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The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

Amorphous Ness. Victorian Gothic homage. Science, medicine, modernity dispelled the gossamer blue fog along a rural estuary where the mythic serpent was reportedly glimpsed. The so-called monster never conjured a terror commensurate with the village’s reaction. But. Essex beautifully depicted and characters well-drawn. Yet some just didn’t seem to belong in the same story. Still. Liked it.

essex serpent

 

Asymmetry, Lisa Halliday

More like askew. The first section Folly is a brilliant exposé of an asymmetrical relationship. Halliday (Alice) captured Philip Roth (Ezra), a famous aging author and her affair with him in a riveting and well-written piece. The decades younger Alice is a budding writer. The second section Madness is obviously her work, intentionally meant to illustrate a failure to take her mentor/lover’s advice. Write what you know in great detail. The two dimensional characters in a never-ending boring story which she seemed to have no connection with were too tedious for a reader to have to endure. The third section, the Interview was a throw-away and insulting. The first and third parts of the book included famous works of authors and composers for no particular integral reason. They didn’t connect us to Ezra. If Halliday hadn’t had an affair with Roth, this novel wouldn’t have seen the light of day. Yet. They met on a Central Park West bench eating ice cream cones. So.


The Underground Railroad,
Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a young slave who runs away from her Georgia plantation. The plot follows her harrowing life as she is pursued by an obsessed Javert-esque slave-catcher. Her travels take her on an actual underground railroad in dark boxcars where she stops in different cities as she tries to make it to freedom. The real railroad device was clever but didn’t quite work. It wasn’t central enough to make it compelling. Whitehead does create an allegory about being Black in America. Stations of the Cross?


Dark Rooms
,
Lili Anolik

Billed as a Secret History prep murder redux. Not that at all. Set in West Hartford, Connecticut, the boarding school itself never came to life. The main character Grace’s sister Nica is found dead from a gunshot wound in the cemetery behind their family home. There are plot twists. Many reviewers had issues with the so-called “rapist” in the story. But, he wasn’t really guilty. It’s Grace’s photographer-mother who personifies extraordinary evil. Chilling.


The Girl Before
,
JP Delaney

Emma then. Jane now. A device that worked well here and even melded the two when it was right to do so. An austere technocratic architecturally-renowned house in London the setting for this psycho-drama. Soon a Ron Howard movie.


The Swans of Fifth Avenue,
 
Melanie Benjamin

Dominick Dunne genre. Gossipy. Juicy. Dishy fiction. Truman Capote’s relationship with Babe & Bill Paley. As well as other upper Fifth Avenue social x-rays of the 50’s-70’s. Capote’s “swans”, besides Babe Paley were his gaggle of women who traded on their looks to snag the richest most powerful old men of their time. Superficial. Lonely. Materialistic. Narcissistic. All of that. Name dropping on every page. Pamela Harriman. C.Z. Guest. Great fun.


The French Girl,
Lexie Elliott

Daddy issues. Sweet revenge. Characters were developed well. If only they weren’t so clueless with the exception of one. Not a great mystery, as the culprit was not a surprise. Although the red herrings swam free or more to the theme roamed through the French country barn. A bit sophomoric. Severine’s spirit was an extraneous ploy. Too many “whilsts” and “diffidents”. Needed better editing. But. It’s a decent weekend read.


Burning Down the House,  
Jane Mendelsohn

Combines David Byrne’s classic Talking Heads songs with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in a new Broadway musical. Sounds cool. Right? Too bad it’s a minor aside to the main plot. What? Yup. Never a clear connection to the story of anti sex-trafficking causes. The cover attracted me to the depiction of the San Remo on the Upper West Side. Problem was. Everyone in the book lives either in the Village or on the Upper East Side. Oops. Calling all editors. Anyway. Liked the cover. Love David Byrne.

burning house


Modern Lovers,
Emma Straub

Two dysfunctional mom-partners who have a neglected daughter. A real estate agent friend of one of the moms was in a band with her and her needy husband. So two needy couples. Saving grace. A glimpse into a cool neighborhood called Ditmas Park in Brooklyn.


