through some pretty messed up, disturbing stuff to find out the truth. She’s a Nancy Drew of sorts. I can’t say much more though I’m sure I’d like to.

Admittedly the book held me till the very end. The author did a good job painting the scenes, giving vivid details, and moving the story along. It’s the kind of suspense story I was looking for when I picked it up. It’s done well, both the writing and plot as well as the twists kept me guessing, although there were a couple times I had to suspend my disbelief and I’m still wondering if the ending fizzled just a bit. Still if you’re on a flight from L.A. to New York, or even on a beach this summer, I’d say this is a suspenseful, well-done novel to hold your attention and pass your time with. Who knows, it might even make you a bit more grateful for the folks and family you have.

How about you — have you read “Dark Rooms” and if so, what did you think? Or what if any are your favorites in the genre of high school/crime novels?