Reading List by Jennie for April through June
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore
I went into this knowing nothing about it but the name. It ended up being a bit of a slog, for a few reasons: dialogue rendered in impenetrable dialect, a lot of blah blah blah musings, and the fact that I didn’t really like the narrator.
John Ridd is an adolescent when his father, a local farmer, is murdered by the Doone clan, outlaws who were once aristocrats. The Doones live in an isolated valley in Exmoor, and in spite of the fact that they rob and kidnap with impunity, the local folks seem to have a fairly high tolerance for them, or at least no taste for trying to bring any of them to justice. John is not even that interested in vengeance, for some reason. When he’s a little older, John is fishing and encounters the titular character, who is the cossetted “little queen” of the Doone family. She’s a child but John is enamored of her immediately, and over the years the two meet secretly and fall in love. But the Doones are protective of Lorna, and she is promised to her cousin (I think he’s a cousin?) Carver Doone.
A bunch of other stuff happens (this felt like a looonnng book) before the Doones are vanquished and the HEA can occur. As noted, I was not a fan of John’s. He worships Lorna but scorns most other women and frequently has negative things to say about them, including his devoted sister and mother. I gave this a B-, though now, a few months after finishing it, I’m not sure why. I guess it mostly held my attention but I doubt I’ll be checking further into Blackmore’s oeuvre.
The Perfect Marriage by Adam Mitzner
This was probably an Amazon First read? From the blurb you know someone has been murdered, but not who (though the book doesn’t tease that out for too long). James and Jessica Sommers are celebrating their one-year anniversary with a big party, one that perhaps is not in the best taste since both were married when they started an affair. In spite of this, Jessica’s sad-sack ex-husband attends. James’ volatile ex-wife, who is definitely *not* invited, shows up and makes a scene. Rounding out the main players are Jessica’s teenage son, who is experiencing a recurrence of cancer, and a shady colleague of James’ (he’s an art dealer).
I was slightly surprised by which of these people ended up dead a few days later, and there were several decent twists and turns in the plot. I did figure out the murderer before the end, simply because it was the least obvious person (if that makes sense). There weren’t any crazy twists with motive, which I appreciated. This was a B- for me; it might’ve rated higher except that I really didn’t care about any of the characters.
The Best of Me by David Sedaris
This is a collection of essays (and a couple of fiction pieces) from Sedaris’ various books. I’d read many of them before, but still found them entertaining, funny, and occasionally poignant. The latter stories dealing with his sister’s suicide and his father (who passed earlier this year) aging were particularly moving. I continue to find the dynamics of the Sedaris family fascinating. Even allowing for authorial hyperbole (which Sedaris has definitely been accused of before), it’s sort of amazing that a family can be so large, dysfunctional and yet so close. Of course, my family is small, dysfunctional, and yet close, but others’ dysfunction feels like visiting a foreign country sometimes. Interesting as hell to spend some time with, but you wouldn’t want to live there. My grade for this was a B+.
Every Last Secret by A.R. Torre
This was an Amazon First Read, and while not the worst of these I’ve read, in retrospect I didn’t like it very much. Set in tony Palo Alto, it involves a couple, social climbing Neena Ryder and her schlubby husband Matt who move in next door to wealthy and connected William and Cat Winthorpe. Neena has accepted a position at William’s company, and she quickly worms her way into William and Cat’s social life as well. Cat and Neena have an immediate mutual animosity, partly based on Neena’s obvious designs on William. No one was very sympathetic in this story, except maybe the schlubby husband. I was ambivalent about the character that I think I was supposed to be rooting for, so the ending wasn’t very satisfying to me, though the author did give everyone a little redemption. I originally gave this a B- but I think I’ll knock it down to a C.
My Lady Ludlow by Elizabeth Gaskell
I’m coming to the end of Gaskell’s novels – I think I only have one left to read and then it’s short stories and novellas. This one actually felt novella-length to me, for some reason, but I guess it’s full-length? Maybe it’s just not as long as some of the other historical novels that I’ve read lately. My Lady Ludlow took a little bit for me to get into. It’s narrated by Margaret, who comes to live with Lady Ludlow when her father dies and her impoverished mother writes to a number of distant relatives for help. Lady Ludlow keeps several young girls as sort of half assistants/half charity cases. She first seems old fashioned and rigid in her beliefs, but throughout the course of the story her assumptions on a number of fronts are challenged.
The structure of the book is episodic – a whole huge section in the middle is dedicated to a story-within-the story, which felt strange. Lady Ludlow recounts her friendship with a French family who fled the Terror, and the eventual fate of the son of the family (who was close childhood friends with her own lost son), who goes back to France in an attempt to save his cousin, whom he loves but who spurned him. I think the device can be explained by the fact that the book was first published as magazine entries, but at the time I was reading it, it felt, again, kind of odd. I wasn’t sure why we were spending so much time on these characters that weren’t really present in the story except in a second hand way.
Other subplots include the village spinster Miss Galindo, who has a somewhat sad and touching backstory, and the new vicar, a nervous fellow who clashes with Lady Ludlow over his desire to set up a school for the local children. As I said, I had a bit of trouble getting into this at first, but as the story came together the humanity of the characters really moved me (a common occurrence when I read Gaskell). I gave this an A-.
