LaRose

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Louise Erdrich is a gifted writer who brings life to stories, particularly stories about Native Americans. Her novel, The Round House, was one of the best recent novels I read, so I was excited when LaRose was available through my local library.

The writing was exceptional as always, but the story moved slowly for me. I have also been struggling to find time to read, so that was probably a factor as well.

LaRose is the youngest child of Landreaux and Emmaline Iron. After Landreaux accidentally kills a neighbor’s son LaRose becomes the who becomes the peace offering. Peter and Nola Ravich are devastated by the death of their son, Dusty, and out of desperation accept LaRose. LaRose then becomes the healer, which he has actually been destined to do as one of a long line of LaRoses endowed with power and spiritual qualities. LaRose becomes the protector of Nola who is suicidal after her son’s death, he becomes the bridge between his new “sister” Maggie and her parents and he remains the little brother in his own biological family, splitting time between the Iron and Ravich homes.

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There are many other characters who you learn about throughout the novel, but it is the generations of LaRoses that are the most interesting and compelling.

In some of the other reviews, it was noted that the novel is set in 1999. I didn’t really notice when it was set. I knew it was in “modern times,” but the story isn’t tied to a year or a time period.

If you like Louise Erdich, I think you will like LaRose, however if you are new to her, I would recommend Round House.

Note: I finished this book on March 20th. I was just a little slow in finishing and posting my review.

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2021: The Year of Mystery Novels

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As I was looking at the list of books I have read so far this year, I wasn’t surprised to see how many of them are mysteries. I tend to gravitate toward mysteries when life is busy and my mind needs something “easy” to absorb. And this year is another that has been very busy both personally and professionally.

Since I haven’t written too many blog posts this year, I thought it might be fun to combine and just give a quick run down of the mysteries I have been reading and a quick “review” of each.

Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano: A fun, entertaining story about divorced author Finlay Donovan whose struggles to pay her bills leads her to become an accidental contract killer – and not a very savvy one. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and am eagerly awaiting the next installment being published in February.

Such a Quiet Place by Megan Miranda: A cliquey, annoyingly suburban block is on edge when the suspected murderer of a neighborhood couple is released from jail and comes back to the neighborhood. Not Miranda’s finest, but readable.

Local Woman Missing by Mary Kubica: I got totally sucked in to this one. 11 years after mysteriously disappearing with her mother, Delilah returns home and the case of her mother’s death and another missing woman is once again brought into question.

Dream Girl by Laura Lippman: A pompous novelist suffers a freak accident leaving him bedridden and leading him to question the motives of those around him and eventually his own sanity. This one hit a little close to home as I read it while stuck on the couch with a fractured foot. And Tess Monaghan makes a guest appearance (one of my favorite characters).

The Mystery of Mrs. Christie by Marie Benedict: Before reading this, I was not aware of the true story of Agatha Christie’s mysterious absence for 11 days, but I enjoyed the fictional explanation for her disappearance.

One by One by Ruth Ware: Another excellent offering from Ruth Ware, this time set in the mountains of France. Employees of a successful startup gather for a “retreat,” but are instead met with chaos – interpersonal drama, harrowing skiing, deaths, and an avalanche which strands the party at their staffed ski chalet without electricity or water – and will leave most guessing until the end.

Before She Disappeared by Lisa Gardener: Frankie Elkin is a nomad who moves from place to place working unsolved missing persons cases. She arrives in a tough Boston neighborhood where she quickly ingratiates herself among a normally distrustful community to find a missing girl.

The Familiar Dark by Amy Engel: Set in the Ozarks, Eve Taggert is determined to learn what happened to her 12 year old daughter, June. She is forced to face the impact of her chaotic childhood with her drug-dealing mother and over-protective-turned-local-cop brother as she searches for answers. This one has more character development and some twists, but a quick (too quick?) resolution.

It doesn’t seem that the business of 2021 is letting up, so I expect to read more mysteries and hope to post another batch at the end of the year!

A Mind Spread Out on the Ground

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A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is a collection of essays from Alicia Elliott and like most collections, there were certain essays that I found absolutely compelling and others which were a little less interesting. Overall this is an amazing collection which shed light on a variety of topics including treatment of native people in the US and Canada, mental health, misogyny and the art of writing.

I was most drawn to Elliott’s essays about her personal experiences growing up and dealing with poverty, instability due to her mother’s mental health struggles and intergenerational trauma/love. I found myself folding back pages of beautifully written prose which is always an indication of how much I enjoyed a book.

In her essay The Same Space, she ends with this moving call to action:

“I’ll observe the neighborhood with the warm nostalgia and cool distance of a former lover: measuring the present against the past, frowning at disappointing changes, smiling at positive ones, ultimately hopeful. Perhaps one day this neighborhood, this city, this country will finally hear its neglected past whispering. Look at me plainly. Look at me. Look at your patterns. Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t hide who you were. Acknowledge it, then make something new, something beautiful, something that will make everyone proud.”

