Book review blog
I have often thought that if over-reading were ever identified as a pathology, I would have to class myself among the most afflicted. I'm reading all the time - newspapers, ebooks on my Kindle or iPhone, audiobooks while driving, hiking, cleaning, cooking or knitting, and, still, print books which remain my favorite. I have recently discovered the world of podcasts and look forward to exploring that medium.
Writing reviews of what I read or listen to helps me sort out my thoughts and absorb what each work has to teach me, as a writer and as a human being. I'm with Pliny the Younger, who said, “No book is so bad that something good cannot be got out of it."
I hope you'll enjoy my reflections on current and classic books. If you want to let me know your own thoughts, please use the "Contact" tab to send me a message.
|Posted by mhedwig on September 8, 2019 at 5:20 PM|
A Better Man sadly continues, in my humble opinion, the decline in quality of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache/Three Pines series. I listened to the first eleven or so; maybe the problem with sentence fragments that bugged me so much in this book existed in the earlier books but it didn’t come across in the Audible narration: “He saw her face as she fell, backward. Off the bridge. Arms pinwheeling. And then the splash.”
"And in each tightly.Controlled.Word.”
Also I was driven mad by the strange and unnecessary tic: “This’s” for “this is.” I mean, what’s the difference in sound? Why invent this silly new contraction? “This’s Monsieur Godin’s bank account,” “This’s just complicating things,” “This’s new, and admissible.” “Can you tell me what this’s about?”
The story begins with a threat of a hundred-year springtime flood that threatens the village of Three Pines and Montreal, but that threat dissipates midway through the book. The three detectives -- Jean-Guy Beauvoir in charge for this one last case before he leaves the force to take an executive job in Paris; Armand Gamache acting as his second-in-command; Isabelle Lacoste, back, nearly recovered from her shooting injury, as head of homicide -- are investigating the murder of a young pregnant woman who was pushed off a bridge into the icy floodwaters of the Riviere Bella Bella. The policemen are unanimous in their belief that her abusive, drunken husband killed her, but have a lot of trouble amassing admissible evidence.
I found the police procedural parts tediously detailed and frustratingly circular.The action in the climactic scene is clumsy and confusing. A not-very-well-integrated subplot is a smear campaign on social media against Clara Morrow's artwork that has dire consequences for her commercial and critical well-being. Social media also continues to attack Gamache (#gamachesux). I couldn’t help but wonder if Louise Penny has experienced social media deprecation of her recent work (if so, unfortunately, I can understand why).
The Three Pines villagers appear in this story as caricatures: Ruth and her by-now-tiresome profanity-spouting duck; the gay B&B owners, slovenly Clara, ample Myrna. The village itself has taken on the quality of a snow globe, hermetic, frozen in time, predictable (except for an unbelievably high number of murders).
I am sorry to feel this way. Ms. Penny has written some fine, moving books. And her personal notes and interviews convey that she has suffered a lot lately with the dementia and death of her husband followed by the loss of a beloved dog, and finds great consolation among her familiar and, to her, much beloved characters and setting. But her latest efforts are not working for me as a reader.
For a middle-aged foreign detective with a much-loved wife and family, in a beautiful exotic setting, I have defected to Commissario Guido Brunetti and Venice in Donna Leon’s series. That series retains its vitality and variety – though any long-running series risks sliding into a rut, which Louise Penny herself says in her introduction to this book she knew to be a danger and tried to avoid. Regrettably, I don’t feel she succeeded.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:35 PM|
A science story as accessible, fascinating and important as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was a pediatrician and head of the residency program at Hurley hospital, a public hospital in Flint, MI, in 2015, when rumors and complaints of problems with the city’s water supply began to surface. She reassured her young patients’ parents that the local health officials had told her the Flint water was perfectly safe.
But then she did more digging, and began to suspect the awful truth: when Flint made the cost-cutting decision to switch from the Lake Huron water that served Detroit to water from the polluted Flint River, the extremely corrosive nature of that water began to release lead from the ancient pipes that supplied the city. Probing the data, she verified that her patients’ blood lead levels had spiked after the water switch—and there is no safe level of lead exposure; it’s a potent and irreversible neurotoxin. Dr. Mona (as she is called) feared that thousands of her Flint babies and young children, already bearing the burdens of poverty and racism, were doomed to suffer the catastrophic longterm effects of lead poisoning.
