Last month was a pretty good one for me reading-wise, with only two duds and three books I love, love, LOVED.
Still Life, by Louise Penny
I’m giving Still Life five stars because I consider it to be at the very top of its genre –This is the ultimate cozy murder mystery novel, with enough food for thought about humans and their relationships with each other to elevate it above the usual atmospheric small town read. (Mitford, I’m looking at you. Twin Pines leaves you in its dust.)
While the mystery itself is fairly solid and Louise Penny does a good job of dropping plenty of clues and yet still surprising the reader with the ending (okay, it did take some suspension of disbelief, but I forgive her), the real reason you’ll love this book is because of the delightful village of Twin Pines and its residents, and because of Inspector Armand Gamache, a character I can’t wait to learn more about in Penny’s subsequent Twin Pines novels.
I’ve visited Quebec twice now and fallen in love with its villages while I was there — I could easily live in one — so Still Life’s setting was a real treat for me. Even if you’ve never been to Canada, give this book a try. I’m betting you’ll really enjoy it.
Setting Free the Kites, by Alex George
I hate giving Setting Free the Kites a bad review, because I have two friends who absolutely loved it and it’s gotten lots of glowing GoodReads reviews — but for me, this coming-of-age novel about an amusement park owner’s son growing up in coastal Maine was an utter disappointment.
Alex George is a very good writer, and the ease of his prose is what kept me reading through to the end. I really hoped he’d pull off a miracle in the last chapter and somehow pull everything together. Alas, that was not the case. Without giving away any spoilers, I had several problems with this book. The biggest issue for me was that the plot line was totally unbelievable and often unnecessarily veered into soap opera-esque melodrama when –let’s be honest– adolescence is dramatic enough without adding a dozen different calamities to the mix. For the main character, everything that could go wrong did, basically, to the point that I began wincing as I saw it coming, silently begging Alex George not to take the …AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT route. Oh, he took it, all right. Every. Damn. Time.
A couple of times in the novel, George veered off into asides that had little to do with the story — I found that to be weird and distracting. I also had issues with the way simple things like the laws of physics were completely bungled or ignored. Let a kite go in the sky and a gust of wind just might carry it away, sure. Let multiple kites go and it’s safe to say the majority of them are going to plummet to the ground rather than being carried off into oblivion like helium balloons. There were other issues like this one, but I hate to get into them lest I give too much of the story away. They were small grievances on the surface, but when they are part of a pivotal scene in the novel, well, it’s annoying.
Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I definitely enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books more as an adult than I ever did as a kid — Now that I’m a mom, I’m spellbound by all the work -and danger- that went into raising a family 150 years ago. Although Wilder’s need to tell us every. Stinking. Detail. of really obscure things like making a bobsled from felled oak trees and baling wheat and slaughtering a hog *shudder* can slow things down in her books from time to time, the end result is an admittedly idyllic but still very true-to-life impression of what life was like for America’s pioneers in the mid to late 1800s. I, for one, am riveted.
I also love the idealism of the Little House series. I don’t care if Charles Ingalls was a drunk and somewhat shiftless in real life — I love Wilder’s fond memories of her father and her childhood in general because she creates this cozy atmosphere in her books that I really enjoy losing myself in. When I finish this series (I’m reading about 2 Little House books a year, among many other things), I plan to start it again, simply because it makes me feel very good and very hopeful when I’m reading it. It also inspires me to pretend I’m Carolyn and bake and clean like crazy.
That said, I had been putting off reading Farmer Boy FOREVER. I knew it was a standalone book in the series, since it’s about the boyhood of Wilder’s husband Almanzo, but I didn’t want to get too much deeper in the series without getting Farmer Boy out of the way (I’m currently 4 books in, not counting FB). I just didn’t think that reading about a BOY on a FARM would be all that interesting. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Almanzo’s upbringing was entirely different from Laura’s, and happened in an entirely different part of the country (New York state). That alone makes Farmer Boy fascinating. It’s not as good as the other Little House books (which makes sense since Wilder is relying on stories from her husband and his family rather than her own life), but it’s still great, and totally worth reading. Almanzo’s family is full of love and spirit, and parents in particular will appreciate reading about how kids were raised in 1866 and about the values that were instilled in them all those years ago.
