Lily and the Octopus and Eligible

This coming week is the last week of July — yikes summer is going by quickly. If you live in a northern country there always seems to be a rush to get everything in before summer ends — as it can be a short season. Luckily the sun has been restored recently to these parts and the temps are comfortably in the 70s. On Sunday we will go to the mountains to bicycle from Banff to Lake Louise and back, which should be gorgeous. Photos to come later.

These days I’m in full summer mode, consuming thriller-type fiction. Currently I’m reading Jung Yun’s debut novel “Shelter,” which JoAnn over at Lakeside Musing reminded me about with her enthusiastic review. Miraculously, “Shelter” was no longer on hold at the library and I nabbed a copy. I decided not to know anything about it before opening its pages, which is often a fun way to go about suspense kinds of books. I’m also listening to the audiobook of Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which takes place in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana and Wyoming not too far from where my brother lives in Bozeman. This one is pretty scary so far. Reviews of both to come later.

Meanwhile I finished Steven Rowley’s debut novel “Lily and the Octopus,” which came out in June. I had put this one on my list after the raves it got on Goodreads about how wonderful a story it is about a man and his aging dachshund. I’m a sucker for good dog stories — being a dog lover myself — and after Emma Cline’s novel “The Girls” I was looking for something a bit heartwarming and humorous. What could go wrong? Sigh, apparently a bit. I guess I just didn’t find that much to the story, or else it didn’t work for me as well as it has for others.

“Lily and the Octopus” is about Ted Flask, a single gay man in L.A. who’s recently ended a six-year relationship with his boyfriend when his beloved 12-year-old dog Lily gets an ominous growth on her head, which sends Ted into a tailspin crisis. Ted perceives Lily’s growth as an octopus attached to her head, trying to hurt her. Seemingly in denial, he comes to share Lily’s “octopus” with the vet, his therapist, and family and friends, while struggling to come to grips with the truth himself.

“Lily and the Octopus” deals with worthy, touching issues that many have gone through. I’ve been in that situation with my own beloved pets. My problem with the novel is that nearly the whole story follows the conceit of the octopus way beyond what you think it should, and the character of Ted seems juvenile to a fault. The story also seemed pretty thin and autobiographical. There were parts that were cute and humorous but not enough to carry the entire book from being just meh to me. How surprising, I thought I’d really like it. Maybe if it had been a memoir, the author Steven Rowley could have dug deeper and reached me more. What I thought after “Lily” was: did Rowley really pull in a nearly seven-figure book deal based on this? Holy smokes, I couldn’t believe it.

Luckily I did thoroughly enjoy the audiobook of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Eligible” (a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice”), which came out in April. Sittenfeld’s book was published as part of “The Austen Project,” which pairs six contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. I’m no expert or huge Austen buff, and I usually don’t partake in such retellings or the hundreds of spin-offs on “Pride and Prejudice,” but Sittenfeld’s book sounded like good fun. I have a decent memory of P & P, though it’s not like you really need it in order to enjoy “Eligible,” but it just makes it a bit more interesting.

In Sittenfeld’s version the five Bennet daughters regroup at their childhood home in Cincinnati after Mr. Bennet suffers a heart attack. Liz, a magazine writer in her late 30s, and Jane, a yoga instructor coming upon 40, have been living in New York, while their three sisters have been living off their parents at home. Mrs. Bennet of course wants to marry them off to well-to-do men before their biological clocks grind to a halt. Thereby she arranges for the family to attend a Fourth of July barbecue, where the handsome Chip Bingley, a recent contestant on the reality TV dating show Eligible, will be, along with his friend, neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Oh it’s Chip and Jane who pair up, and Liz and Darcy who get off on the wrong foot with each other. You recall how the story goes. It follows P & P pretty closely, but in a much more modern way. For one thing there’s sex described in it and storylines on healthcare, home foreclosure, race, and gay and transgender issues. And don’t be surprised by the swearing, and reality TV aspects in it. The Bennet world has surely changed since Austen first gave life to the characters in 1813. I can’t say for sure whether hard-core Austen aficionados will like or dislike “Eligible.” That is for them to say. I’m sure there will be some of both.

To me, Curtis Sittenfeld’s version is wonderfully entertaining and astute. It’s long (181, short chapters!), but I was right there with it, sucked into the various characters’ lives, especially the main character Liz’s, and laughing along the way. “Eligible” is funny and spoof-laced, but also perceptive and romantic too. It makes for a perfect summer read or audiobook as it’s light and fun. Kudos to Cassandra Campbell for her excellent narration of the various characters on the audio. My only quibble or puzzlement with “Eligible” was perhaps the final chapter, which fizzles a bit dwelling on the unattached and not very likable sister Mary — when, by that time, all we want is more of Liz and Darcy. I guess Sittenfeld just couldn’t resist adding to the final mix a comment on the worthiness of singledom to go with the oddball pairings.

So that’s it for this week. What about you — have you read either novel “Lily and the Octopus” or “Eligible” and if so, what did you think? Or what is your favorite dog novel, or Austen spin-off?

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

The Girls and Our Kind of Traitor

A deluge of rain hit here this past week. In fact it’s been about three weeks of wet weather, and if I hadn’t had that trip to California earlier in July, I would’ve lost my mind by now. Where has summer gone? It’s got me gloomy beyond belief, along with the news out of Nice, France, and other places. Luckily the forecast says the sun should be out this coming week, and it’s supposed to be clear. Though I won’t hold my breath over it.

This week I’m half way through Steven Rowley’s debut novel “Lily and the Octopus” and so far I haven’t found it as entertaining or likable as apparently hordes of others on Goodreads have. It’s about a thirty-something gay man and his elderly Dachshund who’s facing health problems. I’m a dog lover, too, but so far the book seems like fairly thin, autobiographical stuff. I will try to hold on to see if more comes of it. Meanwhile, I’m still enjoying Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Eligible” on audiobook, which is good fun. It’s quite a lengthy book with short chapters –181 in all — oh my! But I’m in no hurry to be done with “Eligible” as it’s quite a hoot as a modern-day take on “Pride and Prejudice.”

Meanwhile when I was in California recently, I finished Emma Cline’s highly praised debut novel “The Girls,” which is about a 14-year-old girl named Evie who gets herself involved in a cult (based loosely on Charles Manson’s Family) in Northern California in the summer of 1969. Evie, a lonely child of divorced parents, finds herself drawn to the group’s feral female groupies out scavenging around town in their black bus. Evie is particularly enamored by the cult’s enigmatic Suzanne — who, along with the others and the cult leader Russell — eventually leads her down a path along the lines of the notorious Manson murders in Los Angeles.