At great cost to her health and family life she mounted a full scale battle to get a state of emergency declared, to supply bottled water and pre-mixed baby formula to Flint residents, to fight the stonewalling of bureaucrats, and get the Flint water supply switched back to Lake Huron. Ultimately she succeeded against enormous opposition.
Not only is this a stirring story of personal courage and the triumph of good science over lies and obfuscation, it is also a testimonial to the strength that immigrants bring to America—at a time when immigrants are being vilified and suspected. Hanna-Attisha’s family, and her husband’s, are Iraqi immigrants who seized the American dream in their grateful hands, became successful, and were determined to give back. Having survived the terror of Saddam‘s regime, Mona’s parents taught her to stand up against corrupt authority and to oppose injustice. Her passion for the struggling families and children of Flint, her outrage at the official unconcern for their welfare, radiates from every page. She is a true heroine, and her story is inspiring and moving.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:30 PM|
Thirty year old Eleanor Oliphant, living alone and working as a finance clerk in Glasgow, is at first an infuriating prig, judgmental, superior, utterly oblivious to her off-putting effect on other people. A good-hearted IT guy from her office persists in trying to draw her out, and because of his efforts she begins to develop interpersonal relationships for the first time in her life. But she remains lonely and deeply hopeless. Weekly phone calls from her emotionally abusive mother continually erode her confidence and gradually reveal to the reader the horrors that this young woman has suffered in her childhood.
A crisis comes, after which Eleanor embarks on a course of therapy that gradually enables her to face the truth about her past and to absolve herself of blame. There's a shocking twist at the end. Ultimately we leave Eleanor confident that-- to paraphrase -- the little part of her scarred heart that's capable of love has stirred to life and will grow.
For all the devastating sadness in this book, there's a lot of humor, too. Truly the kind of book that makes you laugh, cry, and hope the writer delivers another novel very soon.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:10 PM|
A diverting entry in the "Women in Peril" category that is my main literary indulgence and weakness.
Kept me listening ( Audible version), but the opportunistic, morally compassless Jess and the monstrously manipulative Dr Shields were two characters who deserved each other. The plot is as twisty as a mountain road with some unbelievable coincidences (the good Samaritan guy outside the Met) and some needless kinks ( the woman boutique owner), but I hung on for the ride, though my credulity got jolted overboard partway through. The male characters are mere cardboard cutouts.
Flaws notwithstanding, this team of writers has a winning touch for grabby commercial women’s fiction. I was struck by their choice to make Dr Shields speak of herself and her actions entirely in the passive voice in the parts of the novel told from her point of view, in which she addresses Jess as “you”: i.e. “a hand is placed on your arm,” “ a glass of wine is poured,” “ a silk nightgown and robe are chosen.” An interesting device to show a character unwilling or psychologically unable to claim any agency in her life because it would force her to admit her crimes.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 12, 2019 at 2:05 PM|
This review is reprinted from my animal advocacy blog, aheartforshelterdogs.com
Sigrid Nunez’s novel The Friend won the National Book Award for fiction in 2018, despite breaking nearly every rule that fiction writers today are advised to hew to: It’s sometimes rambling, it has no linear plot, it’s about the rarefied world of Writers, it’s New York-centric, it reads more like a journal or a memoir than a novel, not much is shown and much is told.
But, it’s brilliant and moving. And oh, that dog!
The narrator is a middle-aged woman, a college writing professor and writer, living in New York City. Her best friend has died, a suicide. Most of the book reads like a letter from Narrator to “You,” her deceased friend. It quickly becomes clear to the reader, even if the narrator dances around fully acknowledging it, that he was more than a friend; he was her teacher and mentor and her lifelong love. They only made love once, in their youth, when he proposed it as a sort of experiment and then never cared to repeat it. How that must have hurt her as he turned his amorous attention to numerous affairs with students and so many girlfriends (plus three wives) that someone joked at his funeral that the large room would not have held them all.
