Dear Life

dear life

Before reading Dear Life I was unfamiliar with Alice Munro’s work.  I have never read many short stories, but wanted to try this set after hearing so many wonderful things about the author’s work.  Having received the book as a gift from a friend I added it to the top of my TBR pile – and I am thankful that I did.  I know that I have another of her collections sitting in my pile of unread books and I may need to move it closer to the top…

What’s extraordinary about this book is how it examines ordinary moments in life. Ms. Munro has the uncommon ability to take the sameness of everyday life and pull out a moment, one that may seem unimportant initially, and show the many facets of humanity that make that moment meaningful and real.

This is a hard book to review or to have a one-sided discussion about.  Because nothing happens, and everything happens – life happens.  There are no moments of extreme conflict or sugary happy endings or brutal slayings or mysteries solved.  It is simply a collection of stories about life, even though there is nothing simple about them.

The last four stories are autobiographical in nature, making them a unique glance into the author’s past.  But my favorite has to be In Sight of the Lake, the story of an elderly woman suffering from dementia.  While all the stories were wonderful, I was struck by the simple sadness of this story.  Life not as it should be, but life as it all too often is.

Title: Dear Life
Author: Alice Munro
Genre: Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 336
Publication: Knopf, November 2012

Advertisements

Mystery Mayhem

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a fan of a good (and even some not-so-good) mysteries.  I thought I’d share some more quick thoughts on what’s new in some of my favorite series.

last word

The Spellman Novels follow the antics of Izzy Spellman as she fumbles her way along as a private investigator working for the family business, Spellman Investigations.  Izzy is a disaster, professionally and personally, but she knows it, and that’s what makes these books so much fun.  Most of the mysteries are pretty low key, not a lot of death or blood or high-stakes crime, but it’s not really about the mystery anyway – you know that is going to work itself out.   The real joy comes from reading about this amazingly dysfunctional family and their interactions.  Hilarious and touching at the same time.

In this latest installment, The Last Word, Izzy has arranged a hostile takeover of the family business and has discovered that being the boss isn’t that much fun.  Her parents are boycotting work and if they do show up at the office it may be in their underwear.  And are they having marital difficulties?  Dad didn’t come home last night…  Her sister is off starting her own questionable side business with the help of another wayward employee.  Her brother keeps trying to make her babysit his completely obnoxious toddler.  Her benefactor is literally losing his mind, but someone seems to be trying to rush it along, and he wants Izzy to have a conversation with his assistant about personal hygiene.  Like real life, not everything has a happy ending, but getting there is worth it.

Title: The Last Word
Author: Lisa Lutz
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 352
Publication: Simon & Schuster, July 2013

bombshell

The FBI Thriller novels follow Savich and Sherlock as they solve crimes as part of the FBI.  The crimes ten to be pretty gruesome, but the bad guys never win for long with this married couple on the case.  Their relationship is warming as they balance doing their job with raising a family and their urge to protect one another.

In this latest installment, Bombshell, they are joined by Griffin Hammersmith, last seen in Backfire, who has been recruited by Savich to join their unit of the FBI.  On his way to D.C. Hammersmith decides to stop in Maestro, Virginia to visit his sister Delsey, a music student.  Before he gets there he receives a phone call telling him that his sister has been found naked and unconscious in a pool of blood that is not her own.  As Hammersmith tries to protect his sister and solve the mystery of what is going on in Maestro, Savich and Sherlock are dealing with the dead body of a young man that was found displayed in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

The book jumps back and forth between the stories of what is happening in Maestro and D.C., but it isn’t distracting, instead keeping to book moving along at the quick pace I’ve come to expect from Coulter’s FBI novels.  Hammersmith is a nice addition to the team, his seeming ability to “see” what is going to happen is not overplayed, but an interesting twist.  A fun, fast ride through two completely different worlds of crime.

