I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb

unknownI’ll Take You There

by Wally Lamb

When I was asked to read and review Wally Lamb’s latest novel by TLC Book Tours, I eagerly said yes.  I’ve been a fan of Wally Lamb for many years – ever since I read She’s Come Undone, which remains one of my favorite novels. tlc-logo

I’ll Take You There centers around Felix Funicello, an aging but pretty hip film professor who runs a Monday night film club for local film buffs at an old movie theater.  One night while he’s alone at the theater he’s visited by an apparition, which turns out to be the ghost of Lois Weber, a groundbreaking female film director who has been dead for decades.  After a gossipy conversation with Felix (who strangely doesn’t freak out over being visited by a ghost, but pretty much rolls with it), Lois points him to a stack of film reels and instructs him to watch them.  The films are footage from Felix’s life.  Some of them he remains an observer, and some he actually enters and relives.  Through these films, Felix acquires insight into various women who have impacted his life through the years: his mother, his older sisters – one of whose adolescent breakdowns changed the course of the entire family – and his grown daughter.  While Felix repeatedly asks Lois why he’s been chosen for this adventure, she only says that he’s “educable,” leaving the impression that Felix is in need of sensitivity training concerning women.  This was just one unsatisfying aspect of the story, as Felix is clearly already a pretty feminist dude.  It would sort of be like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future visiting Santa Claus instead of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Revisiting the past in order to understand the present certainly isn’t a unique premise, and neither is time travel or even ghosts.  Wally Lamb has a certain gift for understanding and writing about women, and that does come through in this novel.  However, the underlying themes of feminism and family dysfunction are treated lightly, the characters are rather cliche and one-dimensional, the conflicts too easily resolved, and the plot feels contrived.  I didn’t hate this book, but I didn’t love it.  Nothing earth-moving, but a decent beach read.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

30555488The Underground Railroad

by Colson Whitehead

Among the myriad of novels depicting American slavery, this one stands out mainly because it imagines the so-called Underground Railroad as an actual underground railroad bearing slaves to freedom, rather than just a figure of speech referring to the secret network of black and white people offering haven and help to slaves attempting to escape bondage.

The protagonist in this story is Cora, a young black woman – really a mere teenager – owned by one of the most brutal slaveowners in Georgia.  The depictions of the horrors inflicted upon the slaves of this particular plantation are difficult to stomach, so creative in their brutality are they.  Cora is deemed a “stray” by her fellow slaves, having been left behind by her mother who managed to escape in the dark of night (and whom Cora holds a deep and abiding anger and resentment) before she reaches adolescence.  Having nobody to look after her, and being duly abused by fellow slave men almost as soon as she enters puberty, Cora becomes withdrawn and fierce.  When an opportunity to escape bondage presents itself, Cora hesitantly takes it, despite a recent escapee having been captured, brought back, slowly tortured and roasted alive for the entire plantation to watch in horror as penance.

And so we are introduced to the Underground Railroad, a literal thing rather than a figurative one.  Miles upon miles of tunnels dug and tracks laid by black people deep under the ground, with “stations” hidden under barn floors and kitchen floors across the South, and with both black and white people risking everything (and many losing everything, including their lives, in horrible ways) to bear slaves to freedom.  Nevermind that if there were railroads running underground, the ground would likely shake, or at least vibrate, making it unlikely to be kept secret, and nevermind questions about where the trains came from and how anyone managed to get them into these underground tunnels – reading this story does require a little suspension of disbelief.

Trouble follows Cora on her journey to liberty from the very beginning, and it is with suspense that the reader follows Cora, feeling hope and despair by turns.  The question always remains: can any black person truly escape the chains of bondage?

Well worth the read.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

61jpccsraxlLord of the Flies

by William Golding

Believe it or not, I never read this book until now, and the only reason I did finally read it is that my son is currently in his high school’s production of Lord of the Flies.

Set during some fictional wartime in the mid-twentieth century, this classic novel is about a group of British school boys who end up on an uninhabited, remote island when the plane that is evacuating them from home crashes.  That a plane happened to crash so conveniently close to an island, that no adults survived the crash but a significant number of boys did, and that none of those surviving boys seem to have suffered any injuries from the crash all require a degree of suspension of disbelief, but this passes quickly as the novel unfolds.

The story opens after the plane crash has already happened, and the surviving boys have made it safely onto the island.  As they converge on the beach, they quickly choose a boy to be in charge, or “chief,” by a show of hands.  A sensible, fun loving boy named Ralph, who is prone to spontaneous handstands is chosen.  However, another boy, Jack, sees himself as chief, and his resentment at not being chosen manifests in a bitter rivalry with Ralph soon after.  As a consolation, Ralph appoints Jack and the rest of the school choir to which Jack belongs hunters; it will be their job to hunt the wild pigs on the island to feed the crash survivors until they are rescued.  Ralph also determines very quickly that their only hope of rescue is to start a fire and keep it going night and day so that any passing ship or plane might see the smoke.

