Recently Read Mini-Reviews

I don’t always have the time to do a full review of all the books I read!   Still, I would like to comment on many, if only to give a whole-hearted recommendation for some, a word of caution on others, or perhaps a “don’t waste your time.”   All three featured today are “go for it.”

PersonalLeeChildPersonal is the new Jack Reacher novel from a long-time fave.  I’ve read every Lee Child book since the first one (The Killing Floor), and have reviewed a few (here, here, and sorta here).  Am I fan?  Yep.  I bought it in hardback at my local indie bookstore.  (To be fair, I know my husband will probably want to read it, too, so it cuts the price by 50%.  Or so I tell myself.)  The 19th book in the series stacks up pretty well, although Child doesn’t quite deliver on the foreboding promises made by the title (very little interaction with the bad guy, it’s not that personal, and it’s over pretty quickly) or on the backstory reference to Dominique Kohl (potentially pretty chilling, and I kept waiting for it).  It does have the usual strong writing, well-paced plotting, and of course, the Jack Reacher character.  Jack himself is enough to make any Reacher novel worth reading.

burial-ritesBurial Rites by debut novelist Hannah Kent is a based-on-real-life, moody crime novel set in Iceland in 1828.  Agnes Magnusdottir was convicted of murdering two men and is exiled to a farm in the north to await execution.  The book tells her story, but also how Agnes affects those around her, including the family who house her during her final months and the young clergyman who serves as her spiritual guide.   This bleak tragedy is warmed throughout by the characters.  Well-written and affecting, but painful- keep the hankies handy.

rosieThe Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion just begs to be made into a movie.  Please, somebody, make it into a movie!  Cute genetics professor with Asperger’s (not that he knows it ) can’t seem to keep a girlfriend, undertakes “wife project” to accomplish goal, meets wildly unsuitable woman (Rosie) who becomes his coach.  Of course she’s perfect for him, but there are many obstacles to overcome, all pretty self-generated.  It has all the factors that make up a hit rom-com!  Of course I adored it.  Best read in bubble bath with Dove candy bar broken into small pieces and a glass of red wine.  (Ooh, Google search says there’s both a movie AND a second book in the works.  Yay.)


The New Inspector Gamache is here!

long way homeFriends and readers know that I’m a big Louise Penny fan!  Her chief inspector Gamache series features great, well-drawn characters who grow and change over time; intricate but not convoluted plots; and tons of suspense.  In fact, it’s a toss-up whether I would have picked her most recent novel, How the Light Gets In, or William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace for the Best Novel Edgar.  (Krueger won.)

Now Penny’s new one, The Long Way Home, is out.  (Plug here for my local independent bookstore:  Schuler Books in Okemos had the hardback at 50% off cover price on the day of release.  I assume for hardcore fans like me who got in the car and drove over there yesterday because I had to have it.)  The question in my mind:  how can she follow the blow-it-all-out awesomeness of the previous book?  She had me up all night reading, and while I don’t want to spoil it for any who have not read it yet, the climax where one major character ACTUALLY SHOT ANOTHER MAJOR CHARACTER IN THE BACK was going to be hard to top.

Her smart next step:  Don’t try to top it.  Where How the Light Gets In felt like a thriller, The Long Way Home is more of a classic mystery.  Now retired in his beloved Three Pines, Gamache has settled into peaceful domesticity with his adored and adoring wife, his daughter happily married, friends all around him.  Then one of his friends – the famous artist Carol Morrow – confides that she is worried.  Her husband Peter, also an artist, and she separated over a year ago, but made a pact that they would reunite on the anniversary of their separation.  They had not spoken or seen each other in the interim, but she was sure he would return that day.  Gamache enlists Jean-Guy Beauvoir to solve the puzzle:  where is Peter Morrow?