Oh it’s eerie, spooky stuff, but luckily “The Girls” is not as graphic or explicit as I guess many of the books about Manson’s cult are. As a California kid, I was too scared to read the 1974 true crime book “Helter Skelter” about the Manson murders. Though some of the photos from the book were somehow etched in every kid’s head from those times. Later in life, an employer of mine who grew up in Los Angeles not far from where the crimes happened in Beverly Hills, told me a story that she was at home (alone?) one night during the time when the Manson Family was still on the loose, when all of the lights suddenly went out. She was terrified — as L.A. was gripped by the fear of the murders then. It turned out a car had hit a telephone pole nearby, which she didn’t know, and it took awhile to get the electricity back on. It’s an incident, which would’ve keeled me over, just sitting there in the dark, with the Manson clan on the loose.

“The Girls” does well replicating this creepiness. There were times when I thought: do I really want to read about these people or topic? Why dwell on these Manson-like groupies? The only reason I picked up the novel was because it received such positive hype. It’s been all over the blogosphere. Surprisingly to me, it turned out that the novel lived up to its hype. I had been skeptical too. But from the prose and style, I wouldn’t have guessed that Emma Cline was a young, first-time author. She completely envelopes the anxieties of adolescence, as well as the 1969 cult and era even though she wasn’t born till 1989. She expresses the young women, their dialogue, and particularly the naive Evie so well. You could see how a young person with self-esteem issues and a marginal home life could get sucked into a communal group that seems fairly harmless at first. The story feels visceral. Knowing the Manson history, you want to shake some sense and warning into Evie but there’s no use. She doesn’t seem to listen.

I liked how the novel alternates from chapters on Evie’s present life in middle age to her fateful past in 1969. The back and forth adds to how what happened hangs over Evie’s life, reverberating decades later. I might not have necessarily liked the topic, but I was impressed by Cline’s evocative novel. She’s a young author on a mission.

Meanwhile this week, my husband and I saw and liked the British spy thriller “Our Kind of Traitor,” which is at theaters now and is adapted from the John le Carre book. Simply put: it’s about a married couple who find themselves at the wrong place at the wrong time. While on travels they’re conned into helping a Russian oligarch planning to defect, and pretty soon they find themselves caught between the Russian Mafia and the British Secret Service. Ewan McGregor stars as the husband who helps the rich Russian, played by Stellan Skarsgard, and Damien Lewis plays the British agent. All are excellent. It’s a plot that kept me on edge from the get-go. If you like John le Carre’s books, or spy plots, you will likely relish “Our Kind of Traitor.” Apparently there’s been 11 films adapted from le Carre’s spy novels over the years. I think I’ve seen about 5 of them. “The Constant Gardener” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are perhaps my favorites of those, but I wouldn’t mind seeing some of the other films.

What about you — have read Emma Cline’s novel “The Girls,” or seen any films based on le Carre’s novels, and if so what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies | 17 Comments

July Preview

I had a quick trip to California last week for my father’s retirement party. Congrats Dad, I never thought you’d give up working, but you finally did it. What a brilliant and long career. And now you can enjoy so much more. Many happy retirement years ahead! You deserve it.

It was toasty in the “inland empire” part of Southern Cal, but I still love it. I got in some great bike rides while I was there, see the photo above. On Sunday I flew back to the Great North. Dang it went by too fast. On the plane, I finished reading Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls,” which sufficiently gave me the creeps (my review to come later). Meanwhile I’m enjoying the audiobook of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel “Eligible,” which is a fun, modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. As for new July releases I’m behind on posting my preview for this month — but I finally picked out about six fiction titles that look promising.

First off Ben H. Winters’s speculative book “Underground Airlines” is an alternative history novel that sets its story as if the Civil War in the U.S. had never happened — and slavery still exists in four states. Victor, a gifted black man is the book’s protagonist, who comes to find out secrets about the government’s agreement with the four slave states while working as a bounty hunter. Hmm, what a doozy of a plot. BookPage says its a “timely novel focusing on race and equality” and Publisher’s Weekly calls it “Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner.” I need to check it out even if some on Goodreads say the story is choppy and the writing isn’t all that good. But I’ll have to find out for myself.

It being summer, I’m still in the mood for page-turners and Beth Lewis’s debut thriller “The Wolf Road” looks to be just that. It’s one of those brutal post-apocalyptic tales set in the future where wars have decimated humankind, and Elka, the book’s protagonist, is struggling to survive in what was once British Columbia. Apparently she finds outs a disturbing truth about the man who has raised her, and must take off into the wild to elude him. Author Paul Tremblay calls it a “white-knuckle trip” and author Nick Cutter says it reminded him of the “beautiful savagery of Corman McCarthy’s The Road and the elegiac overtones of Dickie’s Deliverance.” Yikes, it’s dark. So heed warning if you venture down “The Wolf Road.”

Moreover do I dare check out Megan Abbott’s new thriller “You Will Know Me” right before the Olympics? This one takes on the ultra-competitive world of women’s gymnastics and is about a prodigy and her parents and what they are prepared to do to go the distance to make their daughter a champion. Author Jane Casey calls it a “powerful and unsettling portrait of a family” and author Paula Hawkins says it’s “almost unbearably tense, chilling, and addictive.” I have not ventured into the menacing world of Megan Abbott’s novels yet, but I know many swear by her talent.

If I tire of thriller-type reads, such as the three above, I plan to check out Dave Eggers’s new novel “Heroes of the Frontier,” which the publisher says is the “darkly comic story of a mother and her two young children on a journey through an Alaskan wilderness plagued by wildfires and a uniquely American madness.” Count me in as Eggers’s stories often offer insightful spoofs into contemporary American life. This novel features a woman on the run who takes her kids north in an RV with the hopes of starting over in an unknown place, but it sounds like her past is not far behind.

Another book I’m looking at is the highly praised debut novel from Nicole Dennis-Benn called “Here Comes the Sun,” which Amazon’s reviewer says “tells the story of four Jamaican women as they struggle to find their independence amidst the sprawling resorts that both provide and threaten their livelihood.” Judging from the comments on Goodreads, this is no sunny story about Jamaica; it’s dark, intense and apparently heartbreaking, but also said to be very good. Perhaps read it at your own risk.

Lastly in books for July, I’m drawn to Liz Moore’s new novel “The Unseen World” which apparently is a moving story about a child prodigy who goes on a quest to find out about her beloved father’s hidden past. This coming of age tale takes the daughter on a journey into a virtual reality that seems intriguing, and the book has received many favorable reviews on Goodreads. I missed Moore’s prior praised novel “Heft” so this new one seems as good a place to start as any to jump on Moore’s bandwagon.