The Wonder Garden,
Lauren Acampora

Each person’s tale is fraught with something unfulfilled. Trapped in a modern suburban New England enclave, these are lost souls behind upscale Colonial façades. The myth of rich and happy lives. Some find solace in arts and crafts. Others history and healing. All obsessive. Advertising man turned alternative drum circle medicine man did reach some spirits. However, none of their secrets were interesting enough. Nor their stories creepy enough. Wanted more Stepford meets Twin Peaks. Acampora does evoke the depressing futile undercurrent of human existence.


Leaving Lucy Pear,
Anna Solomon

Mother Load. Characters focused on bad/good/indifferent/lacking mothers. Graphic descriptions of women’s bodily functions around all of the permutations of becoming a mother and not becoming a mother. Lucy Pear herself was interesting. So were the Coolidge-era times on the Northeast coast. Wanted more Calvin and Lucy.


Enter Helen,
Brooke Hauser

Written by our Northampton backyard neighbor. Brooke extensively researched Helen Gurley Brown’s life through personal papers archived at Smith College, where the irony was not lost. Helen graduated from a business college in California. Yet she broke glass ceilings and loved men. Her contemporary feminist counterpoint Betty Friedan, and later Gloria Steinem both Smith alums. A candid and entertaining biography.

enter helen

 


The Couple Next Door,
Shari Lapena

A light mystery about an abducted baby. Nonetheless it was a fun read on a rainy weekend. Liked the twists and straightforward writing style.


Siracusa,
Delia Ephron

Two American couples and a tween-aged daughter of one travel to Sicily together. The daughter Snow (I know) is a Greek chorus of sorts, cunning and addled throug no fault of her own. Nutty parents. The four adult characters tell their stories from alternating first person perspectives. In the Rashomon style. An interesting device which needs distinct voices for each. These four all sounded the same. Found myself going back to each chapter-head to find out who was telling his or her recollection. Snow was worth the read. Sicily didn’t come off as well.


The Heirs,
 Susan Rieger

Rupert’s rise from British orphan to Yale Law grad to upper crust New York socialite is a stretch. He & wife Eleanor had 5 sons who were indistinguishable. Rupert & Eleanor’s relationship was supposedly based on great sex. Yet they were not connected. Yet they were. What?! Eleanor is held up as a perfect wife and mother despite many suitors for her attention. So. Yup. A soap opera. However, there were a few scenes with Jim, the surgeon and his wife, and their parents that were read-out-loud funny. Stalker alert!


The Marriage of Opposites
, Alice Hoffman

History meets Harlequin Romance. The story of Jews from Paris living in St. Thomas in the 1800’s. One of the women happens to be the mother of Camille Pissarro, the famous artist, but that is an afterthought to the romance plot. Island life history well done.


Fates and Furies,
Lauren Groff

I almost put this book down a third of the way through. But, I read reviews that said that second part “Furies” was worth continuing. It was to some extent. I can’t say that I’m left caring about the characters. Mathilde is complicated but not evil enough to be interesting. She was deceptive to her hapless husband and cruel in many ways. Lotto (hated the name) was not that compelling. This couple came together as abandoned children deprived of parental love, and overcame some of it. They kept lots of secrets and there were holes in their souls. Redemptive denouement weak.


The Girl on the Train,
Paula Hawkins

Not Gone Girl to be sure. Three needy, vulnerable competing current women tell their stories around an English train track. Intriguing literary device. Reductive in the end.


The 
Interestings, Meg Wolitzer

Six New York kids meet at a summer arts camp in the Berkshires during their 70’s high school years. They call themselves The Interestings. Mostly they are not, except for Ethan. He has real talent as a cartoonist and creator of an imaginary world. It becomes a long-running television show in the Simpsons or Family Guy genre. He is forever smitten with the middle-class girl from Long Island who is on scholarship to the camp. But, she forever can only love him as a friend. She ends up having a mundane existence with an average depressed husband. Ethan marries the camp group’s rich girl from the Upper West Side and they become jet-set class. The 2 couples stay “friends”. As the rich couple gets richer, the inevitable envy ensues. But, of course, the really rich couple has its own problems, which leaves middle-class camp friend schadenfreudey.

interestings

 

At the Water’s Edge, Sarah Gruen

Loch Ness monster as backdrop during World War II. Rich Philadelphians with dysfunctional pasts, Maddie marries Ellis and gets his bestie Hank in the deal. She has little to no sex with either. Muddied waters as to Ellis and Hank’s real relationship. They all end up in the Scotland Highlands looking for Nessie. But, not really. It’s just a ruse to save reputations and cover other drunken intrigues. There are bomb shelters and gas masks, too.