The story unfolds in a leisurely manner, as with the help of wife and former librarian Reine-Marie, retired psychologist and bookstore owner Myrna Landers, Gamache, Jean-Guy and Carol collaborate to retrace Peter’s steps the last year.  The writing is rich and lovely, the pace is assured, but hidden below the surface is a darker story that is only revealed to the reader in retrospect.  In fact, about 3/4 of the way in, I wondered how Penny was going to manage an effective ending. Either we’d find Peter alive and well or we wouldn’t… hmmm.

Presto change-o.  Let us just say that people are not always what they seem, that the good and bad are not so clear-cut, and that somebody ends up with a knife to the throat – and more – in the final chapters.  And most satisfyingly, we learn that in his year apart, Peter Morrow had grown past his bitter jealousy of his wife’s genius into a bigger person, with a deeper and more adventurous talent.   Penny thereby proving, once again, that where there’s life, there’s hope.

Sue Miller’s back with The Arsonist

arsonistI have a few female authors that I have a fondness for – they write literary novels, but they’re a little “chick-lit-y.”  I’m slow to type the phrase, because I know what kind of a firestorm this kind of categorization can cause.  Who exactly?  Anita Shreve.   Sue Monk Kidd.  Lately, Liane Moriarity.  And, of course, Sue Miller, who tore me up with The Good Mother.

Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, is a perfectly satisfying book of its kind.  The protagonist – Frankie Rowley – is a smart, attractive woman who is young enough to have a lot of life ahead of her, but old enough to have lived an interesting life so far.   She comes home to the small New England town where her family used to summer, and where her parents have retired, to regroup after working in East Africa for 15 years.  Her big life, full of adventure, suddenly seemed purposeless.

War and famine are replaced by small town conflict between year-rounders and the summer people, Frankie’s father’s descent into Alzheimer’s, and a series of empty-home arsons.   And Frankie’s dead-end affair with a married colleague in Africa is eclipsed by a new relationship with the editor of the local paper.  (My only negative about the book:  Bud Jacobs is just too perfect.)

In another author’s hands, The Arsonist could have been a plot-driven romantic suspense novel.  In other words, formulaic.  But with Miller as the author, the reader gets much more:  a story driven by character, human failing and ambiguity.  

Examples?  Frankie’s mom confesses that she finds caring for her demented husband particularly difficult, because she has no store of love for him built up over the years; she doesn’t love him and never did.  Frankie is hurt, when after years away from her parents, she arrives home and is ready to go into rescue mode… but her mom’s not particularly interested in being rescued.

Frankie upends chick-lit expectations:  when she finds happiness and contentment with her new love, she’s not satisfied.  She’s got an itch that only a certain kind of job can fill.  Even when she comes to her senses,  Frankie doesn’t settle down.  She treats her new love and their life together like a nest – she returns to its comfort, only to fly away again.

Of course, Miller’s most ambiguous character is the arsonist.  When all is said and done, no one – including the reader – knows for sure who set Pomeroy’s fires.  Almost everything about the case against Tink Snell can be interpreted to indicate his guilt or his innocence.  And long after the trial’s not-guilty verdict, people wonder.  Never knowing, yet going on.  Such is the nature of life.

Harry Quebert says what?

Cover.Harry Quebert Affair.JPG657 pages.  That’s how long the The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is.  And on the Kindle – when you can’t see the page numbers but only see the progress towards 100% – those pages are interminable.  The book’s the story of Marcus Goldman, a young, highly acclaimed debut author who can’t summon the creative juices for book #2, but is suddenly offered the opportunity to deliver a roman a clef – or perhaps a juicy true crime book, it’s hard to tell – about his mentor, the famous Harry Quebert.  Harry is ALSO an amazingly successful writer, who penned a novel based on his doomed romance with 15-year-old Nola Kellergan.  Said romance occurring when Harry was 34.  Nola disappeared back in the day, and her body was just unearthed, 33 years later… in Harry’s back yard.  Who killed her?  And what the heck will protege Marcus do?  $3 million is a lot of dough.