Title: Bombshell
Author: Catherine Coulter
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 400
Publication: Putnam, July 2013

never go back

The Jack Reacher series follows the former MP as he wanders the country aimlessly, with no possessions to weight him down, and becomes entrenched in one disastrous situation after another, usually to help out a beautiful woman.  These books are mysteries, but are heavy on the action and suspense, with healthy doses of romance and humor.

In this latest installment, Never Go Back, Reacher has finally made it to Virginia to look up Susan – the woman currently running his old MP unit – who he felt a connection with during a series of phone calls made several books previously.  When he gets there a number of surprises are waiting for him – Susan is in jail, he’s being accused of murder, and he may be the father of a teenager.  Forcefully re-enlisted into the military Reacher will need to unravel this latest mystery and find out what’s really going on.  Overall, what we’ve come to expect from a Jack Reacher book, fast-paced and fun.

Title: Never Go Back
Author: Lee Child
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 416
Publication: Delacorte Press, September 2013

davidson

The Goldy Schulz novels follow the caterer as she manages to blunder over one dead body after another in Aspen Meadow, Colorado.  And no matter how much the police chief (who also happens to be her husband) wants her out of harm’s way, she seems to stumble into that as well as she tries to get justice for the recently deceased.

In this latest installment, The Whole Enchilada, her friend Holly drops dead after leaving a birthday party catered by Goldy.   Even as the police try to figure out whether she was actually murdered, and if so, how, it becomes apparent that Holly had plenty of secrets and there are plenty of available suspects.  Why was she broke?  Who were all those boyfriends she kept talking about?  Why did someone also try to hurt Holly’s son and their priest?  And who’s after Goldy and why?  She doesn’t think she knows anything, but someone is convinced that she does.  Joined by her friend Marla, some friends from the police department, her catering partner Julian, and her husband Goldy unravels yet another mystery.

Title: The Whole Enchilada
Author: Diane Mott Davidson
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 384
Publication: William Morrow, August 2013

Constellation of Vital Phenomena

I love a well-told story which is one of the reasons that I tend to read much more fiction than non-fiction.  Non-fiction works seem to fall into several categories – books that read like my high school textbooks or graduate research papers – or books that spout on and on about someone’s personal opinion hoping to sell books on the wave of current events.  Occasionally there are wonderful non-fiction books that tell a story and capture the imagination while educating the reader, but to assume that a book has to be non-fiction for the reader to learn is ludicrous.  Fiction books can educate and inspire readers to learn more about a subject.  While reading Dan Brown’s Inferno, I eagerly went online to find images of the places and art and architecture discussed in the novel and I learned some things.  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena taught me much about the realities of living in Chechnya from 1994-2004 and I was further educated about the history of the region by the research the novel inspired.  Fiction can educate as well as it can entertain and inspire, it is not just fluff, and there is certainly no fluff to be found in Anthony Marra’s debut novel.

constellation“Life: a constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was the latest book in my Indiespensables subscription and was an inspired choice.  The storyline floats around between 1994 and 2004 in war-torn Chechnya following a central group of characters and the intersections of their lives.  When the book opens it is 2004 and Havaa, an eight-year old girl, hides in the forest and watches while Russian soldiers take away her father, Dokka, and burn her home.  There are others watching as well – Khassan, and elderly neighbor and historian who fears that his son, Ramzan, is the informant who gave Dokka’s name to the Russians and Akhmed, their neighbor and friend, a portraitist and the worst doctor in Chechnya.  Akhmed leaves his invalid wife, Ula, to gather Havaa and take her to the rundown hospital which is being run by Sonja, an ethnic Russian, with the hope that she will take the girl in and ensure her safety.  Sonja has no interest in helping Akhmed and Havaa, she is only interested in finding Natasha, her missing sister.  Eventually, she agrees and in return for Havaa’s refuge Akhmed agrees to work at the understaffed hospital.  The following five days will change the lives of everyone involved as the stories of their lives, and how they have intersected and connected, will unfold.