Meanwhile for movies in July, there’s everything from Tarzan, to Ghostbusters, to Star Trek, to Ice Age, to BFG, but there’s only one Bourne. And that’s Jason Bourne. He’s back, and so will I be to see the latest movie. Of course I’ve seen the others a number of times: Identity, Supremacy, and then Ultimatum, but those ended back in 2007. Luckily the long wait is finally over and Matt Damon has re-teamed with director Paul Greengrass for the new one. Oh thank heavens. I’m sure there will be some great action — after all Bourne finally remembers who he is! (Perhaps if only he had asked me much earlier — there wouldn’t be this delay.) The only drawback is that the character of Pam Landy is not in this one. Ugh. Joan Allen where are you?! Don’t give me Tommy Lee Jones, when we need Landy. This bums me out. But still “Jason Bourne” should be a humdinger of a ride.

The only other movie that looks a bit fun is “Absolutely Fabulous” — which is the movie version of the former BBC TV sitcom. It looks zany and a hoot, and I could use some summer laughs, so I’m hoping this one comes through.

As for new albums out, it’s not a month of many releases. There’s new ones from Jeff Beck, Steven Tyler, Maxwell, and Heart among others, but my album picks are by two artists I know relatively little about. First off, Mississippian Frankie Lee’s “American Dreamer” sounds like he’s a Dylan-wannabe in voice and style, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m digging the songs off his debut album that I’ve heard so far.

And then there’s British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka’s new album “Love & Hate,” which sounds cool, too. Thank goodness for these up and coming artists.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 16 Comments

Summer Days and Mini Reviews

I have been a bit AWOL from the Cue Card lately as I’ve had company in town and various gatherings, events, and chores. After all it is summer now, which is the busiest and best time of year here, especially for get-togethers, bike riding, hiking, gardening, and playing tennis. Happy holiday weekend to all. We are proudly displaying the Canadian Maple Leaf flag here in Canada, as well as our neighbor to the south’s flag, too. We live just a few hours from the border, which you may know is the longest international border in the world (5,525 miles) — way too long for any Trump wall :-). And the fact that it has been such a friendly, peaceful co-existence between the two countries makes it special. We consist of a Canadian-American household and that’s usually pretty peaceful, too, har har. Anyways since I’ve been “on the go” lately I’ll leave you with some mini reviews of what I’ve completed recently.

Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff / 400 pgs. / 2015

Oh yes, Lotto and Mathilde, Mathilde and Lotto — you know who I’m talking about. This was one of the most talked about novels of last year so I was pleasantly surprised last week when the library finally deemed it was my turn to receive it from the lengthy reserve list. I had come off the bench so to speak and scored the audiobook version of “Fates and Furies,” which President Obama had said was his favorite book of 2015 and Amazon had picked as Best Book of the Year. It was about time I inundated myself with Ms. Groff’s protracted tale about Lotto and Mathilde and their 20-plus year marriage, which is told in two parts from each of their perspectives.

I didn’t find them exactly likable characters, far from it. Lotto is an out-of-work actor who becomes a successful playwright. He has a consuming ego and sleeps his way through college with a ton of women before meeting and falling madly in love with Mathilde, who helps him succeed in writing plays but turns out to be pretty conniving and full of secrets. Together they make quite a pair, creative partners who love and adore one another, but whose flaws take a toll on their marriage.

Despite L & M’s unlikability, I was fully engaged by the storytelling in “Fates and Furies,” which drew me into the characters’ lives (exploring both their pasts and their present) and made me curious where they would wind up. Although there were times in which Groff’s sentences seemed overwritten or over the top to me, her scope of the story and themes — like those out of a Greek tragedy — I found quite ambitious and awesome. I also liked the novel’s two-sided, him/her structure and its time changes within the story, but I agree with others who found its abundant partying and sex scenes repetitive or a bit much at times (just a warning to those who haven’t read it yet). Still, Groff’s exploration of marriage and the roles in it awed me and made for an absorbing ride — even when it wasn’t always pretty. I’m glad I found out what all the hype was about with this one. For the most part, I think it deserved it.

Boys in the Trees: A Memoir by Carly Simon / 384 pages / 2015

Here’s a not so secret secret: I succumb periodically to rock star, singer-songwriter memoirs and biographies. Whether it’s Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Fleetwood, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Janis Joplin — all of whom I’ve read books about — I like to find out about what’s behind the great songs and music that I’ve liked and the artists’ lives. My sister gave me this book in which Carly Simon tells the story of her childhood and early life through to the end of her marriage with James Taylor in the early ‘80s. It covers not all of her life by any stretch, but undoubtedly includes her most creative era.

I’m sure you recall, Carly had quite a few hits in the ‘70s such as “That’s The Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” “Anticipation,” The Right Thing to Do,” “You Belong to Me” among others. She was on a roll for sure. Her song “You’re So Vain” is still one of those classic anthems I always turn up the volume to when in the car. What a song, and line: “You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.” The song, she has said, is about a few men she’s been with.

The beginning of Carly’s memoir starts off really well, vividly describing the New York town house she grew up in and her family. It touches on the career of her father who co-founded the publishing house Simon & Schuster in 1924, and also her sisters who she began singing with. It reveals some things I didn’t know such as: that Carly grew up with a stuttering problem and she started singing as a way to try and cover it up. Her childhood, although privileged, didn’t seem as idyllic as perhaps I had imagined — her mother was carrying on an affair in their house, her parents were splitting up, and her father was ousted in the late ‘50s from Simon & Schuster, before dying of a heart attack in 1960.

It was interesting reading about how Carly started out her career — she left college early — to sing in clubs as a folk music duo with her sister Lucy. They were The Simon Sisters and traveled around performing in the 1960s, releasing three albums. I hadn’t really known this before, or how early to the music scene Carly had come.

But later her sister and her parted ways professionally and Carly went solo, putting out her first album in 1971. That’s when her career and life really began to catapult into the stratosphere so to speak. The middle part of the book includes many stories about the men she was with (or slept with) back then: such as Cat Stevens, Kris Kristofferson, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and maybe Mick Jagger among others. I sort of lost track truthfully. That stuff was all right (for inquiring minds) but what I really liked hearing about is how the popular songs came about. One that Carly tells is that her song “Anticipation” was one she wrote when she was waiting for Cat Stevens who was very late in coming over to meet for a date.

The last part of the book deals with her years with James Taylor. They were married for a little over ten years, starting in 1972, which had a huge impact on her and produced two children. The interesting thing is Carly and James had known each other as kids when their families spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard. So later they reconnected and got married during the most creative times of their lives, both releasing great hits and songs. But as time went on, their lives together weren’t easy. James struggled with drugs, and Carly was Carly I guess. They also were forever building and remodeling their place on the Vineyard, which added stress. And apparently she struggled throughout her career with stuttering, anxiety, and stage fright, which I didn’t know about but sympathize with since I was a shy kid myself.