Phteven 2Here’s what the book has:  over the top, breathless prose.  Characters who all sound exactly alike, except for the guy who got beaten to within an inch of his life, so he sounds like Phteven.  Labyrinthine jumps in time from today to the mid-70s and back.  And so many “whodunnit” twists that make The Killing look reasonable.  (My husband gave up on that show half-way through because it was like whack-a-mole: every character was under serious suspicion at one point or another.)  And a groan-out-loud ending.  On the good side, it does have a strong voice and kept me turning the pages (metaphorically speaking) just to get to the end.

But here’s the question:  Why the heck is this book getting so much hype and so many reviews?   The column inches devoted to book reviews in the press is low.  Very low.  Not many books get reviewed.

And yet, the New York Times gives Harry a lot of space and is generally positive, depending on how seriously you interpret the adjectives. The Independent (UK) says it’s seductive.   NPR calls it chilling, but cautions that the writing is not so good.   Both Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post basically say what I’m saying – some good stuff there but nothing to write home about.   And on Amazon, readers average out at 3 stars – as of today, 94 give it just 1 star and 123 are giving it 5 stars.

My recommendation: Unless you’re a speed reader, read something else.

Never Let Me Go – the book, the movie!

goI recently picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Never Let Me Goat my favorite Chicagoland independent bookstore, The Book Table in Oak Park.  Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, which I enjoyed, and the blurb on the front quoted Time magazine with “A page-turner and a heartbreaker, a tour de force of knotted tension and buried anguish.”  Sold!

The story opens in the first person, with 31-year-old Kathy H. talking about her career.  She’s some kind of healthcare worker, supporting donors of some kind, and reflecting on her experiences, her life, and her upbringing in Hailsham.  As a child, she lived in Hailsham – a boarding school in the English countryside – where the rules were strict, but there was fun to be had and friends to be made.  And as Kath recalls and recounts her life, it becomes apparent that something has happened in that world that never happened in this one:  a mid-century scientific discovery has led society to clone human beings and raise these children to be donors, stripping them of their organs much as a junker car is kept around for spare parts.

Against this matter-of-fact macabre background, there is a love triangle, for Kathy loves Tommy, who is stolen by Kathy’s beautiful best friend, Ruth.  And so for these three, what little happiness they could have had is taken from them by humility, entitlement, compassion and fear  – all too human traits, considering that society seems them as subhuman.

As they transition into the world, Kath becomes a “carer,” who comforts and helps the donors after they recover from each donation.   (Donors will typically manage three or perhaps four donations before they “complete.”)  And of course the story plays out as Kathy cares for Ruth and then for Tommy, enjoying at last a brief period of love and even hope – which is, of course, doomed.

Let us just say that there were sniffles.  Plenty of them.  Several hankies worth.

Then I discovered that the book had been made into a movie in 2010, starring Carey Mulligan as Kath, Keira Knightley as Ruth and Andrew Garfield as Tommy.   The film is well-cast (although Tommy is not quite as strapping in the movie as he was in the book – I would have like a more robust actor) and faithful to the story, for the most part.   It was awesome.  More sniffles on my part.  On the other hand, my husband (who hadn’t read the book) said it dragged.  He fidgeted.  Open mocking of wifely sniffling.

My conclusion:  Husband, mean.  Book, good.  Movie, good.  Both, double good.  Go for it.

