Friday, July 29, 2016

I Am No One

Patrick Flanery
Tim Duggan Books / Crown Publishing
July 2016; 352 pages

Publisher's Description:
After a decade living in England, Jeremy O'Keefe returns to New York, where he has been hired as a professor of German history at New York University. Though comfortable in his new life, and happy to be near his daughter once again, Jeremy continues to feel the quiet pangs of loneliness. Walking through the city at night, it's as though he could disappear and no one would even notice. 
But soon, Jeremy's life begins taking strange turns: boxes containing records of his online activity are delivered to his apartment, a young man seems to be following him, and his elderly mother receives anonymous phone calls slandering her son. Why, he wonders, would anyone want to watch him so closely, and, even more upsetting, why would they alert him to the fact that he was being watched? 
As Jeremy takes stock of the entanglements that marked his years abroad, he wonders if he has unwittingly committed a crime so serious that he might soon be faced with his own denaturalization. Moving towards a shattering reassessment of what it means to be free in a time of ever more intrusive surveillance, Jeremy is forced to ask himself whether he is 'no one', as he believes, or a traitor not just to his country but to everyone around him.

My Thoughts:

I broke one of my own rules and read several reviews of this one before I started it; generally, with Early Reviewer books, I at least try to get started on the story before I go looking for other opinions. And that little investigation got me worried — the reviews are very mixed. Then I started reading; and I admit, the slow, involved opening required more than a little perseverance to get through. Several times, in those first few pages, I got lost and had to re-read a sentence or two (or even paragraphs).

But once I was past that problem beginning, this turned out to be a really haunting tale. Although he's not immediately likable, I found Jeremy — the beleaguered academic at the center of the book — to be an intriguing and even sympathetic character. I enjoyed getting to know him and seeing his story develop. And even though fear of surveillance in our modern society certainly isn't a new or unexplored subject, this book makes you feel just how creepy it can be. This is one of those books that are really hard to discuss without revealing too much about the plot; so I'll just leave it at that — very creepy. Sometimes the creepiness feels a bit like a combination of Franz Kafka and Edgar Allan Poe. An example (from p.120 of the ARC):
It is horrible to begin to imagine that what seems like paranoid delusion might be anything but, that suspecting you are being followed and monitored and manipulated is, in fact, the height of sanity, perhaps the very definition of sanity in today's world. What is crazy is to imagine we are living private lives, or that a private life is a possibility any longer....
I do think the book was longer than it really needed to be, although I seem to be saying that about almost every book I read these days. But I liked the way Jeremy's story kept unfolding and expanding, revealing his history and personality a little at a time — the character towards the end of the book seems much more complicated, and yet more understandable than the one presented at the beginning. A very intriguing read, and I'm really glad I stuck with it.

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(Full Disclosure: I received my copy of I Am No One free of charge, from the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received, and no one attempted to influence my opinion.)

Friday, July 15, 2016

Book Beginnings: Vinegar Girl

Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler (Hogarth, June 2016). Here's the first sentence of Chapter One:
Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.
My Thoughts:

Well, I'm a little embarrassed that my first thought was "Wow, they have a landline!" Yes, I know there's no reason it couldn't have been a cell phone ringing in the kitchen. I guess I just assume that these days there's no such thing as an unattended cell phone.

Aside from that, the only thought that first sentence brings to mind is that I can't imagine the original Kate -- from Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew -- doing a spot of gardening. She'd probably rip up all the plants and dump them all on her sister's head. That's, of course, the pre-Petruchio, untamed Kate.

I've had this one on my radar for a while now, and hope to get through it quickly. I've read a couple of Anne Tyler's books that I really enjoyed -- Noah's Compass and The Accidental Tourist -- and started a few others that I wasn't able to finish. So I'm not sure what to expect from this one. But Taming is one of my favorite plays and I have fond memories of playing the Shrew in a high school production, so I have high hopes for the book.

Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Friday.  As she says, the idea is to post the first sentence (or so) of the book you're currently reading, along with any first impressions or thoughts you have about the book, the author, etc.  It's a wonderful way of adding new books to your must-read list, and a chance to connect with other readers and bloggers.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

"Girl in Hammock," Theodore Robinson (1894)
So far this summer I haven't gotten a great deal of reading done. Real life interfering a little too much, as it tends to do sometimes.

This week, I'll be getting back to a couple of books I started in June:

The Girls, by Emma Cline


Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler

Sounds like it's gonna be a very girly week.