All the Light We Cannot See,
Anthony Doerr

Won Pulitzer Prize. Not sure why. Another okay read from the best seller list. Separate and parallel sagas of a French blind girl and German genius boy coming of age during WWII. Story and style juvenile, but matured as did its two protagonists. Should have remained focused on them.


The Magician’s Lie
, Greer Macallister

More Deptford World of Wonders than Night Circus in the magic circuit and carnival train caravan to rural stages. The writing did not rise to Davies, however. It’s about Ada/Arden, a rare female magician at the turn of the century, and protégée of the first, Adelaide. Boyfriend manager Clyde re-connection a little far-fetched. Intertwined lives with similar names. Ray the most acutely drawn, was a study in stalker evil. If someone wants to do you harm, the only way to escape is through magic or murder. That was the good part of the story. Well done.  The remarkable end was hard to swallow, like a bad fire-eater.  That said, a good read on a snowy weekend.


City on Fire,
Garth Risk Hallberg

Hallberg draws the reader in with a gripping story and compelling initial characters. He succeeds in setting the scene of 1970’s seedy New York City. Even anachronisms can be overlooked, such as certain neighborhoods would never have been considered as places to live then. However, as it goes along, writing trumps the people and the story. Hallberg’s use of language is brilliant, but not every character has the intelligence nor wit to do nor think the clever things he ascribes to them.

Seating Arrangements, Maggie Shipstead

Split lobster. Weekend wedding on a Nantuckety island focuses on silly problems of the very rich. Written by a woman, it is told from a father’s point of view about having daughters. Winn’s inability to relate to the women in his life is both poignant and distasteful. But well done. His social-climbing wanna-be-WASP obsession was annoying. As was the ending.

split lobster

 

The Children Act, Ian McEwan

Fiona Maye, an English family court judge makes a caring ruling about Adam, a Jehovah’s Witness teen who is bound by the literal dogma he has been raised to believe. His parents and religious community are the fabric of his being. So, when the Judge frees the deeply talented and troubled young man, she gives him no safety net to fall into. Gillick Competence is an interesting concept but not necessarily the best option.


Her
, Harriet Lane

Hell is too cool for Her,  Harriet Lane’s horrible Nina. Personification of veiled hatred and evil. If only Joan Crawford were around to play the lead. She is the only one who could. Chilling read. It is hard to imagine a seemingly loving mother do these things to another. The parallel stories sometimes seemed muddled, but it was hard not to want to know what made Nina tick.


We Were Liars
, E. Lockhart

Cadence is a troubled yet privileged teen. She was not appealing for good reason as you’ll read. Neither was her Sinclair family. Three cloistered divorced mothers and a nasty patriarch on their own private vacation island off Massachusetts. The mystery was well done. Parallel fairy tales interspersed added to the intrigue. Tragic consequences of misguided teens. More than Cadence and the other characters, I did like the cadence of E. Lockhart’s writing. Poetic at times. The intonations and musicality struck my fancy. Liked the crisp clean style. Unexpected ending.


Into the Water
, Paula Hawkins

Short chapters about numerous characters now and in the past around a river. Lots of jumping and drowning. The train track device worked better in Hawkins’ first book. 


Maya’s
Notebook
, Isabel Allende

Men portrayed as strong, caring characters. Refreshing. Maya is the story’s young tortured woman protagonist. Her quirky Chilean Grandma Nidia’s men are her heroes. Nidia’s husband is Maya’s beautifully drawn African-American Berkeley Grandpa. Her Popo. When he died I cried. Nidia’s lifelong Chilean friend, Manuel Arias is a stalwart in its remote archipelago, with whom Maya goes to stay. Both are loving forces who bring spirituality and magic to Maya’s world. Nidia’s best friend, an Irish social worker in Berkeley is a third influential male force in Maya’s life.  Good men and a good read.

maya

 

The Perfect Prey, The Fall of ABN AMRO, Jeroen Smit

After the April 2014 tragic family murder-suicide by former CEO Schmittmann was reported in the NYPost, I did some research as an ABN AMRO Bank alum and former Managing Director. I found this paperback and it read like a novel. The story was well told and compelling- the demise of a once prestigious global financial institution. A lot of the players are known to me from my tenure at the Bank in San Francisco and Boston in the 80’s and 90’s. Lex Kloosterman, my former boss, went on to Fortis and was instrumental in the tale and ultimate sale with Mr. Schmittmann. Probably not a wide audience for this book. I would recommend it as an allegory- too big yet failed. A moral tragedy.