Things ended badly for them. James was unfaithful, and later Carly was too. They eventually divorced in 1983 and apparently he hasn’t been on speaking terms with her since around 2004. It seems like something she’s never recovered from because the last section of the book reads like she’s endlessly trying to set things right with James — like the memoir’s an apology of sorts. She talks him up quite highly in the book too. It’s rather sad really to read about the demise of their marriage.

As for the book it was okay, but I guess I don’t feel I really know Carly after it. I’m not sure in her heyday if she was a problematic diva and person who lived a privileged, bratty life? Or was she a creative woman and singer with insecurities who took care of her kids well and whom James betrayed and left? Who really knows but her family and close friends. All I can say is that the memoir kept my interest for the most part, but I liked the first section the best.

MI-5 / (movie on Netflix)

My husband and I used to watch the BBC TV series called MI-5, which ran from 2002 to 2011. What a great show that was! So I knew the movie version would appeal to us as well. It might not be as good as the TV series was, but I recommend it for those who like spy-action thrillers, particularly about the British Secret Service.

45 Years / (movie on Apple TV)

I had wanted to see this intense but quiet British drama about a married couple planning their 45th anniversary party back in January when I heard Charlotte Rampling was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in this. After watching it, my husband and I debated whether the secret that is revealed within it that spoils things — really is a big deal, or game changer as the story makes out. I could see where it could be — but my husband thought it was much ado about nothing. File this under male/female differences.

Eye in the Sky (movie at theater)

This British thriller stars Helen Mirren as a military commander in charge of a mission to capture terrorists in Kenya. Oh my is this a nail-biting, effective film that raises the complexities of drone warfare and collateral damage in today’s world. It’s excellently done and well worth seeing. The film will tear at your heart and make you feel angry too. It’s a military conundrum.

Bloodline / (a Netflix TV series)

We’re well into Season 1 of this drama series set in the Florida Keys about a family of three adult siblings whose lives are changed when the fourth sibling, their bad-seed brother returns home to help run the family’s inn. We are totally hooked on this show of good people doing bad things. I find myself really wanting to shake some sense into these people, but I don’t think that’s possible.

What about you — have you read Lauren Groff’s novel “Fates and Furies,” or Carly Simon’s memoir, or have you seen any of these films or series? And if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books, Movies, TV | 16 Comments

Summer Lists and Mini Reviews

June is passing by quickly so I better try to keep up with the blog and reading, or else I will fall by the wayside. I see that various bloggers have posted their summer reading lists, which I think is a fun idea. It reminds me of being in school when we were required to read such novels as William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury” and William Golden’s “The Lord of the Flies” over summer break. I’m not sure how many novels we had to read, but I liked crossing them off my school list as I slowly made progress to this interruption in my vacation.

Virgos like me love lists, but can we ever stick to them?! Not likely. I’m a mood reader. I pick up things to read usually by what strikes me at the moment. Regardless, I’m posting the titles below for fun — as books I will draw from for my summer reading. They’re not supposed to be too heavy — some should be lighter beach reads, right? ‘Tis the season of back deck barbecues. I’m sure other books will slip in later by osmosis, but that’s to be expected. For now, my summer books include:

1) The Girls by Emma Cline (a highly praised debut)
2) Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (per Judy’s review at Keep the Wisdom)
3) Into the Forest by Jean Hegland (a futuristic tale suggested by a friend)
4) Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (picked up at BookExpo America)
5) Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (on my To Be Read shelves gathering dust)
6) Reckless by Chrissie Hynde (from my sister at Christmas!)
7) The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Pulitzer Prize-winning)
8) The Lotus & the Storm by Lan Cao (a Vietnam book to dovetail with #7)
9) H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (on my TBR shelf gathering dust)
10) The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens (hikers gone awry, ahh summer delight)
11) Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (one dog tale per season)
12) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (a highly praised debut)
13) Mischling by Affinity Konar (a WWII novel that will likely tear my guts out)
14) The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle (picked up at BookExpo America)
15) And many more …

What’s on your summer list? Have you read any of the ones I picked? Meanwhile below are a few mini reviews of my latest reads.

I found Noah Hawley’s novel “Before the Fall” to be an enjoyable summer, beach-kind-of thriller — about a small private plane with 11 onboard that crashes into the ocean 16 minutes after departing Martha’s Vineyard. (Oh, how small plane trips can creep me out. I once flew to Martha’s Vineyard in the 1990s on a commercial flight from Newark to visit a friend, and the small, loud propeller plane flew past the Twin Towers and sort of scared the bejesus out of me. It seemed to be chugging at a steep angle up into the sky so hard and loudly as if it were about to conk out. I shrank into my seat and thought: Oh please don’t let this go down. Luckily it didn’t, but it caused me about a half hour of silent agony.)

The suspense of Hawley’s novel is in finding out what really happened and who or what caused the crash. The storyline reminded me briefly of John Kennedy Jr.‘s tragic plane crash off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1999, which was so awful. People remember where they were when they heard that horrendous news. Though this book isn’t all that similar to that — with the exception that various rich people are onboard.

The beginning of “Before the Fall” is the most riveting part, with the plane’s hellish plunge into the ocean and the aftermath of possible survivors. Then it gets a bit drawn out as chapters delve into the lives of passengers who were onboard and whether they could have been involved in the crash. Scott, a 40-something down-on-his-luck artist, is the main character and seems a likable hero, or is he? And how did he come to be onboard alongside these super-rich types?

The ending of “Before the Fall” is not exactly a fizzle, but I was expecting perhaps a bigger bang — or splash — for it to go out with. Still the story kept me turning the pages fairly quickly to get to its conclusion. Hawley, who is executive writer and producer for the TV show “Fargo,” proves he has a keen knack for writing fiction and developing characters. “Before the Fall” is a good thriller for the beach, but not exactly for a plane flight, if you get my drift.

As for Rebecca Makkai’s 2014 novel “The Hundred-Year House,” I listened to it on audiobook, which in retrospect might have been a mistake — as perhaps it’s a book easier to follow in print. The novel is broken into three parts and is told in reverse chronological order, which makes it a bit unique and interesting to piece together. I liked the idea of its story about a wealthy family’s turn-of-the-century estate and the artists’ colony that once thrived there from the 1920s to 1950s. Its plot involves a plethora of family secrets and betrayals and an array of eccentric characters. I was into the novel in Parts 1 and 2 — as the house occupants’ mysteries begin to be revealed — but found Part 3 a bit confusing with its various characters from the artists’ colony and convoluted tangents, and the novel lost its hold on me. (Judging by other comments on Goodreads, I wasn’t totally alone in my confusion.)

I wish I had liked “The Hundred-Year House” as much as others seem to have, but as a whole it didn’t grab me enough, or for some reason it failed to totally connect with me. But feel free to disagree if you were a fan of this one.