Wife Number Three (no human being, other than famous literary figures, has a name in this book) invites Narrator out for lunch one day and quickly gets to the point: her late husband wanted Narrator to take his dog. The dog is an enormous Great Dane and he does have a name: Apollo.
Narrator balks at first: her apartment is only 500 square feet, and, furthermore, her building doesn’t allow dogs. But in the end she acquiesces, telling herself – and the disapproving building superintendent – that it’s only temporary.
Apollo sees her through her grief and loneliness, and she sees him through his equally powerful, though mysterious, bereavement: “[Animals] don’t commit suicide. They don’t weep. But they can and do fall to pieces. They can and do have their hearts broken. They can and do lose their minds.” She is determined that she and Apollo will stay together, even if they have to find a new place to live. (As it turns out, her therapist helps her get Apollo certified as an emotional support dog and so he can stay.)
Apollo becomes the love of her life. I don’t want to create the misleading impression that this is solely, or even primarily, a dog book — it’s equally about the process of grieving; the dire state of literature (“The rise of self-publishing was a catastrophe, you said. It was the death of literature”; the maddening self-absorption of today’s students (“Student A is frustrated that the program requires so many reading courses: I don’t want to read what other people write. I want people to read what I write”; the ever-more-unrewarding ordeal of being a writer today.
But, though they occupy only maybe a quarter of the book, the passages about Apollo are wonderful. Unforgettable:
“Poke. Woof. I turn my head. Apollo’s gaze is deep, his mismatched ears look sharp as razors. He licks my face and does the cha-cha thing again. He wags his tail, and for the thousandth time I think how frustrating it must be for a dog: the endless trouble of making yourself understood to a human.”
And, “Mostly I seem to ask questions. What’s up, pup? Did you have a nice nap? Were you chasing something in your sleep? Do you want to go out? Are you hungry? Are you happy? Does your arthritis hurt? Why won’t you play with other dogs? Are you an angel? Do you want me to read to you? Do you want me to sing? Who loves you? Do you love me? Will you love me forever? Do you wanna dance? Am I the best person you’ve ever had? Can you tell I’ve been drinking? Do these jeans make me look fat?”
And what dog lover hasn’t felt this way?: “I too have found myself so eager to get home to him that I have jumped in a cab rather than take the train. I too sing with joy at the thought of seeing him, and for sure, this love is not like any love I’ve ever felt before.”
If you consult the website doesthedogdie.com, you will know what you’re in for, which, in truth, we already knew when Nunez told us that Great Danes are short-lived and that Apollo is already well on in years. This is not a feel-good book with a happy ending.
But it is stunning in its portrayal of the hard-won triumph of love over loss. All of us face that challenge at some point; we dog lovers may go through it multiple times. What makes it worth it is, as Nunez writes, “Animals are not expelled with us from Paradise. There they remain, untroubled by such complications as the separation of body and soul, and it’s through our love and friendship with them that we are able to reconnect to Paradise, albeit by just a thread.”
|Posted by mhedwig on July 21, 2018 at 10:50 AM|
A stunning memoir of a young girl growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in rural Idaho. Tara Westover's father at first makes his living by running a junkyard, using his children as laborers in the dangerous business of processing scrap. There are frequent terrible injuries. Mother is a midwife and amateur herbalist, concocting salves and essential oils in her kitchen, making the house always smell like rotting fruits and vegetables. Whenever one of her children, or her husband, is brought home with a smashed head, broken limb or burned body, she treats them with her homebrewed remedies. Doctors and hospitals are believed to be agents of the evil government, so not even when her husband is nearly killed in an explosion do they seek medical treatment. Miraculously he survives, but is too damaged to resume his junkyard work. He joins his wife in building the essential oil business, which becomes very successful.
The six children are supposedly homeschooled, but there is no formal instruction in any conventional discipline. They learn instead their father’s crackpot theories about the “illuminati” controlling the government and the corrupt practices of the "gentiles" (anyone not adhering to his strict view of Mormonism). Their mother instructs them in her airy philosophies of chakras, herbal healing, and something she calls “muscle testing,” which involves receiving messages from the Lord via her nervous system and musculature.
