Wednesday, August 31, 2022

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 Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell

The book is being released by Knopf on September 6, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: The author of Hamnet—New York Times best seller and National Book Critics Circle Award winner—brings the world of Renaissance Italy to jewel-bright life in this unforgettable fictional portrait of the captivating young duchess Lucrezia de' Medici as she makes her way in a troubled court.

Florence, the 1550s. Lucrezia, third daughter of the grand duke, is comfortable with her obscure place in the palazzo: free to wonder at its treasures, observe its clandestine workings, and devote herself to her own artistic pursuits. But when her older sister dies on the eve of her wedding to the ruler of Ferrara, Modena and Reggio, Lucrezia is thrust unwittingly into the limelight: the duke is quick to request her hand in marriage, and her father just as quick to accept on her behalf.

Having barely left girlhood behind, Lucrezia must now enter an unfamiliar court whose customs are opaque and where her arrival is not universally welcomed. Perhaps most mystifying of all is her new husband himself, Alfonso. Is he the playful sophisticate he appeared to be before their wedding, the aesthete happiest in the company of artists and musicians, or the ruthless politician before whom even his formidable sisters seem to tremble?

As Lucrezia sits in constricting finery for a painting intended to preserve her image for centuries to come, one thing becomes worryingly clear. In the court’s eyes, she has one duty: to provide the heir who will shore up the future of the Ferranese dynasty. Until then, for all of her rank and nobility, the new duchess’s future hangs entirely in the balance.

Full of the beauty and emotion with which she illuminated the Shakespearean canvas of Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell turns her talents to Renaissance Italy in an extraordinary portrait of a resilient young woman’s battle for her very survival.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Review: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

We have made assumptions about the lives that our distant ancestors lived based on what we've found of their settlements, their tools and utensils, and any writing they might have left behind. Whether we have made correct assumptions may never be known. This does not stop us from reenactments in museum dioramas or even in living history retreats or weekends. Slipping fully into the skin of people who went before us might help us appreciate the advances we've made to ease our lives, or it might bring us to a misguided idea of simpler times for which we yearn. In Sarah Moss' slight, powerful, and dark novella, Ghost Wall, we see the danger in embracing ideas and imagined morals from the past.

Seventeen year old Silvie's family has joined with an experiential anthropology class in Northumberland to live like Britons did in the Iron Age. Silvie's father Bill is a violent, controlling, abusive man and he is determined that their family will live as authentically as possible, even if the anthropology professor and the students cheat at every turn. He wants to erase all signs of modern life, subjugating his wife and daughter in the way that he envisions the Iron Age people did to their women. As the group steps into the lives of the people they are studying, the lines start to blur and the threatening, menacing air gets more and more oppressive.

This is a dark and suffocating work. The tension ratchets up and up as the quotidian gives way to the mystical, to dark history and domestic violence. The atmosphere is well drawn with the clear, detailed natural world counterbalancing Bill as he hides his abuse, lashing out in private, even as he convinces others to go along with him in his sacrificial delusion. It very much a political novel, showing the conservative, xenophobic, brutal, and brutish Bill to be wholly wrong in his desires for a purer time, people, and nation. Unfortunately he is very much a one dimensional character, as are most of the characters here. Only Silvie has any nuance to her character and much of her nuance is thanks to naivete. There are no quotation marks setting off dialogue and multiple characters can speak within the same paragraph, which adds to the confused multiplicity of voices, especially toward the end of the story. Reading this was suffocating and grim but also frustrating from a craft perspective. It was awarded many accolades so obviously my opinion is an outlier.

Saturday, August 27, 2022

Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

Do you remember your first love? The person you thought you were meant to be with for all time? What broke you up? Do you ever second guess the life you've gone on to lead without them, the relationship you've built, the family you've created? Would you reconnect with this person? More importantly, would you cheat on your spouse with this person? This is just a small sampling of the questions swirling through Miranda Cowley Heller's novel The Paper Palace. The bigger question, perhaps, is what drives main character Elle, in so many of her decisions, and what is right and what is wrong on a grander scale.

