Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Review: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

You know how they say there are two sides to every story? Well, in Lauren Groff's novel, Fates and Furies, this is literally true. Roughly half of the story of this couple and their marriage is told from the third person close perspective of husband Lotto (short for Lancelot) with the other half similarly narrated with a close focus on wife Mathilde. It's a structure that sets the reader up to believe one story and then to pull the rug out from under them to show another story, no less true, or perhaps more appropriately, no less false, than the first. And that intentionally slow revelation of more depth, more layers, than initially suspected, could have been amazing but for the characters and the obviously effortful, overwritten prose here. This came so highly recommended by someone I trust that I bought it in hardcover. But it wasn't all that the premise promised (or that my friend promised either). And now I will trust her recommendations just a little less.

Mathilde and Lotto know each other for the blink of an eye before they get married, a marriage between the handsome, talented man used to being catnip to women and the mysterious, secretive, and intriguing woman whose own talents will go unrecognized. Outsiders consider their marriage a happy and successful one but only the people inside a marriage know the truth of their private lives, what makes them tick, and the compromises they've made to be mostly content with each other. Lotto, who is the subject of the Fates portion of the book is narcissistic and stereotypical. His family is rich and when they cut him off for marrying Mathilde, he promptly becomes the most celebrated and successful playwright of his time, lauded to the moon and back. His portion of the book is a long string of sexual conquests, both from the past and with Mathilde, that do nothing for the story whatsoever.  (And lamentably, their descriptions are snooze-worthy.)  When the novel flips to Mathilde's section, titled Furies, the reader gets a very different view of their long marriage, a view that paints Mathilde as the more mature and intelligent, if self-effacing, half of the duo. This reimagining is not entirely successful.

The idea of a Rashoman style narrative (although with only the two perspectives rather than several) should have been interesting and effective. Instead, the book was overwrought and pretentious. There were authorial interjections (more in Lotto's section than in Mathilde's) that were clearly meant to mimic a Greek chorus but they were instead unnecessary and their information was obvious to any intelligent reader. If readers hadn't already gotten what the interjections shared, there was a lack somewhere, either in the writing or in the audience and as one of that audience, well, I know where my money is. Lotto's portion of the narrative was frequently interrupted by long, numbing excerpts from his plays, rambling reimaginings of Greek myths that break up the flow of the narrative. Ultimately, I just didn't care about Lotto, Mathilde, or the state of the lives or marriage at any point in the book. It was slow, boring, and even the secrets and the much touted twist were, in the end, just meh. This is a very polarizing book and people seem to either love it or hate it so hopefully anyone else choosing to read it will find it far more engaging than I did.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams.

The book is being released by Avon on February 11, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: What if you almost missed the love of your life?

Nadia gets the 7.30 train every morning without fail. Well, except if she oversleeps or wakes up at her friend Emma's after too much wine.

Daniel really does get the 7.30 train every morning, which is easy because he hasn't been able to sleep properly since his dad died.

One morning, Nadia's eye catches sight of a post in the daily paper:

To the cute girl with the coffee stains on her dress. I'm the guy who's always standing near the doors... Drink sometime?

So begins a not-quite-romance of near-misses, true love, and the power of the written word.

Monday, January 20, 2020

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This meme is hosted by Kathryn at Reading Date.

Books I completed over the past week are:

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

Bookmarks are still living in the middle of:

A Sister's Courage by Molly Green

Reviews posted this week:

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood
Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict
Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu
Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Books still needing to have reviews written (as opposed to the ones that are simply awaiting posting):

Case Histories by Kaye Atkinson
American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe by Heather Webber
The Mad Scientist's Guide to World Domination edited by John Joseph Adams

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

This is one of my daughter's favorite books. In fact, it might just be her single favorite book. She gave it to me to read years ago and I set it on my bedside table, reading everything except it. I don't read a lot of YA no matter how cute the premise is. But I decided this year that I wanted to read the few books I have that others have loaned me from time to time and get them back to their rightful owners, starting with this one. And I'm sorry it took me so long to read it. Obviously I am nowhere near the age of the main character but I did my fair share of moving when I was younger, facing a new school, having no friends, and feeling uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place so I could easily relate to this sweet YA romance.

Jessie's life has been completely upended in the past few years. Her father has remarried and uprooted her from Chicago, her best friend, and the comfortable, middle class home that holds all of the memories of life with her mother, who died of cancer two years before the story opens. Now she and her dad live in a mansion with her stepmom and stepbrother, who is also a junior in high school but seems about as thrilled to have her there as she is to be there. She attends an elite private school where everyone looks like California stereotypes to her and she doesn't have any idea how to navigate this new place, home or school, especially without friends. What she does have is someone from school emailing her anonymously, calling themselves Somebody Nobody (SN), and offering to help her figure out school and the people in it. Initially wary of the emails, sure they are going to be a cruel joke, Jessie comes to rely on them, exchanging personal information, including the grief she feels about the loss of her mom and that she doesn't feel she can share with her dad anymore now that he's remarried as well as the smaller grief of having to move and forge a new life, another thing she can't or won't share with her dad. She goes about her daily life, tentatively making friends, developing a crush, and getting a job, while still being homesick for Chicago, desperately missing best friend Scarlett, and pushing more and more for Somebody Nobody to reveal their identity.