Tara is physically abused by her violent older brother, Shawn (the only member of her family whom she identifies with a pseudonym, suggesting that her tell-all has had legal repercussions). Whether this molestation ever tips over into the sexual she never discloses, but his brutal physical assaults – breaking her wrist, forcing her head into the toilet to the point of near drowning -- and verbal threats to kill her are shocking enough. She tries to get her parents to accept her account of his abuse and to intervene, but they wall themselves off from the truth. Her father's explanation is always that she must have done something to provoke him, some "whorish" behavior. (His definition of whorish extends even to her rolling up the sleeves of her t-shirt as she labors in the junkyard in scorching heat.)
As she matures, she begins questioning her family’s beliefs and practices, and develops an ambition to go to college, something only one of her siblings —her older brother, Tyler—has managed to do. The obstacles are enormous; she has no knowledge of any academic subject, nor any of the necessary documents such as a birth certificate, as all the Westover children were born at home and their births kept secret from the “illuminati.“ Nevertheless, she passes the entrance exam and is admitted to Brigham Young University in Utah at age 17.
Thus begins an academic career that sets her increasingly at odds with her family, as she learns how deep her ignorance is of such events as the Holocaust, the civil rights movement, U.S. and world history and begins to diligently expand her mind. She also discovers that her father’s behavior strongly suggests bipolar disorder.
As her schooling continues, the breach with her parents widens. When she is at Harvard on a fellowship, back from England where she has studied at Cambridge University, her mother and father come from Idaho to try to reclaim her into the “true faith” of Mormonism and the family’s belief system. The conflict between her love for them and her inability to accept their world view and lifestyle causes her to have a breakdown. She is also tormented by a sense of betrayal when her mother does nothing to protect her from her brother, whose abuse escalates every time Tara visits home. Her mother's stance is that her absolute duty as a wife is to stand by her husband, and he refuses to hear anything against his son.
How Tara escapes the insanity of her past and creates a life for herself makes for riveting reading. I did have one major reservation: She alludes from time to time to a relationship with a man named Drew; at one point they are even living together. How she got from a sense of shame and fear so deep that, when her first boyfriend at age 16 tried to hold her hand she snatched it away, to cohabiting with a man outside of marriage is never explained and leaves one huge aspect of her emancipation unaddressed. I would love to read a sequel, in which she describes redefining herself as a woman and a sexual being, in contravention of the extremely prudish, retrograde and misogynistic teachings of her upbringing. I would also love the sequel to explore in depth the long term effects of her shunning by most of the people – many of them loved – in her family and hometown. Last, I would like to know what Tara Westover is doing with her hard-won education, and whether – as I hope – she is fulfilled by it.
A courageous memoir that clearly cost its author a great deal to write and publish.
|Posted by mhedwig on November 15, 2017 at 2:30 PM|
3 stars for apparent depth of research and vivid writing, but I bailed on this soon after beginning Part II. The brutality, the lack of heart sickened me, especially in the light of recent evidence that this culture wants to blow ours off the face of the earth.
|Posted by mhedwig on November 15, 2017 at 2:25 PM|
I came away from Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach respecting the author's diligent research into women divers during WW II and what it's like to survive at sea after a shipwreck, and I always find much to admire in Egan's writing. But the book's plot lines--the stories of the 3 major characters and how they intertwine over decades --did not cohere for me into a satisfying whole.
None of the characters came fully to life. They all seemed like vehicles to show the various aspects of the world of NYC in the 40s: organized crime, the controlling secret elite of the bankers, the Irish immigrant experience, the opportunities for women to take on men's work in the absence of men at war but the harsh limitations placed on women's ambitions and advancement. The relationships among the 3 principals --especially between Anna and her gangster-lover Styles--were not compelling or entirely credible.
I found the novel something of a research dump. And was consistently annoyed by author's attempt to render the speech of the time by stilted use of the verb "to have": Highlighted in my Kindle are examples on nearly every page: "Had he children?" "We haven't a telephone." "Why has he a diving suit on?" "You went ashore whenever you'd the chance?" "You've people who can do just about anything, haven't you?" "He'd a quick, knifelike walk..." "We've girls galore around here." Etc etc. Truly, did Americans ever talk like that?
