Monday, October 14, 2019

Reading Report: The Last Romantics

The Last Romantics: A Novel
Written by Tara Conklin
William Morrow, 2019
354 pages

Publisher's Description:
A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. 
When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time. 
It begins in a big yellow house, with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden-boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected. Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and to ask what, exactly, they are willing to do for love. 
[Note: I received my copy of this book free of charge from the publisher, through Library Thing's Early Reviewer program, in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was received.]

I don't want to say a great deal about the plot of The Last Romantics because it would be very easy to give too much away and spoil the reading experience for others. But I will just say a word about that "Pause" mentioned in the synopsis. The Skinner children have their world disrupted after their father dies young and leaves their mother to cope with taking care of the family on her own. It's a task she can't handle, and she simply withdraws from the real world for a while, pretty much leaving the children to fend for themselves. By using incredible amounts of resourcefulness and relying heavily on one another, they manage to take care of themselves and their mother during that frightening time.

For the most part, I enjoyed The Last Romantics. I liked the atmosphere and the author's attention to detail. And I particularly empathized with her description of the children's lives during the "Pause," as I experienced something of the sort myself after my father died when I was ten years old.

However, there were a few things that bothered me as I read the book. I never was able to completely warm to any of the characters. The time setting wandered all over the place. Also, the feminism theme came and went, as though the author couldn't really make up her mind about it.

And I had problems with the voice and perspective of the book. Most of the time we're seeing things through the eyes and memory of Fiona, the main narrator. But then without warning, we're getting thoughts or situations or conversations that she wouldn't have been part of. I think I would have been more comfortable if there'd just been the ordinary omniscient narrator all the way through. Picky, I know — but it kept taking me out of the story.

Still, it's definitely a book I'd recommend and I'm grateful to the publisher and Library Thing for giving me the opportunity to discover an intriguing, new-to-me author.

Rating: ★★★½


Qualifies for the following reading challenges:

2019 GoodReads Challenge.
2019 Print Only Challenge.

Reading Report: Educated

Educated: A Memoir
Written by Tara Westover
First published February 2018
336 pages, Kindle edition

This is another book I read back in January, and it was certainly a powerful reading experience to start the year with.

Tara Westover's Mormon fundamentalist father was opposed to public education, so she never attended school. She spent her childhood and early adolescence working (and very nearly getting killed) in the family's junkyard, or learning herbal lore and midwifery from her mother, a self-taught healer. She had no birth certificate because her family didn't believe in registering with the state, and no medical records because they didn't believe in doctors or hospitals. What little education she got came from so-called home schooling, and she first set foot in a real classroom when she was seventeen. But after that first taste, she pursued learning for the next decade — eventually attending both Harvard and Cambridge.

This amazing memoir about growing up in an Idaho family preparing for the "end of days" is so fascinating and well-written, it actually reads like a novel. Some parts are hard to get through — child abuse is always ugly, even when (or maybe especially when) it's cloaked in religious nonsense. That she survived to tell the tale — and tell it so eloquently — is gratifying. That she can be so forgiving to her abusers is truly astonishing.

Rating: ★★★★

Note: I received my copy of Educated free of charge from the publisher, through the NetGalley website, in exchange for an honest review. No other compensation was received.


Qualifies for the following reading challenges:

2019 GoodReads Reading Challenge.

Reading Report: The Janus Stone

The Janus Stone
Written by Elly Griffiths
First published 2010
337 pages, Kindle edition

Lately I really haven't been very faithful about posting reviews or reading reports here on the blog. I've posted reviews in other places, but not here — for some reason. And I regret that. I like to use my book blog as a record of what I've read and what I thought about it. So I'm going to try to play a bit of catch-up over the next week or so, and write a few words about some of the books I've read during this past year. Probably won't try to keep to chronological order, but I'm starting with one I did read back in January — The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths.

In the book, archaeologist Ruth Galloway, a forensics expert in Norfolk (England), gets called in to investigate when builders uncover the bones of a child in an area they're excavating for a new development. The headless skeleton has been buried beneath a doorway, in a fashion that suggests it could have been a ritual sacrifice. DCI Harry Nelson — someone Ruth has worked with in the past — must find out if this was indeed some sort of religious ritual, or straightforward murder. And he asks Ruth to help with the case.

The Janus Stone is the second book in Elly Griffiths' series of Ruth Galloway mysteries, and I should say right away that (as usual) I haven't read the first book of the series. Still, overall I enjoyed The Janus Stone quite a lot, although I definitely would have benefited from having read book number one first. There was a lot of to-do in this book about the goings-on in that earlier book and occasionally I felt a little lost. Not the author's fault, of course — it's always best to start reading a series at the beginning. My bad.

As I said, it was reasonably enjoyable, with a decent amount of suspense and atmosphere. And I liked the fact that Ruth is an adult with some life experiences behind her, and isn't portrayed as a raving beauty. She's quirky and enjoys her relatively solitary existence in a remote cottage with only her cats for company.

The one thing that really turned me off (and kept this from being a 4-star read) was the way Ruth's pregnancy and who the father might be becomes the main emphasis of the book about midway through. (**Sorry, but that's really not a spoiler: her "condition" is announced very early in the narrative.**) Well, that's the trouble with most books about expectant mothers: How can the coming event NOT be the most important thing in their lives? Which would have been OK if this hadn't been a whodunnit. In a thriller you really want the focus on the crime and its investigation. Baby bumps just get in the way.

Rating: ★★★


Qualifies for the following reading challenges:

2019 Calendar of Crime Challenge.
2019 Cloak and Dagger Challenge.
2019 Good Reads Challenge.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Book Beginnings: The Long Call

The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves (Minotaur Books, September 2019). This is the book's first sentence:
The day they found the body on the shore, Matthew Venn was already haunted by thoughts of death and dying.

About the Book:
Detective Matthew Venn has returned to the North Devon evangelical community he left years ago, to take charge of a complex murder case. A body has been found on the beach near Matthew's new home: a man with the tattoo of an albatross on his neck, stabbed to death. And as Venn and his team start their investigations, will he be drawn back into the community he left behind, and the deadly secrets that lurk there? And how will that affect the detective and the case?

Initial Thoughts:

That's what I like — a mystery novel that just gets down to the main theme right from the top. Well, I guess if you're a police inspector who spends his time investigating murders, you'd naturally have it on your mind, right?

This is the first book in a new series of mysteries by Ann Cleeves. I know she's written several other long-running series, but this will be my first time reading anything of hers. From that opening, I'd say she definitely knows how to set a mood. Hoping the rest of the book lives up to it.

Happy Friday, everyone! And happy reading! And have a lovely weekend.

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.