IT’S MONDAY! WHAT ARE YOU READING?

Good morning and welcome to this wonderful meme hosted by Sheila, of Book Journey.

I’m very excited about this past week, as well as the upcoming one.

In the blogging world, I posted an interview on Wednesday with a fascinating paranormal author, Denise Verrico.

Then, today I’ve reviewed a wonderful mystery and posted an interview with the author, Lauren Carr.

Books Read This Week (Click Title for Review):

1)  Beachcombers, by Nancy Thayer

2)  It’s Murder, My Son, by Lauren Carr

3)  Guest House, by Barbara K. Richardson (Review will be up later today)

Books On the List for This Week:

1)  The Position, by Meg Wolitzer

Here’s a titillating tidbit from Amazon:

Wolitzer’s novel of sexual politics and family farce continues in the dark comic vein that she mined in “The Wife.” In the nineteenseventies, at the height of the sexual revolution, a married couple, aptly named Mellow, publish a liberated sex manual that features pictures of themselves and includes a sexual position—”Electric Forgiveness”—that they claim to have invented. The manual becomes an epochal best-seller. The publication, decades later, of a new edition of the notorious classic is a catalyst for a plot that examines the effects of this legacy on the adult children of the Mellows, who are now divorced. These effects are variously hilarious, disabling, painful, embarrassing, and, ultimately, empowering. Wolitzer’s comic timing never wavers, and she has an astute grasp of the way one generation’s liberation inspires the next generation’s pity.

2)  Give Me Your Heart, by Joyce Carol Oates (Short Story Collection)

A blurb from Amazon:

The need for love—obsessive, self-destructive, unpredictable—takes us to forbidden places, as in the chilling world of Give Me Your Heart, a new collection of stories by the inimitable Joyce Carol Oates.

3)  Fly Away Home, by Jennifer Weiner

A snippet:

“Unflappably fun… Hilarious… In Jennifer Weiner’s luscious new novel, Fly Away Home, a political wife’s predicament is the catalyst for a highly entertaining story… The message is choosing to live an authentic life. As always, Weiner gives us a woman who stands taller, curvier, and happier when she does just that.” —USA Today

“This is summer reading at its best: entertaining and full of insight into relationships and how they change” — People (3.5 out of 4 stars)

“Fresh, nuanced… Weiner wryly and sensitively shows the trade-offs we all make to maintain our relationships.” —Parade

I’m very excited about the upcoming week, with these delightful books awaiting me.  And I’ve really enjoyed this past week, too.

Hope you’ll stop by and share your own plans for the week.

WHEN PAST AND PRESENT COLLIDE

When two distinguished guests are invited to a special ceremony, they will be meeting for the first time in three decades. In fact, neither of the two knows for sure that the other will be there.

In the beginning moments of the book, we meet one of them who is at a different event, presenting an award-winning book. We see that she is used to the spotlight—she is even boldly dressed and seems confident in her place at the podium. This woman is Ailsa Kelman and she seems created for public life.

Then we focus on the other one—Humphrey Clark—who is traveling toward the event on a train. He seems plagued by all kinds of physical manifestations of his anxiety about the event, although he seems convinced that he is coming down with a cold. But then he realizes that nostalgia may be at play.

Over the next few chapters, we then see these characters as they reflect on the past, on the childhood summers in England’s North Sea area, in the town where the special event will be held. Ailsa and Humphrey actually only spent one summer together in that town, along with Ailsa’s brother and another child, Sandy Clegg; as each character reminisces, we see quite divergent experiences from each person’s perspective.

Later in the book, we realize that their paths actually crossed again a few years later, when they were in their twenties. Something surprising happens between them, an event that few people know about.

We travel with these characters through their memories and also follow their moments toward the final ceremony, where much is revealed. Surprising secrets are unveiled.

Throughout the book, I enjoyed some of the stories and nostalgic moments. But sometimes these reflections went on so long that I was bored with the tedium of the past. I enjoyed most of Ailsa’s reflections, but Humphrey’s memories seemed laced with boring descriptions of scientific experiments. Perhaps these experiences were a mirror of his persona, which might explain the tedium. I did not like this character, and only minimally enjoyed Ailsa.

In fact, The Sea Lady felt like a long journey I had to get through, perhaps like the journey the characters were taking toward their ceremonial destination.

I probably would have abandoned the book at some point, except that I was curious. So, while I didn’t really enjoy most of it, I kept plugging along. For this reason, I will give the book a 3.5 starred review.