Elle, Peter, and their three children are at the Back Woods, the family camp compound that has been a part of Elle's life forever. She's spent a lifetime of summers at this seemingly idyllic retreat. It holds the memory of her first love, her deep love of her sister, and many wonderful times, but it also holds the memory of the neglect and abuse she endured as she grew up. Opening the morning after a transgression she's spent a lifetime working towards, the novel moves back and forth between specific times in Elle's current day and her unspooling past. It is also broken into five sections: Elle, Jonas, Peter, This Summer, and Today, but all of the sections are narrated in the first person by Elle and the novel as a whole is centered on Elle's interiority, how she is torn between the love of her childhood friend, Jonas, and her husband and father of her children, Peter. She has a long and complicated history with Jonas and he knows the darkest parts of her but she has built a good life and wonderful family with Peter.

The writing here is quite beautiful, visual, and sensory, and it evokes the Back Woods wonderfully. It makes sense that Elle would face her personal conundrum in the place she is both the most comfortable and uncomfortable. The long tale of her past, including the trauma, rape, and sexual abuse she endured, are inextricably woven together with her friendship and eventual love of Jonas but their actual connection isn't fleshed out enough to make the years delayed infidelity understandable. To be fair, none of the characters were engaging enough that the reader cares about their interactions with each other, making Elle's question of whether to stay with her husband or to leave him for Jonas less gripping than it might have otherwise been. The novel tackles a lot through the lens of marriage and divorce but it also addresses some pretty taboo subjects (incest, rape, ongoing sexual abuse, neglect) and the ways that these traumas impact someone for their entire life. All of this is believable but somehow, it was still hard to connect with the novel as a whole. The end is ambiguous in a way that you can argue either outcome, which really mirrors the entirety of the novel and as such is probably quite appropriate. This is a very polarizing novel and it is does get rather graphic so while readers might want to read it to decide for themselves, know that some scenes will really disturb some people.

Friday, August 26, 2022

Review: Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia

I rarely read anything billed as a thriller. Occasionally I end up with one though and I hate to let a book go without reading it (hence my ridiculous backlog of unread books). So when my daughter asked to read this one, I knew I’d have to read it myself before sending it off to her. Luckily for me, this wasn’t the most thriller-y thriller ever.

Maya Stark is an assistant speech therapist who works at the Congdon Psychiatric Facility when a mute young man is brought in. Lucas Blackthorn is that young man. He and his father disappeared into the Boundary Waters a decade prior and were presumed dead. He is apprehended robbing a local convenience store and he turns violent, leading to his admission to Congdon. Maya is asked to work with Lucas to try and get a response from him. In working with Lucas, she not only has to help him but she has to face her own troubled past.

Maya narrates the story, uncovering the trauma in both Lucas and herself, examining society’s idea and definition of mental illness and the terrible legacy of abandonment. The premise of the novel is an interesting one but the book certainly asks the reader to suspend disbelief a lot and to ignore some pretty big ethical issues with Maya and Lucas’ burgeoning relationship. Their bond is very definitely an uncomfortable one. There are some surprising twists to the story, even if they are too coincidental. The depictions of the wilds of the Boundary Waters are beautifully done and Mejia does make the story suspenseful and sometimes shocking as well. However, the ending is tied up very neatly in ways that don’t quite feel earned. Readers who enjoy survivalist stories where someone has to interact with society after being off the grid for so long might appreciate this one.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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 Fortunes of Jaded Women by Carolyn Huynh

The book is being released by Atria on September 6, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: For fans of Jonathan Tropper, KJ Dell’Antonia, and Kevin Kwan, this “sharp, smart, and gloriously extra” (Nancy Jooyoun Kim, The Last Story of Mina Lee) debut follows a family of estranged Vietnamese women—cursed to never know love or happiness—as they reunite when a psychic makes a startling prediction.

Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knew that the Duong sisters were cursed.

It started with their ancestor, Oanh, who dared to leave her marriage for true love—so a fearsome Vietnamese witch cursed Oanh and her descendants so that they would never find love or happiness, and the Duong women would give birth to daughters, never sons.​

Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyen knows this curse well. She’s divorced, and after an explosive disagreement a decade ago, she’s estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Pham (the middle and the mediator) and Khuyen Lam (the youngest who swears she just runs humble coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). Though Mai’s three adult daughters, Priscilla, Thuy, and Thao, are successful in their careers (one of them is John Cho’s dermatologist!), the same can’t be said for their love lives. Mai is convinced they might drive her to an early grave.

Desperate for guidance, she consults Auntie Hua, her trusted psychic in Hawaii, who delivers an unexpected prediction: this year, her family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. This prophecy will reunite estranged mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins—for better or for worse.

A multi-narrative novel brimming with levity and candor, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is about mourning, meddling, celebrating, and healing together as a family. It shows how Vietnamese women emerge victorious, even if the world is against them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

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.

Dispatches from the Gilded Age by Julia Reed

The book is being released by St. Martin's Press on August 23, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: Dispatches from the Gilded Age is a collection of essays by Julia Reed, one of America's greatest chroniclers.

In the middle of the night on March 11, 1980, the phone rang in Julia Reed’s Georgetown dorm. It was her boss at Newsweek, where she was an intern. He told her to get in her car and drive to her alma mater, the Madeira School. Her former headmistress, Jean Harris, had just shot Dr. Herman Tarnower, The Scarsdale Diet Doctor. Julia didn’t flinch. She dressed, drove to Madeira, got the story, and her first byline and the new American Gilded Age was off and running.

The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first was a time in which the high and the low bubbled furiously together and Julia was there with her sharp eye, keen wit, and uproariously clear-eyed way of seeing the world to chronicle this truly spectacular era. Dispatches from the Gilded Age is Julia at her best as she profiles Andre Leon Talley, Sister Helen Prejean, President George and Laura Bush, Madeleine Albright, and others. Readers will travel to Africa and Cuba with Julia, dine at Le Bernardin, savor steaks at Doe’s Eat Place, consider the fashions of the day, get the recipes for her hot cheese olives and end up with the ride of their lives through Julia’s beloved South.

With a foreword by Roy Blount, Jr. and edited by Julia's longtime assistant, Everett Bexley.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

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 Manhattan Girls by Gill Paul

The book is being released by William Morrow Paperbacks on August 16, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: It’s a 1920s version of Sex and the City, as Dorothy Parker—one of the wittiest women who ever wielded a pen—and her three friends navigate life, love, and careers in New York City. Perfect for fans of Fiona Davis, Beatriz Williams, and RenĂ©e Rosen.

NEW YORK CITY 1921: The war is over, fashions are daring, and bootleg liquor is abundant. Here four extraordinary women form a bridge group that grows into a firm friendship.

Dorothy Parker: renowned wit, member of the Algonquin Round Table, and more fragile than she seems. Jane Grant: first female reporter for the New York Times, and determined to launch a new magazine she calls The New Yorker. Winifred Lenihan: beautiful and talented Broadway actress, a casting-couch target. And Peggy Leech: magazine assistant by day, brilliant novelist by night.

Their romances flourish and falter while their goals sometimes seem impossible to reach and their friendship deepens against the backdrop of turbulent New York City, where new speakeasies open and close, jazz music flows through the air, and bathtub gin fills their glasses.

They gossip, they comfort each other, and they offer support through the setbacks. But their biggest challenge is keeping their dear friend Dottie safe from herself.

In this brilliant new novel from the bestselling and acclaimed author of Jackie and Maria and The Secret Wife, readers will fall right into Jazz Age New York and into the inner lives of these groundbreaking, influential women.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Review: The Last Noel by Michael Malone

Novels set at Christmas are often sweet, the equivalent of Hallmark movies. This isn't always a bad thing (a much loved member of my own family adores these movies) but sometimes you crave a little more substance in your stories. Michael Malone's The Last Noel has that substance mixed with some lovely heartwarming moments and some tear jerking moments as well.

