Reading List by Jennie for April Through June 2020
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Is it a shameful to admit that I’ve never before read Little Women? At least not that I can recall – it may have been one of those books that I started and put down in my youth. Still, I’ve seen both of the recent movie adaptions (if 1994 can be considered “recent”) in theaters, so I’m familiar with the story. I even read March by Geraldine Brooks! Anyway, this is all to say that this actual book has a bit (maybe more than a bit) too much 19th century moralizing for me (as well as some old-fashioned sexism). If other 19th century female authors that I’ve read and liked write about people with fairly stark realism (Anne Bronte, George Eliot) or through a satirical lens (Jane Austen), Alcott appears to write about people as they should be, at their best. Flawed, to be sure, but with an unusual self-awareness of their flaws and a strong desire to always be better. Even Amy, who seems to be traditionally viewed as the shallowest and vainest March girl (and who thus is most relatable, at least to me), strives to adhere to the example set by her beloved Marmee.
I think I may just have grown up in too cynical an age to entirely appreciate the improving nature of Little Women. I find Jo and Meg both irritating (Marmee too, and Mr. March once he shows up). Beth is actually sweet but she’s such a Christ figure that it’s hard to take her seriously. I feel bad when she dies, but Beth’s only real purpose in the story is to die. So Amy ends up the only real, likable character for me. (Laurie kind of sucks too, but I may be overly influenced by my recent viewing of the 2019 film and my abiding dislike of Timothee Chalamet.) The Professor isn’t bad, I guess. I hate having to grade classics that I didn’t like that much for what feels like shallow reasons; I guess I’ll give this a B-.
The White Mans Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz
I read and enjoyed Schwartz’ memoir, Choose Your Own Disaster, so I was interested in this, written from the perspective of her @GuyInYourMFA twitter account. It’s a funny, if slight, overview of writers from Shakespeare (whom the author is suspicious of, wondering how he could have been so prolific and successful without access to an MFA program) to John Updike (“the man finally brave enough to tell the story of white, middle-class American Protestants struggling with issues that ranged from the temptation to commit adultery to committing adultery”). Like I said, the overall effect is sort of slight, but I enjoyed the book and found it a pleasant diversion. I gave it a B; I’m *really* looking forward to Schwartz’ upcoming fiction book, Anatomy, a Love Story, which is “a gothic romance set against the backdrop of 1830’s Edinburgh, and follows an aspiring young female surgeon, the resurrection man who brings her bodies to study, and a reclusive aristocrat who tempts them both with immortality.” Sounds awesome. (Her podcast, Noble Blood, is also great.)
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson
I have been a big fan of Erik Larson’s work since reading what is probably his most popular book, Devil in the White City, back in 2006. As the subtitle indicates, his latest focuses on the Blitz, the bombing campaign by Germany in the early days of World War II that caused widespread death and destruction in London and elsewhere in England. Winston Churchill is the central figure, and comes alive in a very-Churchill-y way throughout the book, but the story also follows his youngest daughter Mary, just 18 at the time and dealing with the sorts of things 18-year-old girls have dealt with through time immemorial. Also featured is one of Churchill’s secretaries, Jock Colville, and others in the orbit of the Prime Minister, as well as the major players in Germany and the United States at the time. This was an engaging and informative book, and I gave it a B+.
What We Forgot to Bury by Marin Montgomery
Another Amazon First read – one of the worst so far, and that’s saying something. Lives and lies collide when 17-year-old Elle and 35-year-old Charlotte meet on a stormy night. Elle has ulterior motives for seeking out Charlotte, and Charlotte has some secrets of her own. This book featured an overdone and byzantine plot – I guessed one of the “twists” early on but the last twist was just out of nowhere and ridiculous even by the standards of what had gone before. Elle is a parody of a neglected foster kid with a wicked, though inconsistently characterized, foster mother, and two foster brothers who are strangely only referred to as “the boys”, not given names, though they are mentioned 41 times in the book (I did a search and counted). There there were so many examples of weird, awkward writing I finally stopped marking them on my Kindle. (One bit, when Elle meets with her boyfriend Justin: “‘What’s up, Elizabeth?’ His greeting is so generic and immature I want to scream.” The words “generic” and “immature” seem out of place here, like they were added by a random adjective generator.) I gave this a D; it is saved from F-dom by being marginally readable.
Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas
I was looking forward to this, the third book in the Hathaways series, as a respite from the “Gypsy” heroes of the first two books, with their exotic Rom ways (eyeroll). Also, I think this was Janine’s favorite book in the series. It ended up not really working for me, mostly because of the hero. I can kind of wrap my mind around the idea that Harry is supposed to be an antihero; Janine said straight out in her review that he was a villain. I had to examine whether I’m ever okay with that, and I think the answer is, not usually. With that type of hero, I need there to be some serious comeuppance, reform and possibly groveling. With Harry we mostly got Poppy feeling really sorry for him when she realized he’d had a bad childhood. Poppy was a decent heroine, and I liked the hotel setting, but Harry just bugged me too much. This was a C.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
This was probably recommended on Amazon; I know that wherever I saw it the description sucked me in. A group of Londoners, friends from Oxford who are now 10 years past their college days, gather at a remote Scottish estate for their traditional New Year’s get together. Someone ends up murdered, and though the action switches back and forth between the days leading up to New Year’s Eve and the day the body is found, it isn’t until late in the book that the identity of the victim is revealed. (It did end up being my first guess, though.) There are five perspective characters who tell their stories in alternating chapters. There’s Heather, the woman who manages the estate, working in the remote location as an escape from a tragedy back in Edinburgh. There’s Doug, the gamekeeper, also hiding out from a dark and possibly dangerous past. Emma has organized the gathering; she is a latecomer to the group who is part of it due to her relationship with Mark. Miranda, the vivacious one, is the center of the group. And then there’s Katie, who has been Miranda’s best friend and sidekick for two decades, but has pulled away lately. I probably shouldn’t have liked this book as much as I did; there’s a real lack of depth in the characterization. Even though I was right about the victim, the story did keep me guessing and it totally sucked me in, which is what I want from this type of book. This was a high B+/low A-. Foley just had another book come out and I’m on the fence about it because it sounds *so* similar to The Hunting Party, which could be a good thing or a bad thing.