Buxbaum has done a fantastic job capturing so many different feelings in this novel. She herself lost her mother at an early age so she knows personally the grief that her main character carries. She's also managed to bring out incredibly real feelings that so many teenagers who have moved feel in their new place. Jessie focuses on the ways in which her new home and school are different from what she loved (and didn't love, but she won't acknowledge that) before, unable or unwilling to see the good or even acknowledge things that are similar to Chicago. She stereotypes the kids around her, lumping them all into what she expects from a very wealthy California school, definitely confirming the frequency illusion when she claims the girls are all thin and blond, which she is not. In addition to the grief of losing her mother and the anger and unhappiness of moving, Buxbaum also lets Jessie experience regular teenage girl emotions as well. Jessie's blindness to who SN clearly is, at least clear to many readers despite the three options Jessie comes up with, is a perfect sign of how regular a kid Jessie is, so wrapped up in the other strong feelings that she can't see for sure what the rest of us can. The emails between SN and Jessie are funny, honest, and emotionally open, especially once they start telling each other three things about themselves in the body of the emails, and their subject lines are fantastic. The ending and reveal are completely predictable but hew so closely to what the reader wants that the predictability is welcomed rather than disappointing. This is a novel with heart, one that tackles hard subjects (bullying, reciprocity in relationships, grief and loss) with grace and compassion but still leaves the reader smiling after the last page is turned.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Review: Aunty Lee's Delights by Ovidia Yu

I have been reading more cozy mysteries lately and am particularly intrigued by those set in less familiar environs or peopled with less common characters. Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee's Delights, set in Singapore, populated with characters from many different nationalities, and with an older, female, amateur sleuth fits that bill all the way around.

Rosie "Aunty" Lee is a wealthy widow. She keeps busy by running a cafe serving delicious homemade food during the day. On occasion, she will open the cafe for a wine dinner, cooking her "delights" and leaving the wine portion of the evening to be run by her stepson Mark and his wife Selina, called Silly-Nah by Aunty. As the story opens, newly weds discover an unidentified woman's body on the beach on Sentosa Island. Aunty Lee is intrigued by the murder and very curious about the identity of the woman. What she doesn't know, is just how close to home the investigation will hit. At the wine dinner that night, two women are missing: a friend of Selina's who had promised to help out with the evening and a young woman who is a family friend's daughter. Another young woman interrupts the evening looking for Selina's friend and desperately afraid that the unidentified body is that of the woman she's come to Singapore to see, the Lee's family friend's daughter. Aunty is determined to find out the fate of the two missing women and to uncover the secrets her wine dinner guests are clearly hiding. She doesn't obstruct the police but rather assists them when she can, using her own instincts and the connections her Filipino maid Nina has.

The mystery is culinarily rich and the glimpses into Singapore food and culture that Yu offers the reader are enticing. Her Aunty Lee is nosy but smart, a busybody with heart. She is both loyal and astute.  Perhaps because this is the first in a series, there are a lot of characters introduced, most of whom have the potential to be returning characters.  They, the secondary characters, are less fully fleshed out though, perhaps with the exception of Nina, and lean a little to the stereotypical side.  The mystery here is not so much in who the woman is but more in the motivation for killing her (and who the killer is, of course). The plot overall is a bit choppy and the coincidence in the end is a bit much but the book is generally appealing so it's forgivable. What is a bit harder to forgive is the uneven pacing, with the story being drawn out only to find a quick and easy wrap-up with a somewhat muddled denouement in the end. Pleasing enough as a way to spend a couple of hours, this won't set the world on fire but for anyone searching, like I was, for a different culture and different characters this might fit the bill.

Waiting on Wednesday

This meme was hosted by Breaking the Spine and is meant to highlight some great pre-publication books we all can't wait to get our grubby little mitts on. I'm choosing to continue the tradition even though she has stopped.

The Words I Never Wrote by Jane Thynne.

The book is being released by Ballantine Books on January 21, 2020.

The book's jacket copy says: A chance discovery inside a vintage typewriter case reveals the gripping story of two sisters on opposite sides of World War II in this captivating novel for readers of Lilac Girls and The Women in the Castle.

New York, present day: On a whim, Juno Lambert buys a 1931 Underwood typewriter that once belonged to celebrated journalist Cordelia Capel. Within its case she discovers an unfinished novel, igniting a transatlantic journey to fill the gaps in the story of Cordelia and her sister and the secret that lies between them.