I had much better luck with T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel “The Tortilla Curtain,” which I read for my book club. Its edgy and at times spoof-filled story made for an interesting discussion and starts off when a white man driving home one day accidentally hits a Mexican illegal immigrant in the road with his car. The white man, a liberal nature writer, lives with his obsessive realtor wife and kid, in a newly gated hilltop community in Topanga Canyon, outside Los Angeles — while the immigrant is homeless there, trying to survive with his wife in a makeshift camp in the ravine. Gradually their two worlds begin to intersect and collide, making for an anxiety-filled ride and conclusion.

“The Tortilla Curtain” reminded me a bit of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” — with its clash between people from opposite worlds — but “Tortilla Curtain” felt more realistic and not as over-the-top in its satire. It still spoofs the times we live in, but also shows empathy to both sides, making for a more nuanced and riveting story. If you haven’t read T.C. Boyle before, he is a master, and this excellent, 5 star novel only proves that someday I will need to read his entire literary canon. I picked up his upcoming novel “The Terranauts” at BEA and will add it to my ever-growing TBR pile.

That’s sort of it for now. But has anyone been watching the five-part documentary TV series: “O.J.: Made in America”? Holy smokes, I’m sure I’m likely the last person to revisit the whole sordid and tragic case — which I remember well from the 1990s — but this docu-series is exceptional and adds much more perspective and L.A. history to what happened and affected the outcome. And its interviews with people involved and views into the murders — these many years later — are quite revealing. I highly recommend the documentary, which includes much footage about the case never seen before. Sadly many of the same issues in the series are still relevant today.

What about you are you watching this? Or have you read any of these books or authors, and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 30 Comments

June Preview

Greetings once again. Sorry I have been away. My folks arrived in town for a visit and we took them on a tour of the Canadian Rockies. I can’t believe how lucky we were to enjoy such gorgeous weather on top of the spectacular scenery. If you ever get a chance to drive the Icefields Parkway in Alberta from Lake Louise to Jasper, it’s truly one of the most awesome mountain roads in the world. For this trip, we only had time for half of it, but we still saw plenty of mountain peaks, lakes, and glaciers as well as several bears along the way.

It was quite a whirlwind adventure. Now I’m back in the traffic-congested, grid-lock city, thinking this harried way of life is pretty nuts. I could barely get my folks to the airport in the bumper-to-bumper commute. But I digress. It’s June now and I’m late with my preview of this month’s new releases. I noticed in the genre of literary fiction that Annie Proulx and Lionel Shriver have new novels coming out. Usually I’d be interested in what they have to say, but with temperatures in the 80s my mind is sort of summer mush currently, so I’m looking for a quick read with a lot of buzz about it.

And that’s where Emma Cline’s debut novel “The Girls” might be just the perfect fit right now. It’s set in 1960s and features a Manson-like cult in Northern California. Gulp, do I really want to go there? It sounds Creepy. I’m usually not into novels involving cults — I was too chicken as a kid to read the “Helter Skelter” book and it took me awhile to get over the 2011 Elizabeth Olsen movie “Martha Marcy May Marlene” — did you see that one? It had a high creep factor and not really a memorable title, but it was potent. “The Girls,” behind Cline’s writing, has been much touted by authors Richard Ford and Jennifer Egan as well as various bloggers. So I want to see what all the fuss is about from this young author, who apparently is 27 years old and took in a seven-figure book deal for writing it.

Similarly, Yaa Gyasi is another young author — 26 years old — with a highly praised novel out this month, which I must get my hands on. Gyasi, too, received a seven-figure book deal for writing her novel “Homegoing,” which spans seven generations and involves the slave trade and the legacy of slavery in the U.S. and Africa. Set partly in Ghana, the story begins with two half sisters in the 18th century whose lives take different turns and one gets shipped to America as a slave. From there, it alternates between the two sisters’ lineages through history till the present day. It’s a book that’s said to be one heck of a read (just ask Shannon over at River City Reading), so I’m really looking forward to “Homegoing.” It’s invigorating to find such talented young authors with novels coming out. For a profile of both Emma Cline and Yaa Gyasi, check out Vogue’s article “How Two Young Women Reimagined the American Novel,” and you might also like Time magazine’s article on Yaa Gyasi entitled “A 26-Year-Old Looks to the Past for Her Literary Debut.”

For other June novels, I probably can’t resist Steven Rowley’s debut novel “Lily and the Octopus” either. It’s said to be a big-hearted, moving story about a guy and a little dachshund and is a book hailed by authors Chris Cleave, Garth Stein, and Graeme Simsion among others. Judging by the highly praised reviews on Goodreads, this is not a novel that I should pass up — being a dog lover. Admittedly I have a weakness for great dog stories, so I will add “Lily and the Octopus” to my list to see if it meets the criteria. I also would still like to get to Sara Baume’s dog novel “Spill Simmer Falter Wither,” which I highlighted back in my March Preview.

Lastly in books this month, Peter Geye’s third novel “Wintering” seems to be an enticing wilderness, survival tale — a genre I usually like — mixed with family history. It’s set in the wilds of Northern Minnesota and begins with an elderly man who’s suffering from dementia vanishing into the backcountry. After he’s pronounced dead, his son recounts to his father’s lady friend an arduous journey they took together decades earlier, which ultimately it seems helps jumpstart the son’s and lady’s healing process. I have not read Geye’s writing before, but author Amy Greene among others says “Wintering” is a novel of “great power and primal beauty.” So count me in.

As for movies coming out in June, I’m not sure there’s any I would really jump at to see at the theater, but I am a bit curious about the adaptation of Jojo Moyes’s novel “Me Before You,” which she also wrote the screenplay for. I had been a fan of her 2012 novel about a quadriplegic man and the hired female caretaker who falls for him, but when I recently saw the movie trailer for “Me Before You” — I thought: “Oh no, that’s not right” — the characters seemed off from my imagination of the book. But what the heck, I should see it to find out if I’ll be proved wrong. From a couple reviews I’ve read, the movie is a bit lacking in the emotion or punch that the book had. It’s also received criticism from disability advocates who are unhappy they say about its all-too-familiar storyline of its depiction of disabled people as having nothing to live for and wanting to end their lives. It seems a valid point; there’s other movies I can think of like this. Though I can’t recall whether the book received the same flak, do you? The movie apparently did better than expected and took in $18.3 million for its opening weekend, last weekend. I’m still debating whether to see it or skip it. How about you?