The Troubles by Tim Pat Coogan
I’ve read about 20th century Northern Ireland before – both in fiction (the excellent Milkman) and non-fiction (several books, but one that comes to mind is an account of H Block Armagh hunger strikes of the early 1980s). I found this comprehensive history inaccessible – I’m sure it would be an excellent resource for many readers, but for me it felt like page after page of dry political maneuvering interspersed with page after page of people murdering each other. Which probably does sum up “The Troubles” fairly well, in a sense, but I need more of a personal perspective/connection in my reading. I gave this a C.
A Splendid Ruin by Megan Chance
I have a *long* history going with Chance going back over 20 years, when her romances where some of the most unusual I read (even in today’s slightly less formulaic era, a historical romance with an unmedicated bipolar hero would be a hard sell, I’d guess). I’ve read a few of her historical fiction books since she switched to that genre, with mixed success. This one interested me because it was set in my hometown, San Francisco, right before the 1906 earthquake.
May Kimble comes to San Francisco from New York City after her mother dies, to live with an aunt that she never knew existed. May grew up in genteel poverty without a father; her mother insisted that he was someone important in New York society but would not tell her his name. In San Francisco May finds her aunt reclusive and confused; she’s frequently dosed with laudanum for unspecified ailments. May’s vivacious cousin Goldie and her uncle James are extremely welcoming, however. May is thrown into the lap of luxury the likes of which she has never imagined.
As time goes on, and Goldie introduces May to the creme de la creme of San Francisco society, there are a *lot* of signs that things are not as they seem in the household, though: mysterious comings and goings; oblique warnings from May’s aunt and the family’s Chinese maid, and Goldie’s mercurial personality, to name a few. May annoyed me with her refusal to acknowledge that something was obviously rotten. It was only when things fell apart for her that the story actually got interesting for me. The second half takes place right after the quake, a disaster that paradoxically gives May the opportunity to turn the tables on those who’ve betrayed her.
Overall, this was a mixed bag – I found myself really interested in the setting and the plot, and if May hadn’t been such a blah heroine, it might’ve been an A level read for me. As it was, it was a solid B.
Girl A by Abigail Dean
Janine doesn’t read suspense but, knowing I do, she’ll occasionally pass along a book she hears about if she thinks I might like it (thanks, Janine!). This isn’t typical suspense – it’s more of a psychological thriller, detailing the past and present lives of Lex Gracie, once identified by the British media as “Girl A” after she escaped from the family “House of Horrors” at age 15. (The Gracie children are given anonymity by the press and referred to as Girl A, Girl B, Boy A, etc.) In the past storyline, Lex grows up the second eldest child and oldest daughter of an increasingly controlling and fanatical father, and an increasingly beaten-down and complicit mother. After spending several months (at least) manacled to her bed and essentially starved, Lex devises her escape plan and saves herself and her siblings, but the trauma of her experiences are of course difficult to put behind her, and Lex is separated from the sibling she’s closest to, Evie (all the Gracie children are adopted by separate families).
In the present storyline, Lex is a successful lawyer in New York City; she’s back in England because she’s been named executor of her mother’s will (her mother has just died in prison). Lex wants to transform the House of Horrors into a community center – something positive emerging from so much pain and sorrow. But she needs to get approval from her siblings, several of whom she has contentious relationships with.
There are some mysteries in Girl A – I kept trying to keep track of what were variously referred to as six or seven siblings. The resolution to that question was pretty grimly obvious. What may or may have not been intended to be obvious – I really can’t tell – was another plot point that really wasn’t surprising at all.
In retrospect, this sounds like a pretty depressing book, and it is very sad – but it’s also beautifully written and really compelling. I gave it an A-.
The New Wilderness by Diane Cook
This was a book I saw mentioned somewhere and since I like dystopian fiction (sometimes) I picked it up. I should’ve done a full review when I read it, because it ended up having a strong effect on me, but some of the details are now lost to me, several months later. What I find interesting is that by the time I picked it up I did so grudgingly, like, I’ve had this for a while, I guess I should read it, SIGH POOR ME.
I didn’t like it at first – I never warmed to the narrator, Bea, and I was almost sort of considering dumping it (which I almost NEVER do). But the narrator changed to Bea’s daughter Agnes, and something clicked for me. Bea, Agnes and Bea’s stepfather are part of an experimental group that has left an unnamed city to live in the wilderness. The city is a dirty and diseased place, and though Bea had carved out something of a life for herself there, Agnes never thrived, suffering from a tuberculosis-like illness that would have eventually killed her. So Bea decides to join the pilot group – a strictly controlled gathering of about 20 people, who are watched over by the Rangers. The Rangers start out as seemingly imperious and capricious in the many rules they make for the group, and as time goes on they begin to feel almost sinister.
The New Wilderness is a strange book – at times the plot feels sort of meandering, and though it deals with a dystopian future and all the bleakness that’s implied by that, it’s at least as much about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. As I said, I wasn’t a fan of Bea’s, though I understood why she felt the need to make some of the choices she made. Agnes is tough and strange and sort of delightful, once you get to know her. I ended up giving this an A-.
Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth Ann White
This was another mystery/suspense book that was very readable and engrossing but marred by stupid twists at the end. There were, let’s say, three twists, and two of them were unnecessary and unbelievable (one involving hypnotherapy was particularly dumb). The third, which was the only one that actually had to do with the identity of the killer (of a 14-year-old girl in a depressed rural Canadian town; the story goes back and forth between the present day and the murder 24 years before) was the only twist that fit the story and it was plenty sufficient to the story. Not everything has to have crazy twists! So, most of the story was good, and the characterization wasn’t bad. The writing, particularly the dialogue, was stilted, but not terrible. I gave this a B.