In short, I loved Farmer Boy and I recommend it to those who are interested in American history and to those who are just looking for a pleasant, cozy read that will make them look around and appreciate how easy we all have it today.
Elegies for the Brokenhearted, by Christie Hodgen
I am so glad I happened across this gorgeous, heartbreaking, and yet ultimately hopeful novel. Elegies for the Brokenhearted consists of five interwoven short stories, elegies that fit together like puzzle pieces ultimately forming the whole of protagonist Mary Murphy’s life. Through the stories of five pivotal people in her history, all of whom died untimely deaths, we learn about Mary and her sister’s troubled upbringing and about their mother, who dragged her daughters along through a string of boyfriends and failed marriages.
Most of us can’t identify with Mary’s situation, yet Hodgen manages to make Mary’s story feel like our own, with thoughts and emotions about family and human connection that nearly anyone can understand and relate to. For me, Elegies for the Brokenhearted was a perfect combination of thought-provoking ideas and a page turning storyline. I was riveted by the plot and literally couldn’t put the book down — At the same time, I was blown away by the spare beauty of Hodgen’s writing, the deeper meaning in the book’s characters and their experiences, and the explosive, heart-wrenching endings of her elegies. (The book’s ending, FYI, is jaw-dropping.)
The New York Times called this novel ‘the literary equivalent of a hand grenade’ and that’s a perfect way to describe it. You’ll find yourself drawn into the story and then beautifully stunned by its structure, its characters, its plot, and its truths. Elegies for the Brokenhearted is the kind of book that’s ripe for discussion and dissection and would be ideal for a book club or a college-level course.
The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck
Here’s the premise: Ethan Allen Hawley was born into an old-money family that lost everything — Consequently, he’s now a grocery clerk struggling to support his family, and when an opportunity allows him to potentially regain his fortune at the cost of his integrity, he has to make some tough choices.
Steinbeck tackles heavy themes in this book: morality, greed, honesty, and loyalty. And while I can imagine it caused a sensation when it was published back in 1961, today it reads like a heavy-handed primer on ‘How to Be a Great American Writer.’ Hawley spends a whole lot of time wandering around his small town and wrestling with his conscience, and the reader gets to hear every excruciating detail. This bogged the story down for me, big time.
I also felt a little depressed by Steinbeck’s female characters, who served as a stark reminder of how women were generally viewed not so long ago. Hawley’s wife was an ‘angel’ who had no head for business, but whose outward softness apparently hid a steely core, although we didn’t see much evidence of it in the book. The town temptress, Margie Hunt-Young, was smart and conniving and therefore a ‘witch’ in Hawley’s eyes. In the novel, her Achilles heel is that she’s unmarried and approaching middle age, which, according to Steinbeck, is a fate worse than death for a woman. “A woman growing old alone is useless cast-off trash,” he writes. Mkay. Steinbeck also casually references domestic abuse several times throughout the novel as if it’s commonplace and expected. When talking to his teenage son, for example, Hawley resolves to teach him an important lesson about women: “He may kick, beat, drop, tousle, or bump them, but he may never–never–mess their hair.”
I get the distinct impression from this novel that Steinbeck was not a big fan of women, generally speaking.
In the end, after our painfully long investment in the thoughts and inner struggles of Ethan Allen Hawley, we are left hanging as to what ultimately happens to him. I suppose John Steinbeck fancied himself ‘deep’ and avant-garde with his ending — I simply found it annoying.
My six-word review:
Better title: 277 Pages of Discontent.
What have you read lately?
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