Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (Humorous Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

Lillian Breaker has a huge chip on her shoulder about rich people, but when the beautiful and very wealthy Madison Roberts springs up out of her distant and checkered past asking for help, Lillian goes running. The job? To care for Madison’s husband’s children from a previous marriage. Sounds simple enough except for the minor detail that these children spontaneously burst into flame when upset. While they are completely unharmed by the fire, everything around them, including their clothing, is torched. And an additional detail — Madison’s husband Jasper is a U.S. senator under consideration for Secretary of State, so discretion is critical.

What sounds like a silly premise is actually a cover for an intriguing, humorous, and psychologically interesting book. Lillian is an angry, bitter, person who insists on seeing the worst in people (and usually doesn’t have to look far to find it). The children’s fire bursts are an external manifestation of a toxicity that Lillian feels internally. As she helps the children deal with their own anger and bitterness towards the hypocritical, self-serving man who is ostensibly their father, she also gains a deeper understanding of herself.

Hugely enjoyable. The writing is excellent — tight, sardonic, and hugely streaked with wit. I found it much better than I expected from the marketing blurb and now plan to go back and read one of his previous novels — I’ll start with The Family Fang.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 5th, 2019.

The Bloodletters Daughter by Linda Lafferty (Fictionalized History)

Yuck.

This is the *worst* kind of fictionalized history. I’m not a fan of fictionalized history to begin with — combining fact with imagination without clear separation is irritating. But in this case the author went one step further — she simply threw out any real history that didn’t support her story and added in a completely false story, using with real historical characters. If she wanted to write a melodrama and place it in an historical context, why not just pick a time and some fake characters and go from there? Instead, she uses a real King (Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary and Croatia from 1576 – 1612), his bastard son (Don Julius), and a rumor that the latter abused, killed, and disfigured the local barber’s daughter and turned it into a giant melodrama featuring a lunatic (Don Julius), a ravishing and determined “simple Bohemian bath girl” (the barber’s daughter), and an entire people who simultaneously lived in fear because the King was so powerful that Don Julius could do whatever he liked and yet forced the King to leave his throne at the end because they were so angry that Don Julius killed an innocent girl.

Honestly, the whole book was stupid from beginning to end. There were some poorly integrated sections referencing conflict between the Catholics, Protestants, and the Ottomans, and some others talking about Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe but they had absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Normally I would have stopped reading after the first references to the “azure eyes” and “russet hair” of the heroine — clear markers of a frivolous book — but this was a book club selection so I had to see it through to the end.

Right After the Weather by Carol Anshaw (Literary Fiction)

Thank you to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 1st, 2019.

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 2/5 Characters: 3/5

Cate is a single, forty-something, lesbian, set designer in Chicago whose friends and colleagues have largely moved on. It is 2016 — Cate’s ultra-paranoid, thrice divorced, ex-husband is shacking up in her extra room; she is struggling to end an ongoing affair with a married woman; and a new girlfriend she sees as her best shot at adult stability is exhibiting questionable ethical behavior. In this setting she simultaneously experiences the “worst event and biggest break”: she rescues a friend during a violent and traumatic home invasion and is offered the chance to work on an exciting off-broadway play.

The book is beautifully written and the characters (especially Cate) are portrayed with great depth. While being a lesbian is not the point of the book, Cate’s queerness (her selection of term) informs a great deal of her thoughts and actions. There is not a lot of action — the home invasion takes place about half way through the book and itself takes up few pages. Instead, it is a thorough portrayal of her life — thoughts, actions, interactions, and world events — during a few months late 2016 / early 2017. I appreciated the scenes about her theater work (I wish there had been more) and the writing is really excellent, but for me there was not enough insight or character change to warrant the book length (without any compensating action). Things moved on in a very slow-paced, realistic, and ultimately unsatisfying, way. I found Cate to be a weak character, still struggling with the same issues (all completely under her own control) at the end of the book as at the beginning.

This book does have great lines — here are a few:

“Living casually in the moment seemed so vibrant, but has left her looking over her shoulder at a pile of used-up hours and days, hearing the scratchy sound of frittering.”

“She has come to understand that room temperature in the demographic she aspires to is a more personally controlled business.”

“The other customers exist somewhere else on the dining matrix, all of them in parallel, convivial but hushed universes.”