Everything starts out pretty orderly and cooperative.  The boys agree to certain rules to maintain civility.  One of the central rules is that meetings are called by Ralph by blowing into a conch shell found on the beach.  The conch has a significant role in the story; it represents a certain amount of power, for not only is it used to call meetings, it’s also agreed that whoever holds the conch gets to speak while everyone else listens.

Gradually, civility disintegrates and the rivalry between Jack and his gang and Ralph and his more underdog group, which includes an asthmatic, obese outcast of a boy cruelly called Piggy grows until the two groups are basically at war with one another.

It’s a pretty grim, and even gruesome story, and a fascinating exploration of human nature as these young boys descend into savagery.

A good read.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmother-asked-me-to-tell-you-shes-sorry-9781501115073_hrMy Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

by Fredrik Backman

I really wanted to like this book, because I loved Backman’s A Man Called Ove.  However, this one fell a little short of my expectations.

The novel centers around seven-year-old Elsa, who is “different” (it’s never explained how she’s different, exactly, except that she’s very precocious and is ostracized and picked on at school).  Her best friend in the world is her eccentric grandmother, who dies very shortly into the story.  Before she dies, however, she sends Elsa on a sort of treasure hunt, the “treasure” being a series of letters Elsa must uncover and deliver to their intended recipients.  Each letter has been written by Elsa’s grandmother, and each letter is an apology to the recipient for something.  The entire exercise is meant to distract Elsa from the grief she will endure at losing her beloved grandmother, and also allow Elsa to get to know and understand the various residents in the converted house in which she lives.  As the letters are found and delivered, Elsa does, in fact, learn much about the rag-tag people living in her building, and also about her grandmother.

It’s a convoluted story.  Certainly, many of the characters are interesting, if fairly unbelievable.  Elsa herself is a little unbelievable; yes, she’s wiser than her years, but to the point of hardly believable.  There was something a little annoying about her that prevented me from ever getting attached to her.

A lot of the story revolves, too, around elaborate fairy tales that Elsa grew up being told by her grandmother, and the fairy tales woven into the story make it a little tedious.

One of the characters in the novel is “The Boy With the Syndrome.”  He’s a boy around Elsa’s own age who lives with his mother in the building.  I don’t think his name or his specific syndrome are ever stated; he’s just referred to over and over as The Boy With the Syndrome, and I found this annoying, as well.

In the end, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it.  It was … meh.

Rad Women A-Z by Kate Schatz

Rad American Women A-Z: Rebels, Trailblazers, and Visionaries who Shaped Our History . . . and Our Future!livewhale_0edf491e146e0bbc9b4f57eb9020f28a

by Kate Schatz

This was the first book I chose to read with my daughters (ages 9, 11, and 11) for our literature unit for homeschooling this school year.  It highlights 26 noteworthy American women, one for each letter of the alphabet.  The title pretty much says it all.

My girls and I really enjoyed this book.  I’m embarrassed to admit that there are several women in it whom I was not familiar.  Each page includes a cool painting of the women highlighted, and a good deal of interesting facts.  The women portrayed are very diverse, in historical placement, ethnicity, and contributions.

It’s a perfect feminist non-fiction for the ‘tween and younger teen set.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Couple-Next-Door.Final_-683x1024The Couple Next Door

by Shari Lapena

*I received a copy of this book from the author’s publicist with the request that I read it and write a review.  I received no compensation for this review with the exception of a free copy of the book.

Anne and Marco Conti are a young married couple living in Upstate New York.  It would appear that they have it all – a beautiful home in the right neighborhood, money to spare, good looks, and a new baby.  But of course, things aren’t always what they appear to be.

One fateful night, their babysitter cancels at the last minute.  Rather than cancel their plans to attend a dinner party right next door, they decide to leave their six-month old baby at home asleep in her crib.  They take the baby monitor with them next door, and diligently go home to check on little Cora every half hour.  Even so, when they finally leave their neighbors’ home and return to their own that night, they find their front door ajar, and the crib is empty.

It’s difficult to offer a summary of a psychological thriller like this without giving too much away, but I will say that this story is of the same caliber as Gone Girl and The Girl On the Train.  It’s an absolute page turner – totally fucked up, but in a good way. Every time I thought I understood what was really going on, another twist in the story revealed itself.

The premise of the story – parents leaving their child unattended – is timely in this age of hypervigilant parenting, and the current culture of judging and vilifying parents who don’t meet arbitrary standards that seem to grow higher and higher all the time.  Of course we all think it’s horrible that any parent would leave a baby alone at home – but how dangerous is it really to leave a baby right next door, taking reasonable precautions like the Contis did (and how many of us have done something at some point that put our children at risk, or at least that we know other parents would disapprove of)?  And yet, the worst happens to the Contis – the worst fear that every parent has – their baby is taken.

I admit that I was reluctant to read a story about an abducted baby; I don’t think I have the stomach for a story that features horrible things befalling a baby.  The baby in this story, however, plays a pretty minor role, so take heart.