Everything Here is Beautiful

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From the first pages of Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee, I knew this would be a novel that I would want to recommend to people and it definitely lived up to that assessment.

The story follows two sisters, Miranda and Lucia, throughout their adulthood. There are flashbacks to their childhood as immigrants with the knowledge that their father “died in an accident” before Miranda and their pregnant mother left China. But as the story unfolds, you begin to wonder if there was something more going on with their father.

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The two sisters grow up close, with Miranda feeling protective and responsible for her younger sister. This need to care for her sister becomes complicated when Lucia begins to have mental health issues that require hospitalizations.

Their relationship further frays as the years wear on with Lucia feeling controlled and Miranda becoming worn down from the worry.

The novel shifts between narrators and points of view which I enjoy. However, when the first chapter told from Lucia’s point of view began I realized that I didn’t like her and was irritated by her behavior. By the end of those chapters, I was much more empathetic and by the end of the novel I was invested in Lucia’s struggles.

The author does an amazing job of exploring the impacts of mental health issues – on the person suffering and the people that love them.

This is a book that will stick with me for a long time.

The Vanishing Half

This year has been light on book reviews – not because I haven’t been reading, but rather because what I’ve been reading either wasn’t worth reviewing or I just didn’t have the time or energy to write much(who’s with me?). When I finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, I knew it warranted a review. I feel a little rusty from not writing as much, but hopefully this does it some justice.

The Vanishing Half is the story of identical twin sisters, Stella and Desiree Vignes, who leave their small town of Mallard to pursue lives in New Orleans. From there, the two sisters’ lives split — with one returning to Mallard with a child in tow and the other passing as white.

Ms. Bennett’s writing is exquisite as she takes you on a journey across both years and the country. We learn more about the reasons behind their actions and anticipate a reunion. We meet their daughters and their lovers. All with an the undercurrent of how family connections and secrets permeate their daily lives.

These words from the novel seem to summarize the story best: “she’d always felt like the older sister, even though she only was by a matter of minutes. But maybe in those seven minutes they’d first been apart, they’d each lived a lifetime, setting out on their separate paths. Each discovering who she might be.”

“You could drown in two inches of water. Maybe grief was the same.”

Invisible Girl

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If you have read any of my previous blog posts, you know that I have a soft spot for mysteries – especially British mysteries. I have also been a fan of Lisa Jewell’s for many years, so jumped at the chance to read an advanced copy of her latest book, Invisible Girl.

Invisible Girl has all the things that make for a good mystery, while also being well written and full of interesting characters. In her usual style, Jewell has several characters narrate alternating characters.

Saffyre Maddox is a teenager who has had a rough run in her young life – a history of loss and abuse and struggling to reveal the truth even to her therapist, Roan Four. When Roan decides to terminate her sessions, saying that she has made enough progress, she slowly begins to unravel and eventually ends up missing.

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As we alternate between narrators, we soon learn that Roan is not as wholesome and perfect as he tries to appear. His wife, Cate, suspects he had an affair, which he denies and his two teenage children seem to suffer from the typical self-absorption of privileged teens.

Across the street from the apartment the Fours family is temporarily renting, Owen Pick lives in his Aunt’s apartment in an unkempt building. Pick is an odd, socially, awkward loner who is accused of involvement in Saffyre’s disappearance.

The one thing about Jewell’s novels, is that things always end up working out in the end. Rarely is anyone mortally wounded and maybe that is part of what I enjoy about these books – that the characters are flawed humans, but are rarely evil.

Writers & Lovers

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When you realize an author whose work you love has just published a new book as your state and then country goes into a pandemic quarantine, you snag that book as quickly as you can and start it immediately.

Writers & Lovers by Lily King is about just that – writers and lovers, particularly a young writer, Casey, living in Boston in the late 1990s. By rule, I don’t read books about writers. I find them too clichéd and too much like being excluded from the cool kids in middle school. But given the aforementioned circumstances (beloved author and pandemic), I read this one anyway.

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The truth is that this is a story about way more than writers and lovers. It is about loving and losing and childhood hurts affecting adult relationships. King details Casey’s life in such a way that you feel as if you are working those shifts as a waitress at an upscale restaurant with her and riding home on her bike to a potting shed late at night with dreams and fear about publishing a novel filling her head. However, as much as King details those parts of Casey’s life, she uses a broad brush at other details that are seemingly more important – her mother’s death, her relationship that lead her to Spain – but from those broad strokes you get enough of an understanding of Casey and why those details are harder to face than the more banal day-to-day ones.

I looked back at my review of Euphoria as I started to write this review and interestingly, I had a similar feeling that the ending wrapped up a little too quickly. And like I did with that review, my immediate response is to give King the benefit of the doubt that it was intentional, which reaffirms my belief that she is a skilled writer and now I will eagerly await her next book.

The Dutch House

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Ann Patchett has been a favorite author ever since I read Bel Canto almost 20 years ago. Her books have always been enjoyable, but nothing ever felt as poignant as Bel Canto. However, with her latest offering, The Dutch House, she seems to have created another memorable novel.