HAUNTINGLY COMPLEX & DISCONCERTING

This compelling new novel from Jennifer Egan paints visual images for the reader, scanning the lives of musicians and assistants, from the past to the present; she also gives us glimpses of the future as we follow along in the moments.

Bennie Salazar and Sasha are the centerpiece characters in this tale.  Their lives in the music business carry them from San Francisco, to Naples, and to New York; the time period shifts from the 1970s to the present day or possibly some time in the future.  At the conclusion, the actual time period seems unclear.

We see how the lives of these artists can spin out of control, as exemplified by one Scotty, who is talented and gifted and, in the end, has almost completely slipped off the grid.  He is totally a member of the “goon squad.”

Throughout A Visit from the Goon Squad, I felt a kind of disorientation…the constant shifting of perspectives was disconcerting at times.  First person narrative, third person point of view; it took constant alertness and readjusting of my own perspective to stay attuned to what was happening.

Sometimes I would think…now who is this person?  And then it would slowly become clear.   Like the character Alex, in a moment when he is remembering bits and pieces of past events, expressed in this way:

“Alex looked up at the building, sooty against the lavender sky, and experienced a hot-cold flash of recognition, a shiver of déjà vu, as if he were returning to a place that no longer existed….”

This book made me think of real-life connections, and how our lives intersect with many people in this journey; sometimes, just when we’ve forgotten them, something will recall them for us.

It was sometimes difficult to read this book, which was compelling and haunting and a bit disturbing.  There was one section in the book that was filled with word diagrams instead of regular prose…several pages of them.  I found this style to be disruptive, and because of this aspect of the book, I am deducting one star.

Nevertheless, a four star read is a book that I recommend, especially for fans of Egan.

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

A mysterious and elusive woman, Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), is the subject of this portrait by Charles J. Shields.

A former English teacher, Shields set for himself the task of writing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, this compelling biography based on hundreds of interviews, piecing together a picture of this Southern woman who began life in Monroeville, Alabama, the child of an attorney, whose mother suffered from a condition most likened to a bipolar disorder. Growing up, she was known to family and friends as “Nelle.” Lee enjoyed a tomboyish existence in the neighborhood, where she first met and became friends with Truman Capote. Their relationship lasted many years, although in later years, a strain hovered over this friendship—perhaps due to her success and his envy.

In her early years in NY, while she attempted to write her book and live the writer’s life, she became a part of a small community of like-minded friends that included her agent, Maurice Crain, and others of similar interests. Throughout her life, they would be her support system and conduit to the literary world.

At about the time her book was completed and just before its publication, Lee accompanied Truman Capote to Kansas as his assistant, to gather information on the killings of the Clutter family in Holcomb. Some say that her contribution to the eventual book, In Cold Blood, was huge (yet unacknowledged).

After the several years it took to complete To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics), when it finally came out, Lee allegedly remarked that she hoped that some people would like it. She was definitely unprepared for its huge success, which included bestseller status almost immediately; a Pulitzer Prize; and, of course, the movie.

Throughout this compelling portrayal of a fascinating writer, I could not help but long for something more about her life. More rich details of how she lives day-to-day. From all accounts, however, she blends almost seamlessly into the life of her small community. Occasional trips to NY became less frequent. For a woman who attained a great degree of fame and wealth, she certainly reportedly lives like an ordinary person—maybe less so, since she apparently strove diligently to maintain privacy and anonymity.

And yet, in this biographical sketch, there were occasional accounts of interactions with people that might suggest a more sociable side lying just below the surface.

For the most part, however, she seems to stay connected primarily with her family, her church friends, and others in the community. I liked reading descriptions of how she would be seen sitting alone at a table in a local restaurant, eating dinner, and enjoying her own company—or how her modest home is filled with books in every room. These tidbits reveal a contented person, despite what one might conclude. I especially enjoyed reading a comment she made to someone who asked her why she didn’t write another book: “I had every intention of writing many novels,” she reportedly said, “but I could never have imagined the success To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) would enjoy. I became overwhelmed.” And in another instance, she was reported to have said something like…when you’ve reached the top, there’s only one way to go.

How intimidating this degree of success must have been for a woman with no pretensions, who had hoped to achieve her dream of writing a book (or several), and then, in one fell swoop, achieves the totally unexpected feat of becoming the creator of the most widely read American novel ever. To reach this level of success and then to live with it afterwards had to be the greatest accomplishment of all. In another quote from Lee that occurred a little more than a year after her book was published, she said: “People who have made peace with themselves are the people I most admire in the world.”

She seems to belong in that company of admirable people.

Five stars.

FINDING THE COURAGE TO CHANGE

Two sisters, Rebecca and Maya Ward, smart and talented physicians, live with the consequences of a long-ago day when their parents were murdered.