Communion Town,
Sam Thompson

Loosely absurd. Allegorical characters in ten chapters depicting mortals, para-persons and monsters in parallel universes. Mostly. I think. Although well-written, it came off as a tad self-indulgent and lyrically pretentious. I kept searching for the thread that connected each piece. This intricately imagined City could have provided a perfect architecture for ten distinct yet intertwined short stories. It just didn’t. I guess Thompson was attempting the Persian rug as a foundational concept for his work. Each thread exists on its own. But, neither Sartre nor Camus is he. For me.


The
 Marriage 
Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

College syllabi and relationships of the 80’s in Derrida deconstruction detail. Relevance was in. A mangled ménage à trois struggles with religion, manic depression, and feminism. They confront difficult life choices after college with compassion and strength of character. Liked the ending.


Table’s Edge,
Carol Colitti Levine

Stories and favorite recipes of the people who created a dining paradise in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. Half history. Half cookbook. Hey. Don’t laugh. Edward St. Aubyn’s literary prize went to a cookbook author in his Lost for Words. Okay. It was a satire.

 

 

The Secret Life of Violet Grant, Beatriz Williams

1960’s era Vivian is a smart, independent Manhattanite journalist and her connection with Dr. Paul seemed both plausible and interesting until the plot just went berserk in a direction that even a soap opera would be ashamed to try. However, her “Aunt” Violet’s mysterious story from 2 generations past is compelling and kept me finishing the book.


The Paris Wife, 
Paula McLain

Ernest Hemingway’s early years after World War I when he lived in Paris, went skiing in Austria, and was married to first wife Hadley from St. Louis. During this period he frequently traveled to Spain where he became obsessed with the bullfighting corridas. When he wrote The Sun Also Rises and Death in the Afternoon. It’s hard to believe that Hemingway and all of the famous and notorious of the times could be as bland as portrayed in this novel. John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald. Hadley & Ernest are drawn as two-dimensional, vapid lovers.


The
 Stranger’s Child
, Alan Hollinghurst

Semi-famous gay mediocre poet who dies fighting for England in WWI. As generations evolve, other gay guys become obsessed with him. Writing and characters kept it worth the read.


A
Hundred Summers
, Beatriz Williams

Research and editing lacking. Smith College, Massachusetts was the heading of chapters as if it were a place. Later in the book, it correctly referred to Smith College as being in Northampton, Ma. Pancakes served at a nearby diner were said to be the best in the Berkshires. Smith and Northampton are not in the Berkshires. Beach book.


Bring
 Up the Bodies,
Hilary Mantel

Had to read this as the sequel to WolfHall, which was wonderful and deserved the Man Booker in 2010. I disagree with this choice. Ann Boleyn boring? Seeing her through Cromwell’s eyes had so much more potential. Still.  Mantel can write better than most.

The Perfume Collector, Kathleen Tessaro

A bit contrived and predictable. Some redeeming value in Paris hotel settings, perfumerie and clothing. Like the cover.

 

perfume collector

 

Porch Lights, Dorothea Benton

Betsey Levine’s review:

Summer beach read and so much of it was familiar to me. Used to vacation on Pawley’s Island and eat at restaurants on Murrell’s Inlet so I was able to visualize the area. Also, when my great-grandson Henry was born said I didn’t want to be called Granny or Great Granny, I wanted the children to call me Glamma and little Charlie in the book called his grandmother Glam.  I was right at home from start to finish. Also, Dr. Steve’s last name was Plofker. If I didn’t cover pudding with saran wrap it would form a skin on top that my husband, Ellis, called plufker. Yup, I was right at home. In her acknowledgments the author admitted that she used the real names of her friends as characters in the book.  There really is a Steve Plofker. I figured that she wouldn’t have made that name up.

 

 

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee

The early years of Alice’s life, loves, friends who created a food revolution in America.

alice water