Lastly this month, there’s new albums due out by such veterans as Paul Simon and Neil Young, whose music I have deeply loved in the past, but perhaps this time around I’m a bit more interested in the new ones by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Avett Brothers so go figure. I especially like the folksy Avett Brothers who hail from North Carolina. Their ninth full length studio album “True Sadness” is due out June 24. Whether it will live up to a few of their albums I have liked in the past remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, I have a couple book reviews to write, namely on T.C. Boyle’s 1995 classic “The Tortilla Curtain,” which I read for my book club recently, and the audiobook of Rebecca Makkai’s 2014 novel “The Hundred-Year House.” But I think I will leave those to discuss another time. I told you I was behind. My folks said I could blame them for it, and our wonderful road trip, so I will — or maybe not.

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

Posted in Top Picks | 24 Comments

May Cycles and Savage Harvest

I’ve long known that the word here in Canada is that you’re supposed to wait — to be on the safe side — till after the May long weekend holiday (which was last weekend) before planting your summer annuals and garden. I always want to jump the gun, but no, I guess it’s best to be prudent and follow the local wisdom. After all it did snow in town last weekend, but luckily now the sun is back so we’re in the clear from here on out … right?

My husband and I followed our May long-weekend tradition of participating in the annual three-day Golden Triangle bike ride in the mountains, which is a local club ride of about 400 cyclists going over 100 km per day.
We had a good time, and only got drenched on Day 2, when it rained and was cold all day. Not good. But we biked on, taking in the sights and avoiding hypothermia.

During Day 1 my husband came across a Mama grizzly and her cub by the side of the road. He kept his distance and biked past them. Later that evening we went back up the canyon by car to take pictures, and saw the same two bears again. They were busy munching on grass and dandelions by the ton. I was worried they were so close to the road where vehicles were whizzing by at 60 to 70 mph that they would be hit, but apparently the bears know the area and often manage these precarious situations.

All in all, it was a great weekend, which started off with a bang on Friday evening when our public library hosted authors Chris Cleave and Michael Crummey together for a reading and talk. I repeat Chris Cleave and Michael Crummey came here! Two authors I really like. Good gracious it was wonderful. I just had seen Cleave the week before at Book Expo and now he was following me to my town. What’s going on?! This is no cultural mecca. I was so pleased to hear them both. I have read Cleave’s three prior novels, and I look forward to his new one “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which is based loosely on the love letters his grandparents wrote to each other during WWII. Apparently his grandfather was stationed on Malta during the war and he was separated from his wife for three and a half years. Cleave gave an interesting slide show of his grandparents and London during the Blitz. His novel is a tribute to them and a meditation on courage, Cleave said, and I’m sure it will be a weeper. Have you read it?

As for Canadian author Michael Crummey, I really liked his novel “Sweetland” last year, about an old man who refuses to leave a remote island off Newfoundland when the mainland government decides to resettle the population. It quietly blew me away and made me say: “Who is this guy? I need to read more of his books.” Crummey has written a few novels and some excellent poetry collections as well. He was there reading from his latest book of poetry called “Little Dogs,” which made me realize I must find time for reading poetry! Crummey’s writing often draws on the history and landscape of his native Newfoundland and Labrador. Both of which I would like to visit someday.

As for books last week, I finished the audiobook of Carl Hoffman’s 2014 nonfiction work “Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art.” Oh my, I didn’t know much about Michael’s sad fate before getting into this, but now I feel I know it from almost every angle. It’s safe to say author Carl Hoffman became very obsessed in solving the long-ago disappearance of 23-year-old Michael Rockefeller, who vanished in 1961 off the coast of New Guinea when his boat overturned. Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to shore as his family believes? Or did he make it to shore only to be killed and eaten by a remote cannibalistic Asmat tribe? (No body was ever found.)

In this book Hoffman provocatively makes the case — after much research and time in the Asmat region among the people — that the tribe killed Rockefeller and was avenging the deaths of members of its group at the hands of whites years earlier. He also suggests there was a Dutch cover-up in hiding what truly happened to Michael.

Admittedly I’m a sucker for such vanishing stories of influential people whether it’s the tragic cases of Amelia Earhart over the Pacific, or the Lindbergh baby — I found Michael Rockefeller’s story similarly entrancing, especially since it was more than 50 years ago. Hoffman’s book includes a lot about the tribes in the Asmat region: their history, society, and the tropical jungles and conditions in which they lived. So if you like anthropology, like I do, this book could be your cup of tea. But fair warning: some of the descriptions in the book are graphic and violent. It’s not exactly Disneyland there. Hoffman also provides context of what was going on under Dutch colonialism then and circumstances surrounding Rockefeller’s death and what he was doing collecting primitive art there at the time.

I was impressed by Hoffman’s research and how he put himself into the story and experienced the tribes much like Rockefeller did. He seemed drawn to Michael and his pursuits in the remote tribal world. But I also thought there were times when Hoffman’s ideas seemed presumptuous and that he was over the top in solving the case.

As the book goes on, Hoffman’s theories swirl round and round and get a bit repetitive. No doubt it’s a thorough and exhaustive exploration of Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance, but the book likely would have been better if it had been a bit shorter and more focused. While I listened to “Savage Harvest” as an audiobook, on second thought I would have rather have liked to read it — as there are many foreign proper nouns in it that would have been easier to follow in print. Still the audio kept me intrigued. (Kudos to Joe Barrett for his excellent narration.)

I kept thinking Hoffman would unveil a smoking gun in the case, but alas — although what he finds out is quite convincing and stunning — it’s not a totally done deal. Whatever happened to Michael Rockefeller perhaps will never be fully known, but I’m glad to have learned about him through this journey.

What about you have you read “Savage Harvest” or about Michael Rockefeller before? Or have you read any of the books by Chris Cleave or Michael Crummey — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 16 Comments

My Wrap on BookExpo America

I’m still coming down from my experience at BookExpo America last week in Chicago. As a newbie to the big publishing event, I was pleasantly overwhelmed by all the books, booths, authors, and book and industry chatter. I attended the first two days of the three day affair and managed to come away with 16 books, 12 of which haven’t been released yet. My luggage certainly was a lot heavier on the way home, but I squeezed it all in and made it through the airline line-ups a bit haggard but in one piece.

The highlight of BEA (besides chatting with fellow bloggers, which was truly great) was meeting the authors Chris Cleave, George Saunders, Amor Towles, Jay McInerney, and Jane Hamilton and having them sign their new books for me. I chatted with Cleave about whether his new novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven” is another weeper (since a couple of his books truly are), which he said it is but hopes too that the book makes one feel happy at the end. We also talked about cycling since I believed Cleave to be an avid cyclist after his last novel “Gold,” which indeed he says he is.

I also met authors Noah Hawley, Joe Ide, and Matthew FitzSimmons, and listened to the author breakfast talks of Colson Whitehead, Louise Penny, and Sebastian Junger. Is your head spinning yet? Hawley, whose novel “Before the Fall” looks like a page-turning thriller, is the writer and executive producer of the show “Fargo,” which I chatted with him about since it’s filmed here in Alberta, where I live. He’ll be back in Alberta for more of the show later this year.

