Witches’ Dance by Erin Eileen Almond (Fiction)

Thank you to Lanternfish Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 22nd, 2019.

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

An ambitious novel about a young violinist who must fight her own inner demons while in thrall to an extremely talented — and potentially crazy — teacher and former prodigy. The chapters rotate through the perspectives of the three main characters: Hilda, the young violinist who we meet at age 15; her mother Claire, a ballerina whose career was killed by an unplanned pregnancy; and Phillip Manns, a former prodigy who suffered a nervous collapse eight years previously and is only now allowing music in some form back into his life.

The story is gripping. While there were some wonderful musical references, the story is far more about the melodrama of their relationships and personal discovery (or lack thereof). Personally, I would have enjoyed more about the music, the drive, and the “art” portion of those with artistic sensibilities. This is more of a drama with an excellent musical background than a literary piece that manages to convey what it means to be such an artist. For example, while Hilda spends an astonishing amount of time practicing, all her thoughts and reflections are bent towards her obsession with Phillip Manns. Manns, on the other hand, is obsessed with the music but is haunted by the memory of his “beautiful, doomed mother,” Domenica. Claire is struggling to both hide and express the “Secret Mother” within her — the mother who wishes she wasn’t a mother at all.

Strong, dramatic plot, decent writing, characters that I did not bond with(but you might) and some beautiful musical context. My big takeaway — I want to go to the bi-annual Paganini competition held in Genoa next Fall.

How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper (Fiction)

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

Loved this book!

Andrew Smith works in Death Administration. His unenviable (and often malodorous) job: property inspections of the recently deceased to find funds or friends to help the local council escape paying for the obligatory “Public Health Funeral.” He feels compassion for those dying in such lonely ways — possibly because he is heading that way himself. His own social connections consist of a distant sister, an anonymous group of online train enthusiasts, and a very comforting, but completely imaginary, wife and children. When he has a chance to make a real friend, he struggles with how to extricate himself from this long-lived and thoroughly detailed fabrication.

This is a feel-good book about friendship, connection, and how people get lost … and found again. Effortlessly great writing (at least it appears effortless). I particularly enjoyed the ambient social commentary and the interactions between good characters.

One of the few books compared to Eleanor Oliphant that actually deserves the comparison.
A few writing samples:
“He’d thought having only just turned forty-two he’d have a few more years before he began accompanying minor physical tasks by making odd noises, but it seemed to be the universe’s gentle way of telling him that he was now officially heading toward middle age.”

“Andrew could think of many things he’d rather be doing that evening — most of them involving his testicles, some jam and some aggrieved hornets — but he suddenly felt a rather strong urge not to disappoint Peggy.”

“When it came to model trains, one of the most satisfying simple things Andrew had learned was that the more you ran a locomotive, the better it performed. With repeated use, an engine starts to glide around the track, seeming to grow in efficiency with every circuit. When it came to making connections with people, however, he was less of a smoothly running locomotive and more a rail replacement bus rusting in a rest stop.”

“After said shunt finally materialized, Andrew and Peggy hauled their bags off the train along with a few hundred other passengers traveling back that Saturday whose phasers were all set to “grumble,” only to be elevated to “strongly worded letter” when they were told it would be forty minutes before a replacement train could get there.”

“His shoes were well-polished but starting to look worn. Too many nicks from churchyard gravel, too many times the leather had strained where he’d curled his toes at a vicar’s verbal stumble.”

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

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

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Mystery / Thriller)

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 5 Characters: 4.5

I love Jane Harper — this is her second book written and the third that I have read. I seem to like them best in reverse order of their writing which bodes well for the future!

In this book, five women set off on a multi-day trek into dense bush as part of a corporate retreat (note to self: Never go on a corporate retreat of this sort! Never!). Only four of them come back. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk — who features in Harper’s The Dry — gets involved as the missing woman has been an informer for his work in the Federal Financial Investigations Unit. Lots and lots of complexity, psychology, strange relationships, suspicion, and suspense. Told in chapters alternating between what Falk and his partner are discovering and what actually happens during the four days the women are out. As the personalities of the five women slowly unravel during their ordeal, Falk is simultaneously coming to terms with his own.

A complete page turner — a kind of modern-day, corporate version of Lord of the Flies amidst threads of money laundering, serial killers, anorexia, and fear.

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.”

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.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.