The Dutch House is in fact about a house, one in Elkins Park, PA an area not far from where I live, but it is about so much more. It is about the relationships between people, both the external interactions as well as the internal responses and assumptions that are made between people.

The dutch house does not refer to the style of the home as you might assume, but rather the original owners, the VanHoebeeks, whose life size portraits adorned the living room of the ostentatious house.

The narrator is Danny Conroy, who lives in the dutch house, along with his older sister, Maeve, and their father, Cyril. Danny’s mother left years ago reportedly to travel to India and care for the poor, but it was also said that she hated living in the dutch house.

Patchett deftly moves between decades and we see Danny and Maeve grow up, become adults and eventually middle-aged. They do this in the shadow of the dutch house – originally a symbol of the financial success their father achieved, but eventually becoming an object of obsession when Danny and Maeve are kicked out by their stepmother after their father dies. Danny and Maeve imagine what might have been for years, which impairs their ability to move forward. Danny asks “do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was,” and the answer is no, because we are unreliable narrators of our own lives.

The novel felt easy to read, but at the same time kept my attention. It felt a bit like floating down a river, but with enough beauty and interest surrounding you that you never get bored. I was a bit disappointed in the ending as it was a little too “fairy-tale come true” for my tastes, but it doesn’t detract from the beautiful voyage The Dutch House takes you on.

Memoirs

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Over the past few months I have found myself reading a number of recent memoirs, so I am combining them in one post with a quick review of each.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. Gottlieb is a therapist and writes about some of her “clients” and her own journey in therapy. She gives some simple explanations of theories and approaches of therapy which I imagine being helpful for the average reader. I found her a little smug at times, but overall I enjoyed the book.

I started following Jennifer Pastiloff on social media a few years ago – I think after the election – and I am so glad I found her. She released a memoir, On Being Human, and it gives a glimpse into the retreats (which sound AMAZING) she leads around the world. She also shares the loss of her father, struggling with an eating disorder and decades of self-doubt. Pastiloff is truly unapologetically human in her writing. There were times that the writing felt clunky, but overall I enjoyed the book – mostly because I enjoy her.

How to Fall in Love with Anyone by Mandy Len Catron was my least favorite of all of the memoirs I read. The book is actually a series of essays written about relationships including her highly successful essay of the same title. The author tried to connect her personal stories with research about relationships. The personal stories weren’t terribly interesting and the research portions were too lengthy. There were some select essays which were interesting, but overall it felt the author was trying too hard to take what was one successful essay and make it something bigger.

The most recent memoir on my list is Educated by Tara Westover and it was by far my favorite. This book was so well-written that it was hard to put down. Westover grew up in Idaho one of seven children in a Mormon family. Her father was a survivalist and she grew up on a remote mountain, never attending school and having limited social interactions. There was neglect and abuse and at times it was harrowing to “watch” her face these obstacles, even knowing that she not only survives, but thrives.

Lady in the Lake

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I have been a fan of Laura Lippman’s mysteries for many years and have always enjoyed her style, characters and frequent setting of Baltimore.

When I saw her latest book come out, I thought it would be of similar caliber. But there was just something about Lady in the Lake that never clicked for me.

I would not consider it a mystery and the characters were pale comparisons to the Tess Monaghan character and countless others in the books that came before this one.

I had no feeling for the main character, Maddie Schwartz, other than mild annoyance, which lead to a disinterest in what she did and thought. And the book was basically a litany of the inane thoughts of this Jewish housewife turned divorcée and journalist.

Book coverI thought about not finishing the book, but I kept hoping that somehow the story would turn around and be more of what I expect when I read a book by Laura Lippman. But alas, like the Lady in the Lake (really a dead body in a fountain), there was nothing to revive this novel.

Next Year in Havana

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This work of historical fiction was a fun and interesting read. The author’s descriptions of Cuba’s scenic beauty are amazing and made me want to head there immediately.

The novel alternates between Elisa, a 19 year old in the late 1950s, and her granddaughter, Marisol, who returns to the island in 2017 at her grandmother’s request to spread her ashes.

Elisa is one of four daughter’s of an elite Cuban family whose connections have given them access to a lifestyle of luxury, which is challenged by the revolution going on in the country around them, but also finding its way into their home and hearts. We follow Elisa as she navigates the political unrest, carries on a secret love affair with a revolutionary and joins her family in their eventual exodus to Florida.

When Marisol arrives in Cuba she is greeted by the country she grew up hearing so much about, but which she has never known. She is searching for the perfect place to spread her grandmother’s ashes and in the process uncovers both her grandmother’s love story and one of her own.

Cleeton did an excellent job of explaining the political climate in Cuba in both the 1950s and present day while keeping the story moving, which I imagine wasn’t a small feat. She gives voice to the challenges of being Cuban, of those who left (and their children and grandchildren) and felt cut off from a part of who they were and those who stayed and felt beaten down and betrayed by the country they love.

Before you start this novel though, be prepared that part way through the novel, you will be googling flights to Havana and checking on the current travel restrictions.