Overall, for me this book seemed like a a slow and clumsy vessel that labors under its own weight.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 10, 2017 at 9:25 AM|
From Wikipedia: "Used loosely, 'bardo' is the state of existence intermediate between two lives on earth. According to Tibetan tradition, after death and before one's next birth, when one's consciousness is not connected with a physical body, one experiences a variety of phenomena. These usually follow a particular sequence of degeneration from, just after death, the clearest experiences of reality of which one is spiritually capable, and then proceeding to terrifying hallucinations that arise from the impulses of one's previous unskillful actions. For the prepared and appropriately trained individuals the bardo offers a state of great opportunity for liberation, since transcendental insight may arise with the direct experience of reality, while for others it can become a place of danger as the karmically created hallucinations can impel one into a less than desirable rebirth."
Formally inventive, the narrative is pieced together from short sentences or paragraphs written or uttered by different people. The factual account of the fatal illness and death of young Willie Lincoln and his parents' grief is composed of snippets from news sources and diaries of the day. The description of Lincoln's visit to his dead son in the graveyard on the night after the boy's interment, as well as the observations of the chorus of ghosts who witness this visit and also speak of their own experiences, are of course highly imaginative.
I read this with great interest, because I am also writing a book set in Civil War times, about a young soldier killed in battle who is unable to go to his rest because he feels compelled to fulfill a mission left incomplete at his death. Saunders' metaphysics of death is complicated and I struggled to understand it. Here is what I came up with:
The souls of the dead linger restlessly around their bodies. By day they repose in their (progressively decaying) bodies; by night they can travel around and even enter the living, largely undetected though they can exert an influence on the thoughts of the living. (This is key to undersranding the ending.)
These dead souls have not accepted the fact of their demise. Instead they cling to the illusion that they are just ill; they refer to their bodies as their sick-forms, their graves as their sick-holes and sick-mounds, and their coffins as their sick -boxes. The danger of remaining in this state of denial for too long is that they become corrupted; putrid swarms of miniaturized long-dead souls (yes, it does get a bit thick) engulf and immobilize them, subjecting them to live out horrific hallucinations. This process is especially rapid when the dead person is young, like Willie Lincoln.
To avoid this fate, the dead person needs to accept the reality of his condition--and, when approached by one of the swarm of angels who regularly visit the graveyard, assent to moving to the next phase of their soul's existence. This transition occurs as a sort of explosion: a "matterlightblooming phenomenon" that vaporizes the person's body and removes his spirit from the world. Where it goes, Saunders does not specify. But he presents it as a necessary and desirable progression.
The confusion for me came from the fact that these angels do not seem to be benevolent; they appear to each person in the most irresistible guise imaginable, sometimes as wanton sexual tempters, to seduce the dead person into coming with them.
Will young Willie Lincoln's spirit escape the fate of quick corruption? Can his father ever recover from his grief, to meet the heavy responsibilities of saving the Union? What about the other spirits whom we come to know --3 in particular depth --in the course of this agitated night? Will they be saved?
I admired the book's audacity but didn't feel it entirely worked. Sometimes the choppy banter of the spirit characters became tedious, and seemed trivial. Many of them are sex-obsessed to a degree that was wearisome to me.
The parts that focused on Lincoln, however, were touching and credible. His liberation at the end comes from a surprising source that is highly satisfying.
|Posted by mhedwig on August 7, 2017 at 2:15 PM|
My late mother’s reading tastes were very specific: “I like any book with a picture on the cover of a woman running away from a castle.”
I inherited this predilection for spooky, Gothic, or suspenseful stories about heroines in danger. My favorite of all time is Dracula, with its innocent paragon of virtuous womanhood, Mina Harker, about to complete her awful transformation into a vampire after being bitten by Count Dracula. The men who love her must pursue the evil Count from England across the continent to his castle in Transylvania and neutralize him with a stake through his heart in his coffin before the next sunrise, when he will regain his supernatural powers and Mina’s eternally undead fate will be sealed. The Christian symbolism in the story added an extra dimension to the supernatural thrills.
