My quarterly review of books has morphed into six months again – I guess I must have been too busy reading. Since I last posted a general review in February (see link – Review of books Winter 2022) I’ve read so many books that I can’t remember what some of the earlier ones were about, other than the vaguest impression, so I’ll just try to hit the highs (and lows) of my reading list. While I read many excellent books last winter, this selection was more mixed, (although all are rated a 4 or 5 star on Goodreads), not necessarily an issue when nicer weather prevails. Sometimes you just want a book you can pick up and put down, without staying up too late. So pretend you are in a bookstore browsing, and perhaps there will be something to tempt you when those chilly days arrive.
(Note: these are not necessarily in the order in which I read them. This is Part One of a two Part post….because you know….it was long.
Ann Patchett is one of my favorite authors – I’ve enjoyed her novels, (State of Wonder, Commonwealth) so when her book of essays – on home, friendships, family and writing – came out I ordered it. I loved the first half of the book, about growing up wanting to be a writer, and having her three dads at her wedding, her difficulty in getting rid of her old typewriter, her decision years ago not to have children. I felt like I had found a new friend, but then I came to a very long piece which comprised the latter third of the book, about her relationship with Tom Hanks publicist, Sooki, who was diagnosed and eventually died of pancreatic cancer. Ann Patchett owns an independent bookstore in Nashville, and their acquaintance came about when she scheduled an in-store reading of Tom Hank’s book of short stories, (Ordinary Type) many of which were about typewriters. (That book is a whole other topic, and while I love Tom Hanks he should stick to acting as struggling writers in garrets all over the world could have done better given the opportunity. Maybe it was a pandemic project but he is now working on a novel about the movie industry due out next year, which is being billed as an ambitious project.) Ann Patchett and her physician husband helped Sooki find an oncologist for experimental treatment and even invited her to stay with them in their home for six months while she was undergoing treatment during the pandemic. She warns that the downside of staying with a writer is that you get written about but perhaps she thought she was memorializing her? Sooki, being a very private person, and fighting for her life, mostly kept to the basement flat. She was probably too sick to socialize, but the author seemed somewhat obsessed with the idea that their friendship should have been closer. That’s the problem with memoir – you can unknowingly reveal some less attractive aspects to your personality. Otherwise, the book was good, and the writing lovely, but that last essay just spoiled the whole thing for me. Sometimes when something about a book really bothers me I’ll hop over to Goodreads and read the reviews – all five star and glowing, so it must just be me.
I’m a big fan of British mystery writers, including Ruth Ware, so I really enjoyed this, her sixth and best book so far – a who-done-it about a group of six first year students at Oxford. She’s come a long way since her first book, In A Dark Dark Wood. (Others are The Woman in Cabin 10, The Turn of the Key, One by One) Although the two female room-mates have nothing in common, they strike up a friendship, until one night the popular one, The It Girl, is found murdered in her room. The creepy dorm porter is charged and found guilty, but ten years later, after he dies in jail still pleading his innocence , a journalist starts snooping around. The book is told, partially in flashback, by the other room-mate who is by then married to the It Girl’s old boyfriend. It was very well done and very suspenseful, and fairly long at 400 pages. It took me back to my university days, where the friendships you made were often forged during the first few weeks, although our porter was a kind elderly gentleman, whose job seemed to be sorting the mail into the mail slots (yes, those were the days my friends, you got mail), while keeping an eye on the front door, although he could certainly glare with disappointment when you came creeping in in the wee small hours of the morning, so I totally understand why the protagonist chose to climb over the stone wall near the back entrance. This was easily my favorite suspense novel of the year so far.
The other book, Local Gone Missing, is about a female British detective on medical leave in a small seaside town when a local man disappears on the night of a music festival. A good read – this was my first book by this author.
I was a big fan of Grantchester, the Masterpiece series set in 1950’s Cambridge about a whiskey-swilling, jazz-loving young vicar and his crime-solving detective friend Geordie, at least I was until the storyline descended into repetitive dross, probably inevitable given it is currently in season seven. While there is always a murder in each episode, and a moral of sorts, I find the secondary characters are often the best part. The TV series was based on a series of books by the author James Runcie, whose father was a vicar in that era. I read the first book in the series, Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, (it sounds like a Hardy Boys title) more out of curiosity, and then the second, Sidney Chambers and The Perils of the Night. The books are composed of self-contained chapters of some of the murders in season one and two, but as I already knew the outcome from the tv show I didn’t find it too suspenseful, although it was well written and sometimes insightful. At the end of book two, they married him off to that simpering Hildegarde, and that was it for me, although his snobby friend Amanda was an equally annoying choice. Poor Sidney, such terrible taste in women. There are six books in the series, including the prequel in the war years.
