Reading List by Jennie for July through September
A History of the World in Six Glasses by Tom Standage
I was looking for a light-ish but informative non-fiction read, and this seemed like it would fit the bill. It traces the history of humanity through six drinks: beer, wine, hard liquor, coffee, tea and finally soda. Each drink is given a section that explains its origins, its place in society and ultimately its effect on human behavior in the period. From beer with its roots in the (probably accidental) fermentation of grain some 10,000 years ago to the 20th century “age of Coca-Cola”, Standage provides a well-researched history of each drink and its first heyday. At times the story got a little dry for me (pun intended), but I’m glad I read it – I learned a lot. My grade is a straight B.
I’ll Never Tell by Catherine MacKenzie
Another book in my thriller/suspense kick, which sees me reading a lot of mediocre books (at least often free from Amazon). This one has five siblings gathering at the summer camp owned by their late parents, tasked with deciding what to do with the property – sell or keep the camp going. Between the siblings, there’s a range of opinions – Ryan, the oldest, is desperate for money and so wants to sell; Margot, Mary, and the twins Kate and Liddie are more ambivalent. Their father’s will complicates their plans, though. It tasks the sisters with voting Ryan out of his share (and giving it to Sean, the longtime handyman who lives year-round at the camp), *if* they believe Ryan was responsible for a violent attack 20 years before on Margot’s best friend Amanda. Several of the shocking twists weren’t that shocking, and I figured out the identity of the attacker at least 2/3 of the way in, through process of elimination. But the real problem with the story was characterization – none of the MacAllister siblings are particularly interesting or likable. I gave this a B-; it was at least readable.
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
So I came across a rec for this somewhere on social media, and snapped it up without too much investigation. The blurb calls it “…the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written”, and if I’d seen that ahead of time I might not have picked it up. I read about plenty of sex in romances, but somehow in a nonfiction depiction of three real women I found it made me feel uncomfortable, almost voyeuristic. The three women are Maggie, a high schooler embroiled in an affair with her teacher; Lina, a woman in her early 30s whose unhappy marriage leads her to an affair, and Sloane, a rich a beautiful wife and mother whose sex life is…complicated, with her husband’s full and enthusiastic consent. Besides my discomfort with the subject matter, I had a couple of problems with Three Women. One was that Maggie was the only one of the three I felt real sympathy for; neurotic, whiny Lina particularly got on my very last nerve. In theory I could feel for her, but in practice her problems seemed to harken back 40 or 50 years to the cliche of the 1960s-70s bored, unfulfilled housewife, and I just wanted to tell her to buck up and shut up. She was so NEEDY. The bigger problem was Taddeo’s prose, which was at times ridiculously opaque and so stylized that it bleached the personality out of the individual women. (“He’s never entirely tender- even at his warmest, he exudes the pale sweetness of a cashew…” What does that even MEAN?) While I found the book compelling and readable, especially, again, Maggie’s story, I also found quite annoying. I’d probably give it a C+/B-.
One Small Sacrifice (Shadows of New York, Book 1) by Hilary Davidson
Yet another tepid thriller. I question why I keep being drawn to this genre, but like my New Adult phase, I think it has to do with the books generally holding my interest even when I don’t think they’re very good. This one is set in New York City, and features Alex, a photographer with a troubled past. As a war photographer in Iraq and Syria, Alex saw many traumatic things and eventually ended up kidnapped by terrorists, held captive and tortured. Back in New York, Alex suffers from extreme PTSD that he had previously self-medicated with heroin and other drugs. Now his fiancee, Emily, who he met in Syria (she’s a doctor) and who helped him through his addiction, has gone missing. The police think Alex is to blame – a particularly dogged cop has a grudge against Alex. The previous year, Cori Stanton, Alex’s friend (and drug dealer) fell, jumped or was pushed from the top of his apartment building. The cop believes Alex is a murderer. Meanwhile, it looks like someone is trying to frame him for harming Emily – suspects include Cori Stanton’s grieving father and a childhood friend of Alex’s. The story had a certain narrative propulsion that worked, but much like I’ll Never Tell, none of the characters were very well drawn, and so I didn’t care much what happened to them. I gave this one a B-, as well.
Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas
This is the third book in the Ravenels series, and it features Pandora from the previous books, and Gabriel, who is the son of the couple from some other series that I can’t quite keep straight (I *may* have read their book back in the day, though). He’s the heir to a dukedom, and she’s an extremely hoydenish and eccentric young lady who has been pushed onto the London marriage mart, despite having no wish to marry. Pandora only attends the balls and parties so that her twin sister Cassandra, who is more conventional, will have a chance of finding a husband. At one such event, Pandora gets caught in a very innocent but comprising position with Gabriel, and so of course they have to marry. Neither is happy about it, at least at first. Gabriel starts to come around quickly, due to his strong attraction to Pandora and the pleasure he takes in her unusual personality. Pandora is a tougher nut to crack. In the previous books both Pandora and Cassandra were portrayed as sort of wild-yet-innocent. Raised in seclusion with no access to society they behaved as they liked (and honestly came off to me as more adolescent than mostly-grown). Pandora’s character did develop in the previous books in the sense that we found that she wants to design board games, just coming into fashion in England when the story is set. What comes as a surprise in Devil in Spring is that she appears to have read Wollstonecraft or someone similar – she gives an impassioned speech to Gabriel about wives as chattel, and honestly it came out of nowhere, character-wise. Pandora also has an affliction that is mysteriously hinted at a few times before being revealed half-way through the story. The other thing that bugged me was that (in part because she comes off as so young and naive) there’s an almost paternal quality to some of Pandora’s interactions with Gabriel. Still, the book held my attention pretty well and I did like the characters. There’s a weird subplot about Fenians near the end that felt sort of thrown in to bulk up the page count. Still, I liked this enough to give it a solid B.
The Furies by Katie Lowe
I grabbed this off Netgalley when I was home sick and read it quickly. This is an odd book; it felt like a melding of The Secret History and the movie The Craft (looking at online reviews, I’m apparently far from the first person to make this connection, especially in regards to The Secret History). The protagonist is Violet, a 16-year-old who lives in a crumbling seaside town in England. Her father and 8-year-old sister are killed in a car accident, and a settlement from the tragedy provides Violet with an unexpected opportunity – to attend Elm Hollow Academy, the local private girls’ college. Violet makes friends with the charismatic Robin, and her friends Alex and Grace, and is drawn into their circle with Annabel, an art teacher who does witchy stuff on the side. It may have been my not feeling well and/or reading it quickly, but the plot felt muddy and unfocused. A character who has wronged Violet dies in a car accident after the girls do a spell aimed at him, and I thought that would be kind of a big deal, but I don’t recall it being mentioned again. The writing was decent enough, but the messiness of the plot and the lack of character development means this was just a C for me.
Those Who Wander by Vivian Ho
Ho is a former San Francisco Chronicle writer who I follow on social media. I knew she’d quit the Chronicle to work on this, her first book, and so when I saw it was available as part of the Amazon First Reads series, I snapped it up. This non-fiction work interweaves a true-crime story with the larger story of “street kids” – those who run away from home, drop out of society and make their way panhandling, stealing and sleeping on the streets. The crime was one that made big headlines in the Bay Area a few years back – a French Canadian tourist was found murdered in Golden Gate Park, and then a man walking his dog in Marin was ambushed, robbed and killed. The three killers were part of the (generally) young, “homeless by choice” crowd, a population particularly prevalent in California because of the temperate weather. Those Who Wander is an interesting, though depressing, look at people who could perhaps be described as lost souls – usually coming from a history of abuse and neglect and addicted to various drugs. Ho’s take is a compassionate one; she really delves in and tries to understand the mindset of the killers and to find some good in them. I’m usually a certified bleeding-heart, but the callousness and pointlessness of the murders sapped me of some of my compassion. Still, I appreciated the thorough and non-judgmental take. I gave this book a B+.
Drowning with Others by Linda Keir
Another day, another Amazon First Read. The set-up interested me quite a bit, but as usual the execution left something to be desired. The book shifts back and forth between 1999 and the present day. In 1999, Ian and Andi are boarding school sweethearts whose romance is threatened by the arrival of bad-boy poet Dallas Walker, who is that year’s writer-in-residence teacher at Glenlake Academy, the prestigious school they attend. In the present day, their daughter Cassidy is a senior at Glenlake when a car is pulled from the bottom of a nearby lake – a car that contains the skeleton of Dallas Walker, presumed to have just left Glenlake abruptly all those years ago, as bad-boy poets are wont to do. It turns out he never left Glenlake at all. Cassidy is now in the writing class that Andi was in when she was a senior, and this year’s writer-in-residence happens to be a journalist. The class is assigned to report on the death of Dallas Walker, and both Ian and Andi begin to feel things unravel as old and buried secrets come to light. This wasn’t as bad book – again, I was really intrigued by the set up (have I mention I retain, these many years past my school career, a fascination with boarding school stories?). Andi and Ian were decently fleshed out – neither character was groundbreaking but they had personalities and lives that extended beyond the central mystery, which I appreciated. My main complaint is that there was simply a lack of tension inherent in the mystery. I was pretty sure I knew who *hadn’t* killed Walker, and the ultimate resolution of who did, and why, lacked oomph for me. (It was kind of unexpectedly downbeat, and unrealistic in the way that certain characters spilled their guts.) Since I did find this compelling, I’m going to give it a B-.