OMG, seriously

I am shocked, shocked, to find that it has been 10 weeks since my last blog post.  I knew it was a long time, but seriously?  Real life took precedence over literary life.

red sparrowSo let’s do a quickie catch-up.  Previously on Literary Lunchbox, I was in the midst of my reviews for the Edgar Best Novel nominees.  Not surprisingly, the Mystery Writers of America did not wait for my reviews to bestow their awards.   Nope.  Jason Matthews won Best First Novel for his amazing book, Red Sparrow.  My pick was Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterson.  Red Sparrow was #2.   In retrospect, I think MWA got it right.

ordinary-grace-200William Kent Krueger took home the Edgar for Best Novel for his luminous novel, Ordinary Grace.  When I left off reviewing, Krueger was #1 of the four I had reviewed.  I can’t give myself full marks for calling it in advance, though, because unreviewed was Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In as well as Lori Roy’s  Until She Comes Home.

untilLori Roy is a very special author.  Her prose is beautiful, her stories engaging, characters are well-developed and fully human, and her books defy categorization.   Until She Comes Home is a mystery, and much more.  Still, I believe I would have ranked it below Ordinary Grace because Krueger did a wonderful job of luring me in, engaging me emotionally throughout.  With Home, I was always a bit of an observer.

lightBut I think there is a very real danger I might have put Louise Penny‘s How the Light Gets In at the top of the Lit Lunchbox ranking.  The book features the always-compelling Inspector Gamache, and life is very bleak, with his department disbanded and his beloved Jean-Guy Beauvoir addicted to pain pills and filled with hatred for his former mentor.   An investigation in Three Pines while hostile forces gather against Gamache and threaten the country leads to the inspector’s eventual, but shocking, triumph.  Yes, I have to admit – it’s probably 50/50 whether I would have called it for Ordinary Grace or for How the Light Gets In.

So let us draw a curtain across this confusion.  All six nominees for the Best Novel Edgar are well worth reading, in my opinion.  So go for it.  Similarly, there’s a lot to like about all the Best First Novel nominees… the only one I would have reservations about is The Resurrectionist.  (So read that last.)



Recently read: quick reviews

Still have a couple of books to review and rank for the Best Novel category of the MWA Edgar awards, but I had to take a few minutes to give a shout out for several books I recently read!

deadFirst, Harry Dolan’s hit another home run with his latest David Loogan book, The Last Dead Girl. The previous two are Bad Things Happen and Very Bad Men.   I gave big thumbs up to both – you can read the review for BTH here and VBM here.  It’s a prequel of sorts, set in 1998, back when Loogan was still known by his birth name, David Malone, and was working as a home inspector.   A chance encounter with law student Jana Fletcher  leads him into a head-over-heels love affair that ends with her bloody murder, and his stubborn quest to uncover the truth about this crime leads to the realization that she was much more than she appeared to be.  Dolan moves the plot along through several points of view, including the protagonist in first person, Jana’s, and the mysterious K.   Many gasps of surprise later, the plot resolution’s complete.

hollowAlso read was the second novel in Ransom Riggs’ YA series that started with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Hollow City.  In this outing, Jacob Portman and his unusual friends are under siege, heading through time and magic to London, where they hope to return the stalwart Miss Peregrine back into human form.  (Big shock when she does change back!)  It’s clever and well-plotted, and the integration of the found photos that makes the series so visually compelling was as fascinating as ever. If you like this kind of thing, you’ll love it.  If you don’t, you find it tiresome and go read something else.

Two oldies but goodies:

brutalSuspense is high in Louise Penny’s The Brutal Telling.  Published in 2009, it was one I discovered at my library – how did I miss it?  Fans of Chief Inspector Gamache will love it, as one of Three Pines’ most beloved characters is accused of murder.   Having read Penny’s more recent books, I was still very surprised at the ending.

witnessAlso fun was Nora Roberts’ 2012 novel, The Witness.  Not generally a giant Roberts fan, I read this one because my husband recommended it.  He bought it on the Kindle after getting a free sample, and suggested it to me by saying “It’s kind of a women’s suspense book but it has a really good main character.”  And so it does.   A super-smart 16 year old college student witnesses a hit by a Russian mobster and goes on the run.  Fast forward 13 years, she’s still in hiding.  How she opens up to a small town lawman and together they outwit the bad guys, winning her freedom, is a page turner.