The Tenth Nerve – a brain surgeon’s stories of the patients who changed him – was a memoir written by a Vancouver doctor, with each chapter about one of his more memorable cases. I love a good medical book and the brain is such an interesting thing. The tenth nerve refers to a new cranial nerve he discovered while operating on several patients with the same painful throat condition. I found it well written and very interesting, if you like that kind of thing.
I love Frances Mayes so I was anticipating a travelogue in the vein of her usual Under the Tuscan Sun format, but this was more of a National Geographic guidebook, with sections on different parts of Italy – perfect if you were traveling there and wanted some background info on what to see and do in each region. Unfortunately, the print was so tiny that I didn’t even skim through it. There being no Italy in my foreseeable future, I returned it to the library, where the librarian, who has been to Italy five times (pause while I recover from turning green with envy) devoured it and pronounced it very good.
I abandoned the Carl Bernstein book, which deals with his early years in the news industry in the 50’s and 60’s, after about fifty pages as I just didn’t find it interesting.
The Truth About Melody Jones – is early Lisa Jewell, 2009, and yes she wrote about dysfunctional families even then. A single mother has no memories of her life before age nine and seeks to uncover the truth behind her early life. This was a paperback with very tiny print, but I persisted as I didn’t have anything else to read at the time.
Bittersweet – How Sorrow and Longing Make Us Whole – Susan Cain is the same author who brought us the wonderful 2012 non-fiction book, Quiet – a gift for introverts everywhere. I was expecting an equally fascinating read. I can’t even describe what this book was about, as the concept was so vague and shifting, that the book left me baffled and disappointed. Not recommended – unless you want to wade through 300 pages looking for a few insights. Billed as a masterpiece on the power of a bittersweet outlook on life, I would pass….and pass the dark chocolate.
This Agatha Christie autobiography was easily my favorite biography of the year, even though it was written in the 1960’s and published in 1977, a few years after the authors death. I knew next to nothing about this elusive author, who led such a fascinating life. See blogs – Agatha Christie – An Autobiography and Some Thoughts on Writing.
When I was growing up short stories were to be found in every periodical, even fashion bibles like Seventeen, and women’s magazines like Redbook and Ladies Home Journal. (I used to devour my mother’s copies and not for the recipes.) I vaguely remember short story collections coming back in favor for a brief moment in the 1980’s, but other than a few authors like Alice Munroe (who may be Canadian but I have never understood the exultation of, ditto for Margaret Atwood), they seem to have become extinct in popular fiction. So I was surprised to see these two selections under New Releases. Maybe Tom Hanks started a trend? Unfortunately, I abandoned both after skimming a few of the stories as they just didn’t grab me, although I admit I didn’t give the Lily King one much of a chance. As for the Brooker Prize winner, Roddy Doyle, it was set in Dublin in the early days of the pandemic. The first story involved a middle aged man who is diagnosed with coronary heart disease – yes, the 60’s is the decade when things start to fall apart – and faces his own mortality. I don’t get why he is a Brooker prize winner – when his command of English includes so much unnecessary profanity.
Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s long neglected sister, Cassandra. Excellent – blogged about it – see link. A first novel from this promising author.
Classic Elin Hilderbrand beach read about the restoration of an old Nantucket Hotel. The usual flawed characters, with too much bed-hopping, alcohol and food, but I did like the bit about the ghost. She keeps saying she’s going to retire, but I don’t see any sign of it as she has a book of short stores coming out soon, Endless Summer.
Sparring Partners – a novella and two short stories, one of which is about a prisoner who receives a visitor in his final hours on death row. Sparring Partners is about two brothers who loathe each other and inherit their father’s once prosperous law firm. I devoured these, but then anything by John Grisham is immensely readable. His annual legal thriller, Biloxi Blues is due out soon. I recently read an older novel of his, The Broker, (in large print, which pleasantly passed the time while waiting seven hours in ER for a CAT scan – only in Canada, folks), which was about a DC white-collar criminal jailed over secret documents who is issued a last minute pardon during the waning days of a corrupt US presidency. (How prescient of him, given it was written in 2005) He is provided with a new identity by the CIA and set down in the middle of Italy where he must learn to blend in and learn the language with the help of a tutor. (Ah, the food, wine and scenery, such a hardship) The aim – to see which foreign government will pick him off – the Saudis, the Chinese, the Russians or the Israelis? A good read and satisfying ending. I think back then he took more care with his endings.
Speaking of endings, I’ll wrap this up. See you next week for Part Two.
PS. The squirrel above squirreling away books instead of nuts, reminds me that my 2018 blog, How To Make A Chestnut Wreath, is trending again. It’s my second most popular post.