Noni Tilden, the wealthy, white daughter of a banking family in a small Southern town was born on Christmas Eve. Kaye King, the poor, black grandson of the Tilden's long-time maid, Aunt Ma, was born early the next morning on Christmas Day. In 1963, the Christmas when Noni and Kaye are seven, Kaye climbs through her window in the middle of the night and urges her to come outside to play in the snow with him on the sled that's waiting for her under the Christmas tree. And so begins a life-long relationship which sees Noni and Kaye's lives intertwine in ways both expected and unexpected.

The story of Noni and Kaye spans forty years, twelve Christmases, and an immeasurable distance of the heart. Despite their clear differences, their initial bonding over the snow and the sled binds them together no matter all of the changes in their lives and in the world as a whole. Once close, their lives will diverge as Noni marries and sacrifices her earlier dreams and as Kaye joins the Black Power Movement before going on to become a respected doctor. The story is both epic, touching national, historical, and political events of note, and personal, showing the effect of those events on individual people and families, in its scope. Checking in on the dramas, joys, and tragedies of family life on occasional Christmases over the years, the story of Noni and Kaye's interconnectedness and their deep abiding love for each other, by turns innocent, troubled, remote, supportive, heartbreaking, and heart warming all, is a fitting tale for the holidays. The South of the story is a mild evocation, a fairly genteel South, and its ills are acknowledged and confronted but mostly easily addressed. But the framework of reality is there nonetheless. Not your usual holiday read, this is a good one for readers interested in a seasonally appropriate story that isn't sentimental and over the top twee. Well written and epic in scope, this is Noni and Kaye's story but also a tale of the US writ small.

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Review: Dangled Carat by Hilary Grossman

I was browsing in a used bookstore and stumbled across this memoir. It looked like a light, fun read and the cover and title are that perky combination of cute and clever that guarantee I'll at least take a look. The back cover copy about friends creating a faux engagement for Hilary and commitment phobic boyfriend Marc which pushed their relationship "to an inevitable turning point" sounded intriguing. Unfortunately all the remotely interesting bits of the story are encapsulated on the back cover.

Hilary and Marc had been dating for four years when their friends issued him with an ultimatum (well, pretend ultimatum, as the reader soon finds out). It's New Year's Eve and he should ask Hilary to marry him. His reaction is about as delighted as you'd expect. From there, Grossman winds back in time to when she first met Marc and how their relationship progressed. She chronicles the myriad ways he hurts her feelings, leaving her out of his life early on, only slowly allowing her to meet his friends and family and often choosing to see them and exclude her to the detriment of their growing relationship. But Hilary forgives him every time. In fact, she was so committed (oh, the irony!) to allowing this commitment-phobe to coast along the way he wanted that she inevitably valued his feelings about the future above her own without fail. This might have made for decent reading but for the fact that there is no actual story here, just a recounting of how much Marc's friends love Hilary, how he hurts her but she forgives him, and how she'll just be patient because she doesn't want to pressure him into the marriage she so dearly wants. Even the faux engagement is anti-climactic when she reaches that point for the second time in the narrative.

The lack of a driving narrative isn't the only problem though. This book was in desperate need of a good editor. This appears on the very first page: "Unlike most long-term relationships with commitment phobic men, I had never pressured Marc about marriage." Issues like this with the grammar are not the only problems with the writing either. "After a while Marc led me to the lifeguard chair. He ascended first and then helped me up." What on earth is wrong with the word climbed? Ascended is just trying too hard. Grossman also writes long and detailed scenes that add nothing to the story (readers now know exactly how Marc doctors his semi-homemade salad dressing) and the dialogue is stilted sounding. Thankfully this is a short book because the writing issues combined with the infuriating apologetics were too much for me. Marc and this relationship might work for Hilary, but for me, well, let's just say I'm gladly breaking up with this book.