This is a beautiful novel, but also a difficult one.  Chechnya during this time is not a place where anyone should be and the book does not shy away from the harsh realities and difficult questions.  What defines loyalty and family and morality?  Who decides right and wrong?  What does existing in these circumstances do to a person, physically and emotionally?  At what point does someone break?  Mutilation, torture, rape, drug abuse, illness, hunger, adultery, betrayal, and murder are all part of the stark landscape.  But there is also beauty; there is love and friendship, kindness and mercy, forgiveness and hope.  This book is not an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one.  It is both horrible and wonderful.

“There is something miraculous in the way the years wash away your evidence, first you, then your friends and family, then the descendants who remember your face, until you aren’t even a memory, you’re only carbon, no greater than your atoms, and time will divide them as well.”

Title:  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Author:  Anthony Marra
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 400
Publication: Hogarth, May 2013

The Dinner

dinnerPaul and his wife Claire are off to have dinner at a fine and exclusive restaurant with Paul’s brother, Serge (a popular candidate to be the next Prime Minister of Denmark) and his wife Babette.  It seems that their teenage boys have been up to no good (but have yet to be identified by the authorities) and this is to be the topic of conversation.  Although there is a lot of tension, nastiness, flashbacks, and musings, the issue at hand does not get addressed until the dinner is nearly over.  The resulting decisions of the parents, their actions and reactions, and the resulting implications left me appalled.

I have heard this book compared to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  They are both well-written and both left me disturbed by a set of annoying, psychotic, and generally unlikable and unsympathetic characters making horrific personal decisions.  I have also heard this book compared to Defending Jacob by William Landay as books that address the lengths a parent will go to in defending their child.  I’m not sure I completely agree.  Defending Jacob deals with a parent’s love driving them to all-consuming belief in their child’s innocence in spite of evidence to the contrary.  In contrast, The Dinner shows parents who have clear proof of their child’s guilt and react with an almost evil, cold-hearted, and amoral response to the situation with seemingly no concern for the consequences of their child’s actions or their own.

So, did I like it?  Hmmm….  I’m not sure.  It was well-written and the story certainly stuck with me.  It’s very dark and biting, and although I often like dark stories and do not require happy endings, I also prefer stories where there are at least some sympathetic or likable characters…  Would I recommend it?  Sure, as long as you know what you’re getting into and don’t mind reading a disturbingly dark story with characters that seem to lack any type of moral compass.

Title: The Dinner
Author: Herman Koch
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Publication: Hogarth, February 2013

Clockwork Princess

clockworkThe Clockwork Princess is the final book in The Infernal Devices trilogy which was written as a prequel series to Mortal Instruments series.

For those who have not read The Infernal Devices trilogy, let me give you a brief overview.  The books are set in Victorian England and the story starts with Tessa Grey heading to London from America to search for her missing brother.  She soon finds herself part of a world that she did not know existed – a world full of Nephilim, warlocks, werewolves, demons, automatons, etc.  As she stays at the Institute, the home for Shadowhunters, Nephilim who fight demons in order to protect us mere humans, she searches for the truth of her own identity, battles demons, and falls in love – of course there’s a love triangle – isn’t there always?  I thoroughly enjoyed this book in spite of becoming tired of love triangles (this one does have a uniqueness), and the books are filled with so much more – adventure, battles, death, triumph, magic, technology, demons, warlocks, politics, family feuds, …  making the series fast and fun – a great way to kill a rainy weekend.

For those who have read the first two books and are eagerly awaiting a chance to read the final piece of the story, the final book does not disappoint.  Maybe things are a little too tidily wrapped up, but hey –this is fiction – why not?  There are epic battles, lives will be ended and changed, new loves will be found, and hearts will be broken.  Will or James?  I’m not telling!  😉

Title: Clockwork Princess
Author: Cassandra Clare
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 592
Publication: Margaret K. McElderry Books, March 2013