Rebecca was eighteen when it happened, and because her fourteen-year-old sister was in the car with her father when he was shot, she has always been protective of her. She helped raise her and guide her. But what neither sister has ever shared with the other are the secrets they each held close. Secrets that have kept them from truly becoming the individuals they could have been.

Now Maya and Adam (another doctor) are married and their longing for a child of their own has added a deep sorrow to their lives, as Maya has miscarried three times. And now she must face the possibility that she will never have a child.

During hurricane season in North Carolina, Maya and Adam join Rebecca in assisting the victims. Maya has agreed to come, but with great trepidation. So when her helicopter goes down in one of the transports, Rebecca and Adam fear that she is dead. No survivors are found and every day, the search yields nothing; finally the searchers stop looking. For two weeks they mourn and gradually lose hope—even as they grow closer to one another.

Meanwhile, on a nearly deserted island, Maya has survived and is under the care of a young couple. What Maya doesn’t realize, but will soon learn, is that nothing is as it seems within that family. And everything is about to get very dangerous.

In this story, with alternating chapters devoted to Maya and Rebecca—with Maya’s chapters narrated in the first-person voice—we gradually come to know these two women and slowly uncover the deepest, darkest secrets of their lives.

By the end of the story, I felt that I knew Maya and Rebecca quite well, down to their innermost thoughts. Adam, on the other hand, seemed less clear to me. Maybe the fact that his “story” was only told from the perspectives of the two women contributed to my inability to see him clearly.

The Lies We Told was compelling and I thoroughly enjoyed it—until the end. With so much unresolved between the three major characters, I had hoped to follow their transition after the disaster. Instead, the book jumps to the epilogue, which more or less briefly summarizes what has happened to them all in the one-year period after the disastrous events.

I felt disappointed and as if so much could have been done with the characters as they tried to put their lives back together. Instead, it felt as though the author just wanted to “finish” the story. Therefore, I’m granting four stars instead of five. I would still recommend it as a worthwhile and very readable book, however.

DELICIOUS AND ADVENTUROUS ROMP

In this fifteenth Stephanie Plum adventure, we follow her in her job for a bail bondsman, but typically, her adventures carry her off onto divergent pathways as she inadvertently gets mixed up in a murder case. A gruesome decapitation, no less! And one of her coworkers is a witness, which also puts her at risk.

Stephanie also is trying to figure out who is breaking into the homes with Rangeman security systems—a part time gig that lands her in another batch of trouble—while trying to escape the various fire bombs that always seem to be going off around her. Not to mention the paint bombs.

Yes, just as in previous books, Stephanie Plum seems to be a disaster waiting to happen everywhere she goes.

I love the way this character is so down-to-earth and real, almost as if she’s part of our neighborhood or our family. She is a flawed, yet courageous soul who loves her life, even when it’s falling down around her.

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen (Stephanie Plum Novels) is my second book by this author, and hence satisfies one of my reading challenge tasks. But I’m not stopping with this one…I want to go back to the beginning of this series and read them all…which is why I’m awarding five stars to this book.

THE ADDICTIONS THAT DEFORM US

Stella is leading a life of empty promise in New York City, occasionally checking on her fragile grandmother Lucy, who lives in Connecticut. But then, when Lucy begins the process of dying, she starts talking about Matilda, her long-estranged daughter…A second daughter that Stella didn’t even know about.

So after Lucy’s death, Stella finds out more from her mother Dora, and discovers the troubled history of Matilda (Tilly). She decides to go to Nevada, where Tilly now resides, and try to help her out. She wants to at least connect with her.

We gradually watch the bond develop between the two, when Stella moves Tilly to San Francisco to reconnect with her son Abe. Their lives seem to be back on track.

But like most addictions, the one that controls Tilly cannot be held at bay, and the life she is building begins to unravel.

The story unfolds in shifting perspectives, and alternate versions of each woman are revealed.

What happens then to create an extra layer of tension? And what further developments lead to a tragic outcome?

This story seemed to be a cautionary tale of all the dire consequences one can imagine. I felt depressed a good deal of the time as I read it, and by the time the story ended, I was glad it did.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I were in a different place in my own life. But instead, I found the characters unappealing, and the ending of the story just happened…it seemingly fizzled out.

To its credit, though, there were important lessons to be told, and the process of addiction was accurately portrayed, and for those reasons, I did give The Gin Closet four stars.