Along with my more literary choices in all genres, I usually have a book in the Women-in-Peril (WIP) category going – most often on audio. I have gone through so many in the past year or so that I thought I would write a roundup of brief reviews in the hope that it will aid anyone looking for a page-turning beach read or a pulse-pounding accompaniment to liven up exercise or chores.
Here are my recommendations – and warnings. Ratings are similar to those on Goodreads – 1-5, with 5 being “It was totally awesome” and 1 being “Skip it. Wish I had.”
Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Rating: 4. Grace, a buyer for Harrods in London, has a dilemma: her Downs syndrome sister, Millie, is turning 18 and will soon age out of her group home. There are no family members to take Millie in; Grace’s parents washed their hands of their daughters years ago and decamped to New Zealand, so it’s on Grace to accommodate her sister. And she loves Millie, but her job requires a lot of travel.
Then the two sisters meet Jack at a band concert in a London park. He is handsome, gracious, apparently smitten with Grace and accepting of Millie. After a short courtship Grace and Jack are married and the future seems set. At Jack’s insistence she quits her job – with regret, but making a beautiful home for Jack in the house he has built for her, maybe having children, and, in time, having Millie come to live with them, seems like a sure bet for happiness. Reality, however, turns out to be terrifyingly different.
I listened to the Audible version, excellently narrated by Georgia McGuire. I found it suspenseful, and, though audaciously plotted, believable. Overall, superior to other women- in-peril psychological thrillers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (and I was grateful to be spared the demeaning "Girl" in the title). This book kept me on the edge of my seat, eager to listen to it at every opportunity. The "perfect" newlyweds Jack and Grace illustrate that we can never know what goes on behind the closed doors of other people's intimate relationships. (Spoiler alert: Especially when one of those doors does not open from the inside, and leads into a room painted all red and decorated with images of fear and pain....)
I balked only at a scene of unbearable animal cruelty, but cheered when Grace’s pluck – and the insight and persistence of a woman whose friendship Grace has been unable to reciprocate throughout the book – bring about ultimate justice.
The Breakdown by B.A. Paris (Rating: 2). I eagerly awaited this next outing by Paris, but was disappointed. (As with most books in this genre, I listened to the Audible version, again competently read by Georgia McGuire.) The problem with this one is that the narrator, Cass, is such a ditz. At key points in the plot, if she had taken her husband, whom she supposedly loves and trusts, into her confidence it might have brought things to a head much sooner. Instead, she keeps a burdensome secret – that she defied her husband’s instructions to avoid a certain shortcut through woods on a stormy night. On that deserted route, in lashing rain, she saw a woman in a car who appeared to be stranded; she stopped in front of the woman’s car but did not get out in the rain, figuring that the other driver would flash her lights if she wanted help. When this didn’t happen, Cass drove on, but is horrified to learn the next day that the woman was murdered, probably soon after Cass saw her. She further realizes that she knew the woman; they had met at a party and had lunch together, which had seemed to be the beginning of a friendship. Cass bears a crushing guilt, and also fears that the killer might have taken her license number and tracked her down in her isolated country home; ominous silent phone calls that have come every morning since the night of the murder stoke her terror. She also dreads the possibility that, like her mother, she is gradually succumbing to early-onset dementia – and indeed recent proofs of her forgetfulness and odd behavior confront her constantly. The mystery has a twisty ending, but I found the setup unconvincing and the narrator’s passivity maddening.
The Girl Before (#1), by Rena Olsen. Rating: 4. From childhood, Clara was raised as one of “Mama” and “Papa”’s adopted daughters on their isolated Western ranch. She was told that her real parents had abandoned her. As Clara grows into womanhood, she falls in love with their son, Glen, and raises a new brood of foster daughters, loving them as her own and grooming them for their brilliant futures as the companions of wealthy or influential “clients.” Gradually, though, certain realities intrude upon her love for her husband and her trust in her “parents.” She sees that girls who don’t adhere to the rules of the “family” organization are banished to a house at the edge of the compound where, it is clear, they have to service random men sexually. There is a murder, after which Glen is arrested and Clara is taken into custody. Gradually she comes to accept the grim truth about her husband and the nature of the family business – and about her own past. I found it a gripping psychological study and a penetrating look into the underworld of sex trafficking.