Europe, 1936: Cordelia’s socialite sister Irene marries a German industrialist who whisks her away to Berlin. Cordelia, feistier and more intellectual than Irene, gets a job at a newspaper in Paris, pursuing the journalism career she cherishes. As politics begin to boil in Europe, the sisters exchange letters and Cordelia discovers that Irene’s husband is a Nazi sympathizer. With increasing desperation, Cordelia writes to her beloved sister, but as life in Nazi Germany darkens, Irene no longer dares admit what her existence is truly like. Knowing that their letters cannot tell the whole story, Cordelia decides to fill in the blanks by sitting down with her Underwood and writing the truth.

When Juno reads the unfinished novel, she resolves to uncover the secret that continued to divide the sisters amid the turmoil of love, espionage, and war. In this vivid portrait of Nazi Berlin, from its high society to its devastating fall, Jane Thynne examines the truths we sometimes dare not tell ourselves.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: Carnegie's Maid by Marie Benedict

If someone is rich, especially rich beyond all imagining, those of us who live on a budget often have many ideas about how they should spend their money. We condemn them for what we view as frivolous or extravagant spending, especially if it is noteworthy enough to be reported on publicly, and often pair that condemnation with a belief that that money could have been better spent on charity. Underlying that assumption is a value judgement that the wealthy person may or may not have earned. Some wealthy people give a lot to the charities of their choice. Some give little to nothing. Some give right from the moment they earn their first penny, while others amass a fortune before they start to give. Andrew Carnegie was one of the latter type. Known for his intelligence and sometimes ruthless business practices, he was fabulously wealthy before he started using his fortune philanthropically and no one knows what inspired his sudden generosity. In Marie Benedict's historical fiction novel Carnegie's Maid, Benedict has imagined the catalyst for this beneficence on Carnegie's part to be his love for the invented person of Irish immigrant and lady's maid Clara Kelley.

Clara Kelley was sent to the US by her family in search of a job that would allow her to send money home to them, money that might help them save the family farm. She lands in Philadelphia and hopes to make her way to Pittsburgh, where she has family and will look for a job, when she impossibly hears a driver calling her name. He's actually calling for another Clara Kelley, who our Clara Kelley realizes quickly must have died on the boat over and so, without thinking, she assumes the dead woman's identity, lucking into a ride to Pittsburgh and a job as a lady's maid to Andrew Carnegie's mother, a job the farmer's daughter could never have hoped for in the regular scheme of things. As a lady's maid, she is immersed in the opulent house and furnishings, living amidst wealth unimagined. But when she visits her own family near the factories, she sees an entirely different side of the city, the struggle for survival, the grinding poverty unnoticed and unacknowledged by those in the upper echelons of society, the echelons the immigrant Carnegies are so interested in joining. She is bothered by the obvious disparity and the myriad social injustices but she cannot say anything, dependent as her family back in Ireland is on the money she sends home so she keeps her head down, learning her role as lady's maid, keeping track of Carnegie's vast holdings in an effort to understand how he gained his wealth, and using the library in the house to continue the education her quick brain demands. As she encounters Andrew Carnegie more and more often, he cannot miss her intelligence and a proper romance blooms. Will Clara allow her feelings for Carnegie to jeopardize her position and the support her family needs? Or will her loyalty to her family and the impossibility of the class differences win out?

The novel opens with Carnegie drafting a document detailing his goals for using his wealth for the benefit of others rather than for himself as a way to honor the love and beliefs of his Clara before moving back in time to the story of Clara arriving in the US and going to work for the Carnegies. The entire plot here is predicated on something incredibly improbable: not only was there a dead woman with the heroine's same name who was headed to the same city Clara needs to go to but despite Clara's upbringing on a small farm with a mother who was once a lowly scullery maid, she's convincing enough to pretend to be a competent lady's maid until she learns how to actually perform her duties, so the story takes a pretty big suspension of disbelief from the reader right from the get go. Clara also has a pretty immediate and unlikely understanding of certain legal business matters that she shouldn't have, no matter how smart she is. In spite of these coincidences and anomalies, it is interesting to see this lady's maid from the bottom of society spar with Andrew Carnegie, titan of industry, and their conversations serve to draw a fuller picture of his contradictory character. The strong emphasis on libraries and the advantage of having access to books for learning, the way Carnegie himself rose above his working class origins, was definitely interesting. There weren't many characters in the novel, and certainly few that were more than simply mentioned briefly, allowing the focus beyond Clara to be on Andrew Carnegie and his social climbing mother but also likely being historically accurate since lady's maids inhabited a lonely rung in the household structure. Carnegie was an intriguing character here; surprisingly Clara was less so, perhaps because she was rather less believable. Over all, this novel of ideas, a guess at the origin of Carnegie's philanthropy, was a fast, easy, and generally enjoyable read.

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