I also enjoyed the Blogger Conference portion of BEA, which was on Day 1. There, I listened to the blogging journey of Erin Loechner (who has a blog called Design for Mankind); heard a panel discussion on connections between bloggers and publishers, and another on creative content; and sat in on three blogger table talks, which were pretty helpful particularly on website design, coding, plugins, and social media minutiae, which aren’t exactly my forte.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend Day 3 of BEA and therefore did not meet authors Justin Cronin and Richard Russo or have their new novels signed. (Big sigh.) But at least those two books are out this month — should I want to promptly get my hands on them. Also a cordial representative at the Harper’s booth informed me that they had run out of giveaway copies of Ann Patchett’s upcoming book “Commonwealth” while I was in line for George Saunders. Yikes, it was hard being at two places at once! But she said she’d mail it to me — it was nice that people were quite friendly and accommodating. I also missed picking up books by Fredrik Backman and Maria Semple, who were both there signing copies. I wonder if Semple’s new book, (“Today Will Be Different,” ) due out in October, will be similarly endearing as her debut novel “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”? Hmm. So indeed I missed some books, but in reality if I had received all of the ones I wanted, I likely wouldn’t have been able to stuff them in my suitcase and get on the plane home.

All in all, it was quite fun at BEA, feeling all the buzz about upcoming releases. Here I am at left with singer Kenny Loggins (ha), who was there to promote his kid’s book “Footloose.” Even YA author Veronica Roth apparently made an appearance on Day 3 though her new novel (“Carve the Mark”) doesn’t come out till January 2017. I guess that makes sense since she lives there in Chicago. I thought the whole BEA event with all the signings and giveaways was well organized: they had shuttles to and from the chosen hotels; had on-time schedules of the events; and the lines weren’t intolerable. I’d love to attend BEA again though maybe I might not get there every year. It’s supposed to be back in New York next year, where it usually is, so we will see. I thought having it in Chicago was a great alternative and made it more accessible to those out West. Hint, hint.

For those interested, here are the books I picked up at BEA with their release dates:

The Short Drop by Matthew FitzSimmons / Dec. 1, 2015
The Excellent Lombards by Jane Hamilton / April 19, 2016
Approval Junkie by Faith Salie / April 19, 2016
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave / May 3, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger / May 24, 2016
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley / May 31, 2016
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney / Aug. 2 2016
A Great Reckoning by Louise Penny / Aug. 30, 3016
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler / Sept. 6, 2016
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles / Sept. 6, 2016
Mercury by Margot Livesey / Sept. 6, 2016
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead / Sept. 13, 2016
IQ by Joe Ide (debut novel) / Oct. 18, 2016
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle / Oct. 25, 2016
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon / Nov. 1, 2016
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders / Jan. 3, 2017

And for more on BEA experiences check out the inspired posts by Shannon over at River City Reading, Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books, and Marisa at The Daily Dosage. Furthermore I enjoyed hanging out and chatting with Annette, who hails from the U.K. and likes to blog about YA books among other genres over at Book Blather.

As for reading last week, I finished “The Excellent Lombards” by Jane Hamilton, who I was thrilled to meet at BEA. I remember loving her novels “The Book of Ruth” and “A Map of the World” back in the 1990s. I so wanted to love her new novel too, which is a coming of age novel narrated by a young girl who lives with her family on a large apple orchard and farm in Wisconsin. She wants everything in her life to stay the same, particularly her brother to remain close and the farm to remain in her family, but as she gets older things start to change, which causes her growing pains and unhappiness.

What’s not to like, right? Apple orchard, check. Jane Hamilton, check. Coming of age novel, check. A glorious plug from Ann Patchett on the cover, check. Gracious, I assumed I’d swallow this slim book whole. But unfortunately for me this one didn’t live up to her two novels that I had loved. I liked its premise and setting, but the execution midway through gets slow and not enough happens to make the story overly compelling. At points, I found the story and storytelling to be a bit tedious. Was this just me and my week?! Towards the very end, “The Excellent Lombards” picks up a bit and I did want to find out: (a) what happens to the farm and the family and (b) if the girl and her brother go their separate ways. But alas, it wasn’t enough to make me relish “The Excellent Lombards” or find it overly compelling. Oh too bad!

What about you — have you read Jane Hamilton’s books before or ever gone to BEA — and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 37 Comments

On the Road With a Few Reviews

Hi, I’m on the road presently so I’ll leave you with a few mini reviews with what I’ve completed recently. Though first I’d like to introduce my trusty book assistant and walking partner — for those who might not have seen a photo of her before — this is Stella at left. She’s our 3-year-old Yellow Lab, who likes to walk and do errands in the mornings, and nap in the afternoons. She’s a big swimmer and likes all things food related.

As for my recent read, I can’t say I really recall the real life assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in October 1984, which is what British author Jonathan Lee’s novel “High Dive” is about. I was in college then and my head must have been in the sand. But at the time, a bomb exploded at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England, where Thatcher and others were staying for the Conservative Party conference. She and her husband narrowly escaped injury, but five people were killed and 31 others injured.

“High Dive” explores the lives of a few fictional characters working at the Grand Hotel and also gets into the head of the Irish Republican Army member who’s behind planting the bomb there. It’s an eerie waiting game as you know (from history) what’s going to happen at end of the book when the prime minister arrives. I became invested in the characters at the hotel, who unbeknownst to them may or may not get out in one piece. And while I found the characters fairly interesting, there’s some lag time about their daily lives that dragged for me in the middle, especially knowing this horrific thing was going to happen in the near future.

Despite that, there’s some good writing in the book and Jonathan Lee builds a mostly affecting story surrounding the bombing. I perhaps wanted to like “High Dive” a bit more than I did, but still it’s an interesting book of historical fiction and gave me insight into the situation between the IRA and British government back then.

In contrast, I listened to the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s 2014 novel “Astonish Me,” which is about a professional ballerina in New York who falls for a Russian star, helps him defect to the West, and eventually quits dance when she becomes pregnant. She tries to put that world behind her, marrying a childhood friend, and moving to California. But when her son ends up excelling at ballet many years later, she’s forced to face up to the secret and life she left behind long ago.

“Astonish Me” is a story I became quite invested in as it paints an intricate picture of the world of dancers and weaves a web of relationships, making for a bit of a page-turner. All of which I liked, but one relationship toward the end between the Russian star and the son’s former girlfriend seemed pretty weird or unlikely I thought. And at times the story among the characters bordered on melodrama. The big reveal at the end is a bummer the woman should never have done at the beginning (what was she thinking?). Still I did fall for much of the author’s storytelling and its dance setting. And I virtually had to rush to its conclusion like a flower needs the rain — so to speak.