“Now, though, the cat’s out of the bag. Now the cat is hopping all over the place, demanding attention.”

“A heavy, standing ashtray is surrounded by a population of emphysemic ghosts.”

“Something delicious about all the secrecy. Now everything’s so in the open, we’re free from fear and oppression, but we’ve traded up for being commonplace. Queer’s as boring as straight now.

“She understand she has arrived on another side of everything. No one is over here with her.”

“Everything about him is aimed at the greater good, but in matters of personal kindness, he often comes up short.

“Her thoughts these days are not her friends. Which doesn’t keep them from stopping by, particularly at night when she is too tired to fight them off.”

Circe by Madeline Miller (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Characters: 3.5/5

A surprisingly engrossing page turner that brings to life the stories of antiquity in a new genre of fictionalized mythology. Circe is a sorceress featured in multiple classic texts including the well-known Homer’s Odyssey. Miller has woven together all references into a gripping narrative that embeds many well-known stories (Theseus and the Minotaur, Jason and the Golden Fleece, etc.) She is astonishingly accurate in her mythology — I was constantly checking some of the stories and always found them documented in some old text — but Miller has brought them to life with a more modern sensibility on the part of Circe herself.

At first I thought this was an “anti-man” book as there were so many scenes of men as raping, pillaging, murdering, beasts, but then I realized that most of the women were pretty awful too: power hungry, scheming, nasty, and cruel. This book will be a big hit with the Games of Thrones crowd. She embedded a different perspective on what had been considered “heroic” literature, allowing the characters (Circe, Penelope, and Telemachus in this case) to question what kind of man Odysseus really was and whether he should actually be considered heroic. All done without getting preachy or pushing an agenda. Also included was a philosophical discourse on the nature of mortality, change, and loneliness.

The writing is excellent — lyrical prose painting vivid mythological portraits of the gods with insight into their motivations and inner world. For example, when her father, Helios the sun god, leaves a place Circe thinks: “Of course he did not consider how black it would be when he was gone. My father has never been able to imagine the world without himself in it.”

Good story, compelling writing, and food for thought all in one.

Some good lines:

“I have seen her do a thousand such tricks a thousand times. My father always fell for them. He believed the world’s natural order was to please him.”

“Yet they were both Titans and preferred each other’s company to those new-squeaking gods upon Olympus who had not seen the making of the world.”

“It made me dizzy to realize that this was but a fraction of a fraction of all the men the world had bred. How could such variation endure, such endless iteration of minds and faces? Did the earth not go mad?”

“The revulsion was plain on her face. Once when I was young I asked what mortals looked like. My father said, “You may say they are shaped like us, but only as the worm is shaped like the whale.” My mother had been simpler: like savage bags of rotten flesh.”

“This was how mortals found fame, I thought. Through practice and diligence, tending their skills like gardens until they glowed beneath the sun. But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters”

“The closest we come is weaving or smithing, but these things are skills and there is no drudgery to them since all the parts that might be unpleasant are taken away with power. The wool is dyed not with stinking vats and stirring spoons, but with a snap. There is no tedious mining, the ores leap willing from the mountain.”

“I had scarcely known true intelligence — I had spoken to Prometheus for only a moment, and in all the rest of Oceanos’ halls most of what passed for as cleverness was only archness and spite. Hermes’ mind was a thousand times sharper and more swift.”

“He did not thank Medea for her aid; he scarcely looked at her. As if a demigoddess saving him at every turn was only his due.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

A family drama told largely through recollection in a loosely ordered, but well-timed set of memories. Danny tells the story — full of recognition of his then-obliviousness — of himself, his older sister Maeve, and their sometimes senseless path through life. Much of the story centers around the Dutch House — the outrageously lavish estate purchased by their newly-minted real estate mogul father at the end of WWII) — which purchase begins the unraveling of their family.

I’m a big Ann Patchett fan — her insight into character and how it is expressed and molded by events and situations is incomparable. While sometimes frustrating in the cluelessness of characters (as seen from our safe reader’s perch) and lack of closure, the story is ultimately a realistic portrayal of the way lives and relationships evolve and what we do and don’t learn from the path. It’s one of those books that gets even better the more you think about it after reading, although to be honest it is not one of my favorite Patchetts.

Thank you to Harper Collins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 24th, 2019.