Last week, I didn't finish any books, but I did post a few reviews of books I read earlier in the year. These are mostly very brief — just a few words to help me remember what I read and what I thought about it:

Also posted a (very late) wrap-up post for the Once Upon a Time X reading challenge that ended back on June 21st (see — I said it was late).

So, how's your summer reading going so far?

It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is now hosted by Kathryn at Book Date. If you want to let the world know what you're going to be reading this week, head on over to her blog and leave your link. It's also a great way to discover new books and new blogs.

A Christmas Escape

Anne Perry
Ballantine Books, October 2015
176 pages

Publisher's Description:
Lonely Charles Latterly arrives at his small hotel hoping that the island’s blue skies and gentle breezes will brighten his spirits. Unfortunately, there’s no holiday cheer to be found among his fellow guests, who include a pompous novelist, a stuffy colonel, a dangerously ill-matched married couple, and an ailing old man. The one charming exception is orphaned teenager Candace Finbar, who takes Charles under her wing and introduces him to the island’s beauty. But the tranquility of the holiday is swiftly disrupted by a violent quarrel, an unpleasant gentleman’s shocking claims of being stalked, and the ominous stirrings of the local volcano. Then events take an even darker turn: A body is found, and Charles quickly realizes that the killer must be among the group of guests.
My Thoughts:

Not a great deal to say about this one. A little bit of Christmas in July.

For years now, I've been hearing about Anne Perry's annual Christmas books and they've always sounded very intriguing. A Christmas Escape (set on the Mediterranean island of Stromboli) was my introduction to the series, and it was a happy first experience. I would have been even happier if the mystery had been just a little more — well, mysterious. But even though the whodunnit aspect was less than thrilling, the story in general was charming and held my interest all the way through.

The plot wrapped up a little more quickly than I expected it to, but it's a short book, so I suppose some abruptness is to be expected. Definitely a fast read — I finished in a couple of hours, which is almost unheard of for me. In general, a very pleasant read, and I'll be looking for more of Perry's holiday treats.

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(Full Disclosure: I received my copy of A Christmas Escape free of charge, from the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received, and no one attempted to influence my opinion.)

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● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: European Challenge, Historical Fiction Challenge, 2016 Women Challenge.

Wrapping Up Once Upon A Time X

This summer is racing by so fast! Hard to believe it's nearly the middle of July already. I really meant to do a wrap-up post for this year's Once Upon a Time reading event when it ended back in June — but as usual, the moment came and went before I could get anything posted. So I'm doing it now. Better late than never. I guess.

I didn't do as well as I'd hoped with this year's OUAT challenge. Signed up for Quest the First (read five books), and only managed to get one read. But I don't feel too bad about that, since the book was a long one. Inkheart (by Cornelia Funke) is quite a chunkster (almost 600 pages), and took me a couple of months to get through.

It's been on my to-read list for quite a few years now, and I'm glad Once Upon a Time gave me the nudge I needed to tackle it at last. Unfortunately, it wasn't the scintillating reading experience I was hoping for (see my review), but I'm still glad to have read it.

I did a little better with the Quest on the Screen feature. The last couple of years, I've completely wiped out on this part of the challenge, but this year I watched two movies that qualify:
  • The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005).
    Thoughts: Beautiful movie, and much less tedious than the book.
  • Maleficent (2014).
    Thoughts: Disney does it again. Such a gorgeous fantasy film! Interesting take on the Sleeping Beauty tale, with Maleficent more victim than villain. Surprised I enjoyed it so much, since I generally find Angelina Jolie hard to watch. Not that she's not great to look at (duh!) — she just never seems very believable. But she makes an excellent mythic being!

Once again, I want to thank Carl for hosting this annual ritual. It's always one of my favorite reading events, and such a great way to welcome the spring/summer season.

Friday, July 08, 2016

To Have and Have Not

Ernest Hemingway
Scribner Classics, 272 pages

In Ernest Hemingway's 1937 novel To Have and Have Not, fishing boat captain Harry Morgan is portrayed as a fundamentally good man forced, by economic circumstances, to run contraband between Cuba and Florida. In the book's opening section, Harry's wealthy charter customer tricks him by slipping away after a day's fishing without paying the money he owes. Needing to recoup his losses in order to support his family, Harry makes a very poor (and fateful) decision to help smuggle Chinese immigrants into Florida from Cuba. After that episode turns into one more fiasco, he begins regularly ferrying illegal cargo between the two countries – including alcohol and Cuban revolutionaries.