The Girl Before (#2), by JP Delaney. Rating: 2. Jane, recovering from the grief of a stillbirth, is drawn to the austere beauty and stark simplicity of the house for rent – improbably cheaply -- at One Folgate Street in London. However, to become approved as a tenant she has to answer a long checklist of eccentric and intrusive questions posed by the landlord, Edward Monkford of the celebrated Monkford architectural firm. She passes, meets Monkford, and moves into the house, and soon afterward is drawn into an affair with him. He is incredibly controlling, but she expected that from the detailed checklist about her personal habits and possessions that she had to complete in her rental application, as well as the many rules that she has to follow to maintain her tenancy. She begins to worry, however, as she gradually learns that the previous tenant, Emma, looked just like her...was also Monkford's lover... and died in a mysterious fall from the un-banistered open staircase. The narrative cuts back and forth between her experiences and those of Emma. The resolution of the mystery is clumsy; an editor could have easily saved the author from a serious plot gaffe. Still, I persevered to the end, curious to see how it all played out. An undistinguished “Girl.”
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Rating: 1. A drunken unemployed loser of a heroine, fixated on her ex-husband, takes the commuter train to London just so she can spy on a young couple, who seem to symbolize the marital happiness she has lost, happily canoodling every morning (every morning?!) on the balcony of their tidy suburban home within view of the train line. Then one day she sees the woman kissing another man on her balcony. A short time later the woman is reported murdered – and, on the night that the crime was supposed to have happened, Rachel, our heroine, comes to her senses after an alcoholic blackout to find herself inexplicably dirty and injured….Unlikable protagonist, implausible plot.
Hawkins’ most recent book, Into the Water (Rating: 3), is an improvement. It takes us into a small English village in which a succession of women since the 18th century have been murdered by being drowned in the local river. Many were suspected of being witches; one in more contemporary times plunged – or was pushed – off the cliff above the drowning pool before the shocked eyes of her young son. Now that son is a constable in the town, investigating two more drownings that have occurred: a 15-year-old girl who, as it turns out, was having an affair with her handsome schoolteacher; and a single mother, Nel Abbott, a native of the village who went abroad for years but returned with her rebellious teenage daughter to write a book about the history of the drowning pool. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and a great many toxic secrets – but I thought Hawkins did a good job with the small-town intrigue and wrapped the story up with a twist I didn’t see coming.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. Rating: 3. Lo Blacklock, a London journalist traumatized by a break-in to her apartment, gets the opportunity to escape her troubles with a plum assignment aboard a luxury yacht. One night in her stateroom on the North Sea she hears sounds from the adjoining cabin that convince her a body has been thrown overboard. She sneaks a peek onto the balcony next to hers and sees streaks of blood. However, all passengers the next day are accounted for, the stains are cleared away, and when she confides her suspicions to the ship’s security chief, he treats her as though she is insane. Just as she is beginning to wonder if she is delusional, the plot takes a menacing turn. Not entirely convincing, but kind of fun.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. Rating: 5. Loved listening to this, with the narrator’s winsome Australian accent. I preferred the book to the HBO series; the Australian setting and characters interested me much more than cliche upscale California and its hyper-privileged denizens, and certain character alterations and plot embellishments made for TV seemed gratuitous -- the wry and urbane character of Ed, particularly, was lost in translation from book to screen. And Madeline was diminished too.
Nevertheless, in book and on screen Moriarty has rendered one of the most truthful portrayals I’ve encountered of the way motherhood brings out the savage beast, red in tooth and claw, in otherwise reasonable women. The story centers on the parents of first graders at a privileged coastal Australian elementary school. It opens with a murder on school Trivia Night – a fundraiser to which parents have to come dressed either as Elvis or Audrey (Hepburn). We don’t find out until the end who the victim was, and who the murderer, but there are plenty of conflicts throughout – and one perilously endangered woman who conceals her bruises and distress behind a façade of beauty, privilege and domestic accord. It’s witty, funny, a sharply pointed social satire with a serious message about the violence that can breed undetected behind closed doors and closed lips.