Married by Morning by Lisa Kleypas
I’m following along behind Janine in reading the Hathaways series, and I remembered that she didn’t love this one. In spite of that, I actually picked it up kind of eagerly – I was interested in the characters from their interactions in previous books even though I don’t usually love antagonist-to-lovers stories. My interest palled pretty quickly, and I’m not sure why. It felt like I was back in my historical-romance rut, where the predictability of the characters and plot was so overwhelming that it was hard for me to stay interested. About the only thing I really cared about was finding out what the heroine’s secret was (and when I did, it wasn’t as scandalous or compelling as I’d hoped). The book did get a little more interesting in the late chapters when a somewhat uncommon conflict cropped up. But by then I just kind of wanted to finish it. Maybe I’ll take another break from Kleypas after I read the last book in the Hathaways series. My grade for this was a C+. (I really liked the ferret, though. Dodger was so cute, it was almost enough to make me want to get one. They’re illegal in California, and I already have too many pets, so it’s probably for the best that I refrain.)
The Bone Jar by S.W. Kane
This is the first in a series featuring a London police detective named Lew Kirby. It was an Amazon First Read and definitely better than average for those. An elderly woman is found murdered in an abandoned insane asylum during one of the coldest snaps in memory in London. Detective Lew Kirby is trying to balance the demands of the investigation with his personal life – a new romance, and a mother who seems confused and is hiding something from him. The mystery of the murder of Ena Massey involves a large group of characters – Connie Darke, whose sister Sarah fell from a tower and died at the same asylum five years before; Sarah’s boyfriend Ed, whose is missing and whose cell phone is found in the asylum, Raymond Sweet, an ex-patient who lives on the grounds, Patrick Calder, an arrogant developer who has plans for the asylum. (Expensive housing plans, that is.) And finally, Charles Palmer, who has inherited the house next door to the asylum and whose family has unexpected connections to the place and the murdered woman. There’s a *lot* going on in this story, and not all of it was really resolved to my satisfaction. But the book held my attention really well, so I’ll give it B+/B; I may pick up the second book in the series when it comes out.
In the Woods by Tana French
This was the first in a series called Dublin Murder Squad, written back in 2007. I’ve heard of the author but didn’t really know anything going into the book, which was, for several reasons, not what I expected. I think it was a bit broodier and…more psychological?… than I expected, and that and some things to do with the ending made my grade go down a bit, though I found the story really compelling. Adam Ryan is 12 years old when he and two friends disappear into the woods near their housing development. He’s found hours later, bloody and catatonic, but the other two are never seen again. Years later, Adam, now rechristened Rob, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad. A young girl has been found murdered near the very same woods where Ryan and his friends went missing. He has never been able to remember what happened when he went missing, but he seems to be living his life without significant residual trauma; he has a best friend in his partner Cassie Maddox, and he is very absorbed in his work.
Things really go south in the course of the story, revealing just how not okay Ryan is. Again, the story really drew me in, and though I had an idea *who* the murderer was, I didn’t quite get the how. Ryan goes from a sympathetic narrator to someone who tears his own life to pieces and really hurts people in the process. I felt sorry for him in the end, but the overall effect was kind of unsettling. The first person narration, his tragic past and seemingly good-guy character made his behavior feel weirdly like a betrayal, until I realized that this was who he was all along. (However, I can’t forgive that he says that the villain “fooled you, too” because NO, it was actually pretty obvious there was something not right with that character.) The last issue that I had is a spoiler:
The Hiding Girl by Dorian Box
I picked this thriller up on Netgalley; since I have such poor luck with the thrillers and suspense novels I’ve been getting from Amazon First Reads, expanding my horizons a bit seemed like a good idea. The Hiding Girl ended up being more successful than a lot of those reads, though it’s not without flaws. Emily Calby is 12 and living in rural Georgia with her mother and 8-year-old sister; her father has died in a work accident not long before the story begins. As the book opens, two men stop by their isolated home in a truck and ask for gas, and then attack the family. Emily’s mother and sister are killed, and she flees with a box of money her father kept hidden for emergencies. From there, this is sort of a play on “The Professional”, with a large, secretive black man named Lucas playing the Jean Reno role. There were times I was uncomfortable with this – Lucas speaks in dialect, which I didn’t love. (His girlfriend Kiona doesn’t though, which made me feel a bit better about it.) But some cringe aside, I really liked Emily and Lucas and their relationship, and I was absorbed in her drive to find the killers of her family. Emily’s not a realistic character, but she was a compelling one. This appears to be the first in a series and I may just try the second book when it comes out. B+.