The novel is set in Depression-era Key West, and allows Hemingway to make use of the glaring contrast between the wealthy visitors to the region (the "Haves") and the poor local residents (the "Have Nots"). It was apparently much influenced by the Marxist ideology Hemingway was exposed to during his involvement in the Spanish Civil War while he was writing it. Interestingly, it was the only book actually banned in the U.S. in 1938, after library patrons lodged complaints about its "immorality."

To Have and Have Not has been on my TBR list for decades now, so I decided to read it for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge this year.

Now I understand why so many critics have called this Hemingway's weakest novel.

The book is actually a novella and a series of sketches, very tentatively held together by the story of Harry Morgan and his (mostly shady) boat charter activities. The best thing I can say about it is that it can be read in a few hours. Another good thing is that it inspired one of my favorite movies (1944, directed by Howard Hawks, starring Bogart and Bacall), even though the film is really nothing like the book. It also seems to have been one of the inspirations for an awful lot of Miami Vice dialogue.

I'm afraid I can only recommend this one if you're looking to consume everything Hemingway wrote -- and if you don't mind a LOT of non-P.C. name calling and quite a bit of pretty graphic violence.

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● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge.


Cornelia Funke
Scholastic, 2003
534 pages

The Story:

Twelve-year-old Meggie's father Mortimer (or "Mo" for short) is a bookbinder who has instilled in his daughter a great love of books and reading. But he has never read aloud to her. One night a stranger named Dustfinger shows up at their home and from him Meggie learns some amazing facts about her father, her mother who disappeared nine years earlier, and a mysterious, rare (and dangerous) book called Inkheart – a book her father tries desperately to keep anyone from finding. To keep it away from Meggie (and anyone else) he hides the book in the library-like, book-filled home of Meggie's Great Aunt Elinor.

Eventually though, Meggie learns the secret reason Mo has never read to her – whenever he reads aloud, objects and characters become real and come out of the books. It's a skill he discovered when Capricorn, the villain of the Inkheart book, came out of the book and into this world when Meggie was only three. But it's also a skill Mo can't really control, demonstrated by the fact that at that same moment Meggie's mother disappeared, presumably into the story.

The evil Capricorn uses Dustfinger (who was also a character from the Inkheart book) to lure Mo and Meggie to his hideout village. He intends to use Mo's skill to bring treasure out of books like Treasure Island and The Arabian Nights. But when Dustfinger learns of Capricorn's plans, he helps Mo, Meggie and Elinor escape from the prison where they're being held. Then, after Mo finds Fenoglio, the author of Inkheart, they come up with a plan they hope will keep Capricorn from going through with his awful schemes.

The plot gets even more complicated when Meggie is recaptured by Capricorn's men, along with Fenoglio, and it's discovered that she shares her father's fantastic gift for reading people and objects out of books. Finally, Meggie and Fenoglio devise a plan to defeat Capricorn and his evil intentions, but they're in for some surprises – both good and bad – before their adventure comes to an end.

My Thoughts:

I've had Inkheart on my must-read list for years now, and I've always been put off by the book's length. But for this year's Once Upon a Time Challenge, I decided to go on and give it a try. It's received so many glowing reviews, and the story sounded so appealing that I was expecting to really love it. So I'm extremely disappointed to have to say that I was -- well...disappointed. Instead of the magical tale I was hoping for, this turned out to be a pretty standard adventure story. Aside from the central device of a character in a book being able to bring other characters out of other books by "reading them out," there doesn't seem to be much of anything that's actually magical about Inkheart.

And it's WAY too long. Much of the book is given over to long descriptions of what the characters are thinking and doing while they're waiting around to do something else. After two or three hundred pages of that sort of stuff, I was very tempted to just skip ahead to the final chapter, find out how it ended, and move on. (But I stuck with it right to the end.)

It's possible I'm just too old for the book. I imagine younger readers would have more patience and wouldn't feel so much like they were wasting their time with the nearly-600-pages of not much happening. If I'm going to devote that much time to a book, I need a little more excitement to keep me engaged.

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Qualifies for the following reading challenges: Books In Translation Challenge, Mount TBR ChallengeOnce Upon a Time X, Women Challenge 2016.