AN UNTENABLE TRIANGLE

Tessa and Valerie seemingly have nothing in common. Tessa is a stay-at-home mother of two children and the wife of Nick Russo, a renowned pediatric surgeon. Valerie Anderson is an attorney and single mother to six-year-old Charlie—a boy who has never known his father.

The paths of these characters cross unexpectedly when a tragic accident brings Charlie to Dr. Russo’s care. And in the process of caring for the severely burned child, Nick finds himself drawn to the needs of this little boy and his mother.

Told in alternate chapters, the stories of Valerie and Tessa and the untenable triangle in which they become engaged, with Nick, brings up issues of love, loyalty, and betrayal and ultimately changes all their lives.

These characters could have been presented in the clichéd “other woman” scenario, but as we come to know each of the players, we soon learn that nobody is evil here and there is something each of them must learn in order to ultimately discover what is truly at the “heart of the matter.”

In many ways, the characters of Valerie and Tessa could almost be interchangeable, despite their surface differences. They each are seeking love and family, and hoping against hope for the happiness we all long for.

Nick could have been portrayed as a cad, but instead, we find him appealing as he struggles to do right by his family as well as Charlie and Valerie’s family.

In the end, choices and decisions have to be made and a learning process must happen. Learning to forgive, to trust, and to move forward will determine the outcome of each of their lives.

I must award Heart of the Matter five stars.

YES, YOU CAN GO HOME AGAIN…

This book is part of a wonderfully cozy series by the author Adriana Trigiani. My very first one was Big Stone Gap: A Novel (Ballantine Reader’s Circle), so naturally, when I saw this one in the library, I had to have it.

In the story, Ave Maria Mulligan MacChesney is twenty years older than she was in the last one. Her daughter Etta is grown, she has lost one of her children in early childhood, and she is dealing with all kinds of losses.

Her daughter is living in Italy, which is too far away, as far as Ave Maria is concerned. Her husband is exploring work that she finds repugnant. And then, suddenly, he is faced with health issues.

Meanwhile, her best friend Iva Lou has been keeping a big secret for all the time they’ve known each other—and before—so finding this out causes Ave Maria to question everything about the friendship.

Then, a mysterious person appears…

Just as you might expect, this story, which plunks us right down in the middle of the beautiful Big Stone Gap setting, brings up painful issues that could seemingly threaten the very world of these wonderful characters.

I loved Home to Big Stone Gap: A Novel (Big Stone Gap Novels) just as much as the first book and I’m definitely going to be adding more books to my list. Five stars!

GREED, LUST, & MISUNDERSTANDINGS

Violet Parry and Sally Parry have little in common, except that Violet is married to David Parry and Sally is his sister. The two are at odds through most of the story, each misunderstanding the other and resenting aspects about each other.

Violet seemingly has it all. A gorgeous house in the hills above LA; a full-time nanny; and money enough to buy almost everything she desires. So why is she so unhappy, disgruntled, and vulnerable to Teddy Reyes, the somewhat seedy musician who gives her a bit of attention? Is it, perhaps, because her husband is so focused on giving her everything that he doesn’t really notice her? Or that he only wants her to listen to him, but fails to reciprocate?

What woman wouldn’t feel neglected, since women mostly want to be understood? However, for whatever reasons, Violet is unable or unwilling to express her needs.

Then we have Sally, whose story alternates with Violet’s…She just wants a lot of the same things that Violet already has. A rich husband and enough money, since she’s plagued by credit card debt. She is also diabetic, a bit neurotic, and extremely demanding, but hey, what guy wouldn’t want her? She manipulates constantly to achieve her goals.

David, caught in the middle, seems totally clueless and feels misunderstood and unappreciated. Then, for whatever reason, he seems to get a clue and does an about-face, even though he has discovered his wife’s affair. For someone so successful, he seems to have few people skills. Or maybe it’s just women he doesn’t get.

What I most enjoyed about This One Is Mine: A Novel were the rich details that painted the LA lifestyle in such a way that I could visualize it. I could picture the homes, the clothes, and especially the characters. I liked that none of the characters were picture-perfect. Violet was still a tad overweight from the pregnancy; Sally was thin and could have been attractive, but her personality rendered her tense and almost fake; and Teddy—well, he is portrayed as someone scuzzy and a little bit unclean, which is how I viewed his character.

I also liked the part in which Violet and Sally actually begin to talk to one another and clear up some major misunderstandings they have.

I didn’t really buy David’s turnabout, and found it a bit unbelievable, but it did bring the story to a tidy conclusion.

This is a book for those who enjoy LA stories, or stories about what is going on behind the perfect façade that cloaks the rich and famous. I would give it a 4.5, deducting a bit for how the story ended.