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.

Mother in the Dark by Kayla Maiuri

The book is being released by Riverhead Books on August 9, 2022.

The book's jacket copy says: A novel about family secrets and a volatile relationship between a mother and her daughters.

When Anna’s sister calls with an urgent message, Anna doesn’t return the call. She knows it’s about their mother.

Growing up in working class Boston in an Italian American family, Anna’s childhood was sparse but comfortable—filled with homemade pasta sauce and a close-knit neighborhood. Anna and her sisters are devoted to their mother, orbiting her like the sun, trying to keep up with her loving but mercurial nature as she bounces between tenderness and bitterness.

When their father gets a new job outside the city, the family is tossed unceremoniously into a middle-class suburban existence. Anna’s mother is suddenly adrift, and the darkness lurking inside her expands until it threatens to explode. Her daughters, trapped with her in the new house, isolated, must do everything they can to keep her from unraveling.

Alternating between childhood and Anna’s twenties, when she receives a shattering call about her mother that threatens to blow up her own precariously constructed life in New York, Mother in the Dark asks whether we can ever really go back home when the idea of home is so unstable. Whether we can escape that instability or accept that our personalities are built around the defenses we put up. Maiuri is a master at revealing the fragile horrors of domestic family life and how the traumas of the past shape the present and generations of women.

A story about sisterhood, the complications of class, and the chains of inheritance between mothers and daughters, Mother in the Dark delivers an unvarnished portrayal of a young woman consumed by her past and a family teetering on the edge of a knife.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Review: The Last Leonardo by Ben Lewis

The ins and outs of the art world are fascinating. How does the value of a painting get determined? How can we be certain that pieces are in fact the product of the famous artist the museum plaque claims they are? What kind of labyrinthine journey has a particular painting gone on before being acquired either privately or by a museum? It turns out the art world is rife with disagreements about provenance, claims unable to truly be substantiated, and missing histories but none of this hampers the high prices sometimes paid for these disputed works. Author Ben Lewis tracks the journey of Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, perhaps the original painting copied by his students and painted by the master himself, or perhaps not da Vinci's work entirely, or perhaps not at all da Vinci's, in his book The Last Leonardo.

You'd never have guessed, when da Vinci's Salvator Mundi came up for auction and subsequently sold for the unheard of price of $450 million dollars, that it was the subject of much debate, allegations of fraud, and still simmering questions of provenance. Long the subject of conjecture and considered missing, the painting ostensibly reappeared in 2005, when, if it is in fact the Leonardo it is purported to be, it embarked on just the latest of a long line of travels through the art world. Lewis tracks the restoration of the painting, many of the major players involved in authenticating it as a da Vinci work, it's eventual exhibition despite the rules surrounding which paintings can be exhibited, and the questions still swirling around this impossibly valuable artwork. The story is involved, often convoluted, and unresolved.

But that very difficulty in tracing the painting's past indisputably back to da Vinci, the financial dealings and their tax implications, and the explanation of da Vinci's artistic signature and whether those attributes are present in the Salvator Mundi or not, make the narrative thick and expansive. This is an art history tale about the possible provenance of one painting but also about the art world as a whole, both now and throughout history. It is about the sky-high prices art can command, the exclusivity and problems with private art collectors. It is also about the intersection of art and politics, art and wealth, art and perception/truth. Lewis meticulously and exhaustively researched his story but that sometimes results in too much minutia and a narrative that tries to follow too many threads. Some of it was truly fascinating while other parts really bogged down. The idea of a lost Leonardo da Vinci painting, albeit in poor condition, being discovered in a gallery in Louisiana for less than $2,000 is an intriguing one. It makes us all believe that we too might find something immeasurably valuable in our attics once day if we just look hard enough. The idea ends up being a bit more intriguing than the true story though, even with all of the twists and turns, at least for me.

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