Lovely In Her Bones

Sharyn McCrumb
Ballantine Books, 221 pages
Originally published 1985

Publisher's Description:
The amateur sleuth and inquisitive student of life, Elizabeth MacPherson has signed on to an archaeological dig to help determine if an obscure Indian tribe in the North Carolina hills can lay legal claim to the land they live on. Not everyone in the small town is happy about the college project. And some of the residents are downright hostile. 
Elizabeth is anxious to prove herself, but the dig nearly stops when their leader, Professor Lerche, is found murdered in his tent. Even mild-mannered Milo, the professor's right-hand man and Elizabeth's secret sweetheart, can't believe the evidence. It takes a second mysterious death to start a cauldron of ideas bubbling in Elizabeth’s head. And when she mixes a little modern know-how with some old-fashioned suspicions, Elizabeth comes up with a batch of answers that surprises even the experts…
My Thoughts:

Sharyn McCrumb is another one of those authors I've always meant to read, but never managed to get to -- until now. I think Lovely In Her Bones might not have been the best intro to her work, but it jumped out at me at Half Price Books one day. Unfortunately, it didn't inspire me to go on with the series. The central (supposedly, at least) character, Elizabeth MacPherson, just wasn't interesting enough to build a whole series around. And she really only figures in part of the action. Maybe her role gets built up in later books?

But it's a fast read and I did enjoy it. I liked the humor (most whodunnits don't have many laughs), and the fact that it's about archaeologists and set in a dig in the Appalachians. The guilty party was pretty easy to predict, if you were paying attention. And the technology was, of course, very outdated. But I believe I could have overlooked all that if I had just been able to connect a little more with Elizabeth.

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● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt (Silver Age Card - Skull on Cover), Women Challenge.

Far From True

Linwood Barclay
(A Promise Falls Novel)
Berkley / NAL, March 2016
464 pages

Publisher's Description:
After the screen of a run-down drive-in movie theater collapses and kills four people, the daughter of one of the victims asks private investigator Cal Weaver to look into a recent break-in at her father’s house. Cal discovers a hidden basement room where it’s clear that salacious activities have taken place—as well as evidence of missing DVDs. But his investigation soon becomes more complicated when he realizes it may not be discs the thief was actually interested in.... 
Meanwhile, Detective Barry Duckworth is still trying to solve two murders—one of which is three years old—he believes are connected, since each featured a similar distinctive wound. 
As the lies begin to unravel, Cal is headed straight into the heart of a dark secret as his search uncovers more startling truths about Promise Falls. And when yet another murder happens, Cal and Barry are both driven to pursue their investigations, no matter where they lead. Evil deeds long thought buried are about to haunt the residents of this town—as the sins of the past and present collide with terrifying results.
My Thoughts:

I had a little trouble getting into this one - probably because this is actually the second book in a planned trilogy of books all set in the fictional Promise Falls, and I haven't read the first book. For a while I felt a little lost, like I had stumbled into the middle of a story without knowing anything about the beginning or any of the characters. Much like moving into a new community and experiencing a bit of culture shock. But once I got past that, I definitely enjoyed the book.

One of the things I love about Linwood Barclay's writing is that he creates such wonderfully interesting, fully-formed characters. The minor players never come across as interchangeable parts, and even the villains seem like real people. Barclay has a way of creating personalities with just a short description or a few lines of dialogue, while making each one distinct and fascinating. Just like real people, in fact.

Really the only complaint I had about Far From True was that the ending had a bit of a "to be continued" feeling. That's not really a spoiler, since readers know from the get-go that the whole story is going to be spread over three books. And it doesn't mean that the ending wasn't satisfying - because it definitely was. I'm just one of those readers who like everything all tied up neat and tidy at book's end. Not comfortable with cliff-hangers. But now I'm ready for book number three. Oh, and maybe I should go back and take a look at book number one!

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(Full disclosure: I received my copy of Far From True free of charge from the publisher, through the NetGalley website. No other compensation was received, and no one tried to influence my opinion.)

● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: NetGalley & Edelweiss Challenge.

Daisy Miller

Henry James
Penguin Classics, 2007
128 pages

Publisher's Description:
Traveling in Europe with her family, Daisy Miller, an exquisitely beautiful young American woman, presents her fellow-countryman Winterbourne with a dilemma he cannot resolve. Is she deliberately flouting social convention in the outspoken way she talks and acts, or is she simply ignorant of those conventions? When she strikes up an intimate friendship with an urbane young Italian, her flat refusal to observe the codes of respectable behavior leave her perilously exposed. In Daisy Miller James created his first great portrait of the enigmatic and dangerously independent American woman, a figure who would come to dominate his later masterpieces.
My Thoughts:

One of the best known of Henry James's short novels, Daisy Miller first appeared in 1878. I read it earlier this year, for the Back to the Classics Challenge. And the first thought that comes to mind is: Why have I never read Daisy Miller before now? I'm pretty sure it must have been assigned in one of my college English classes, or maybe even in high school. Well, for whatever reason -- this was my first time reading it.