Lastly this week, I finished the audiobook of Rufi Thorpe’s 2014 debut novel “The Girls From Corona del Mar.” With a title like that, I was drawn to it immediately because as a teenager I often joined my friends’ families who drove for summer day trips from the desert to the beach at Corona del Mar where we put on Coppertone and got burned by the sun. The funny thing is the novel is not a lot about Corona del Mar, which is in Orange County, California (in fact quite a bit of the story takes place in Europe). Instead it’s about two friends who grew up there but whose paths diverge after high school.

Mia, the narrator, the one they joke has a black heart, goes on — after having an abortion at 15 — to Yale and then Istanbul to write her dissertation on a Sumerian goddess; while her best friend Lorrie Ann, the good one accepted to UC Berkeley, gets pregnant just before graduating, has a shotgun wedding, and gives birth to a disabled child. Thereafter her life takes a downward turn. One succeeds for awhile, while the other falls. The psychological ebb and flow of their friendship over 20 years is pretty intoxicating stuff. They both go through a lot; some of it is brutal and some very sad. I’m still wondering about the ending: I guess it begs the question how well do we really know a person.

“The Girls of Corona del Mar” is an intense slim novel about friendship, family, and fate, which held me a bit more than the other two novels this week. Who knew?! I was surprised by its power and unflinching ways and had to look up the author Rufi Thorpe. Apparently she has a new novel out this month called “Dear Fang, With Love.” Judging from her debut, I’ll have to get a copy of it ASAP.

Coincidentally, the audiobooks of both “Astonish Me” and “The Girls of Corona del Mar” were expertly narrated by Rebecca Lowman, whose long list of audio titles is quite impressive. She must be one of the most sought-after readers there is. Kudos to Ms. Lowman for how well she goes about such layered stories and characters.

What about you have you read the novels: “High Dive,” “Astonish Me,” or “The Girls of Corona del Mar” and if so, what did you think?

Posted in Books | 26 Comments

May Preview

May is now upon us — can you believe it? Lately I’ve been busy playing in a couple tennis tournaments, trading in an old car, and making plans to attend the memorial service of my friend back East and then continue on to the BookExpo America in Chicago. It could be a crazy trip. If you’re going, I hope to see you there. Meanwhile this past week I’ve been reading British author Jonathan Lee’s historical novel “High Dive,” which is about the real-life assassination attempt by the IRA of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet in 1984 at the seaside town of Brighton, England. It’s quite excellent so far. I also finished the audiobook of Maggie Shipstead’s alluring 2014 novel “Astonish Me,” which involves the world of professional dance and the defection of a Russian ballet star. Have you read either of these? I plan to review them this coming week.

In fiction releases for May, quite a few acclaimed authors have new novels coming out, notably: Richard Russo, Don DeLillo, Louise Erdrich, and Julian Barnes among others. You might want to jump on these ASAP. But of course, I can’t resist Chris Cleave’s latest novel “Everyone Brave Is Forgiven,” which is set during World War II and is apparently inspired by the real-life love letters between Cleave’s grandparents. I know, I know, it’s another WWII novel, and you likely have the same fatigue over that subject matter as I do, but I’ve read all of Cleave’s novels including “Incendiary,” “Little Bee,” and “Gold” so I can’t stop now. His books have held me in their clutches before.

But nothing this month is more highly anticipated than Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic novel “The City of Mirrors,” which is the finale of his Passage trilogy. I gave the first two books to my husband and watched as he lapped them up like nobody’s business. I will dish out the third and see his reaction. I have yet to get to these epic tomes and the survivors in the desert, but oh I will! I have heard so many good things about the books — it’s just a matter of which deserted island — or alas, back deck — I will take them to — and when the heavens will part for my total immersion. I’ll keep you posted.

A few other novels that are piquing my interest this month are Adam Haslett’s new one “Imagine Me Gone” about the ravages of mental illness on a family. Publisher’s Weekly says “Haslett’s latest is a sprawling, ambitious epic about a family bound not only by familial love, but by that sense of impending emergency that hovers around Michael, who has inherited his father John’s abiding depression and anxiety. … In Michael, Haslett has created a most memorable character.” Said to be both gut-wrenching and at times hilarious, the novel seems an excellent one worth exploring.

I also like the look of Karan Bajaj’s novel “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent” about a man who leaves his successful life behind as a Wall Street analyst and embarks on a spiritual journey that takes him to the farthest reaches of India. Part adventure story and part journey of transformation, this novel is receiving highly favorable reviews on Goodreads. I’m not sure if it strives to be a modern-day channeling of Hermann Hesse, but I’m open to yoga and stories of awakenings, so count me in for this.

Lastly in fiction this month, I’m curious about Jennifer Haigh’s new novel “Heat and Light” — about the residents of a rural Pennsylvania town caught up in the fracking boom. I was impressed by Haigh’s last novel “Faith” about the Catholic Church abuse scandal, which I read for book club, so I’m geared up for this one too. Haigh seems an author who presents various sides of an issue in powerful and thought-provoking ways. This one appears to be an environmental novel pertinent to today’s national debate surrounding energy resources and drilling.

As for movies in May, I am not a big fan of summer blockbusters — it’s true — but they are here! If you like all things Marvel then you will be happy about seeing “Captain America: Civil War” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” both in the same month. I’m guessing Captain America will win that box-office battle. There’s also Disney’s sequel to “Alice in Wonderland” — “Alice Through the Looking Glass” with returning stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as Alice. I like Mia as Alice. But what about the Jodie Foster-directed thriller “Money Monster” with Julia Roberts and George Clooney? I watched the trailer and it looks sort of didactic — so I’m a bit hesitant if it’s worth stomaching. Though indeed George is in it.

I guess there’s no May movie I’m dying to see, but the trailer of “The Lobster” looks a bit quirky and funny. It’s a satire, set in a dystopian near future, in which single people, by law, are taken to a place where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into the woods. Who thinks these things up? “The Lobster” looks pretty peculiar and stars Colin Farrell playing the deadpan lead character. I’m hoping maybe it might be slightly reminiscent of the quirky but heartwarming movie “Her” with Joaquin Phoenix, which I really liked, but I don’t expect it’ll be nearly as good.

As for albums in May, such icons as Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan have new ones coming out, which sound quite interesting, — as do Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Ziggy Marley, and Cyndi Lauper, too. I’d like to check out Corinne Bailey Rae’s new album “The Heart Speaks in Whispers” as well as the new one called “The Things We Are Made Of” by an old favorite of mine Mary Chapin Carpenter. She’s always been a crowd favorite each summer on the lawn at Wolf Trap.

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

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