I've always liked Henry James, but his longer works are so daunting. This novella is just the right length -- took me a couple of days to finish, because I wanted to savor every word. A bit of a surprise ending -- at least one I wasn't expecting. I don't want to say too much about the plot so that others can have that same feeling of fresh discovery. Definitely a book I'd recommend to all readers.

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● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: Back to the Classics Challenge, Mount TBR Challenge.

Dreaming Spies

Laurie R. King
Bantam/Penguin/Random House
February 2015; 331 pages

Publisher's Description:
After a lengthy case that had the couple traipsing all over India, Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes are on their way to California to deal with some family business that Russell has been neglecting for far too long. Along the way, they plan to break up the long voyage with a sojourn in southern Japan.  
Aboard the ship, intrigue stirs almost immediately. Holmes recognizes the famous clubman the Earl of Darley, whom he suspects of being an occasional blackmailer: not an unlikely career choice for a man richer in social connections than in pounds sterling. And then there’s the lithe, surprisingly fluent young Japanese woman who befriends Russell and quotes haiku. She agrees to tutor the couple in Japanese language and customs, but Russell can’t shake the feeling that Haruki Sato is not who she claims to be. 
Once in Japan, Russell’s suspicions are confirmed in a most surprising way. From the glorious city of Tokyo to the cavernous library at Oxford, Russell and Holmes race to solve a mystery involving international extortion, espionage, and the shocking secrets that, if revealed, could spark revolution—and topple an empire.
My Thoughts:

This is Number 13 in King's Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series of mystery novels. I've been curious about this series for quite a while, as I've heard such glowing reports, and I've always been a Sherlock Holmes fan. And the idea of Holmes actually getting married late in life is knock-your-socks-off intriguing. But once again, I've managed to jump right into a long, ongoing series without reading any of the earlier books, and I think in this case it was a mistake.

This one was very slow going for me. I just never really connected with the story or with Mary Russell, the primary character and narrator. I was expecting more Sherlock, and was disappointed that he turned out to be such a minor presence in the book. Mary is definitely the "star" and I didn't mind that, but she's just not as interesting as Holmes.

I guess I was also expecting a little more action, or at least more of a mystery to be solved; and while I did appreciate the quality of the writing, I kept getting lost in the long passages of description and scene-setting. As I said -- very slow going. Not sure I'd recommend this one, although I do think I might like to sample one of the earlier books in the series, just to see if it's more to my liking.

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(Full disclosure: I received my copy of Dreaming Spies free of charge from the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received, and no one attempted to influence my opinion.)

● Qualifies for the following reading challenges: Historical Fiction Challenge, What's In A Name ChallengeWomen Challenge, Women's Fiction Challenge.

The Last September

Nina de Gramont
Algonquin Books, September 2016
320 pages

Publisher's Description:
Brett has been in love with her husband, Charlie, from the day she laid eyes on him in college. When he is found murdered, Brett is devastated. But if she is honest with herself, their marriage had been hanging by a thread for quite some time. 
All clues point to Charlie’s mentally ill brother, Eli, but any number of people might have been driven to kill Charlie – a handsome, charismatic man who unwittingly damaged almost every life he touched. Brett is determined to understand how such a tragedy could have happened – and whether she was somehow complicit.
My Thoughts:

This book was such a surprise! Part mystery, part romance, part coming-of-age saga. When I first read the description in Library Thing's Early Reviewer listing, it sounded just a bit too much like "chick lit" for my taste. But I had second thoughts, and now I'm so glad I did. It's strange, though -- I thoroughly enjoyed the book, even though I really didn't find any of the central characters particularly sympathetic, and that's very unusual for me.

The plotting was intricate, but very well handled. For a while, towards the end, I was afraid the author might be going astray (I don't think it's a spoiler to say the plot seemed to be heading in the direction of stereotype and cliche), but was glad to find I was very wrong about that.

The story is set on Cape Cod, one of my favorite places and one of the reasons I chose the book. And I think the fact that deGramont really doesn't make much use of that setting is probably my major complaint about the book. But that's really a minor issue. This was an excellent read, and one I'll definitely be recommending.

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(Full disclosure: I received my copy of The Last September free of charge from the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received and no one attempted to influence my opinion of the book.)

● Qualifies for the following challenges: Blogger Shame Review Challenge, What's In A Name Challenge, Women Challenge, Women's Fiction Challenge.