Deliciously twisted.  And perfect for a book club discussion.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by various parties

911Xmhn9+rLHarry Potter and the Cursed Child

by John Tiffany and Jack Thorne; based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling

Being a late-blooming Harry Potter devotee (I only finally read the HP series a couple of years ago), I was ambivalent about reading The Cursed Child for various reasons.  But, like four million other readers, I got the book as soon as it was released.  Unlike a lot of those readers who read the entire book in a couple of hours, though (two of my kids among them), it took me a week to get through it.  And it wasn’t a very enjoyable week, either.

The plot in a nutshell:

The Cursed Child opens exactly where The Deathly Hallows closed: with Harry and Ginny, and Ron and Hermione at Platform 9 3/4, sending their firstborn off to Hogwarts.  Harry and his eldest son, Albus, have a strained relationship.  Albus is a sullen teen, tortured by his father’s fame, blah blah blah.  Albus becomes besties with Draco’s son, Scorpius while at Hogwarts.  They get ahold of a Time Turner and decide to mess with the past.  We get lots of flashbacks to scenes in the original (real) Harry Potter books, mainly The Goblet of Fire.

I’ll just be blunt: I hated this book.

First of all, it’s actually a play (as if you didn’t know), not a novel like the previous Harry Potter books.  Plays are great!  I adore theater.  But plays are not fun to read.  Reading a play is reading a script – and stage directions.  Unlike a novel, there is no narrator – no first person, third person omniscient, or any other type of narrator who allows the reader to get inside the minds and hearts of the characters and become intimate with setting and plot.  A play reads rather like a robot.

Furthermore, the plot of this particular story is confusing (it involves a Time Turner, and so there is lots of going back and forth in time, and I found it hard to keep track of when in time any particular scene was).

The storyline is also contrived.  It was just … meh.  I felt no suspense, no drama (both of which I think I was supposed to feel).  The plot just cranked along on this weird track.

The characters!  They feel like imposters!  I understand that they’re all 19 years older, and people (sort of) change as they grow older, but Harry, Ron, Hermione, Ginny, and Draco all seem completely reimagined to me.  And I didn’t like any of them!

Probably the biggest problem – and the cause for all of its other failings – is that this story was NOT written by J.K. Rowling, and it shows.  Oh, I know her name is on it, but what it says on the cover is “BASED ON AN ORIGINAL NEW STORY BY J.K. ROWLING.”  It’s no secret that what this story actually is is fan fiction.  My understanding is that Rowling wanted to promote British theater, and lent her name to the project mainly for that purpose.  Had this story – or any eighth installment to the Harry Potter series – actually been written by J.K. Rowling, it would have undoubtedly looked, read, and felt much different.

I’m all for theater, but I wish this particular story had never been published.  And as a HP purist, I cannot accept it as a genuine part of the Harry Potter canon.  So Ima just pretend it doesn’t exist, and the story ended with The Deathly Hallows.

Grace Without God by Katherine Ozment

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by Katherine Ozment

I was asked to read and review this book by TLC Book Tours.tlc-logo-resized

The book’s genesis, apparently, was a particular night some years ago during which the author and her young son witnessed a religious procession through their neighborhood. Her son asked her what the people walking up the street holding candles were doing, and she explained to him that it was a religious ritual.

Read more here.

Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

51e0beCjILLOur Souls At Night

by Kent Haruf

One spring evening, Addie Moore makes a surprise visit to Louis Waters.  She is a seventy-year old widow who has been alone for twenty years; he is around the same age, and also a widower of many years.  Addie and Louis have been neighbors for over forty years, although they’ve never known each other very well.  But on this particular May evening, Addie makes a proposal to Louis –

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me,” she asks him.

Louis, of course, is taken by surprise and is not sure what to say.  Finally, he agrees to think about it.  Gathering his nerve, he goes to Addie’s house the following evening.  And so begins a tender budding relationship.  It wasn’t about sex – sex isn’t even what either of them was after.  It was about having suffered loneliness for far too long – and loneliness is always worse at night.  Addie’s and Louis’s sleeping together was about companionship, about not being alone.

Their first few nights together are hesitant and tentative, but as they lie in the dark together talking and getting to know one another, sharing old sorrows and regrets and hopes, they grow more at ease with each other, and an intimate friendship and affection takes root.

In the small town of Holt, Colorado, the fictional setting of all of Kent Haruf’s novels, word gets around quickly that Louis is visiting Addie at night.  Some of the townspeople disapprove, and some approve wholeheartedly.  Complicating matters further, Addie’s son Gene, who is in an unstable marriage of his own, dumps his six-year old son on Addie for the summer.  Addie adores her grandson, and Louis and the young boy become quite attached to each other over the summer as well.  But when Gene discovers the relationship between Louis and Addie – which has grown past the point of furtive nighttime visits, and into a friendship that is carried on in broad daylight, and which is teetering on the precipice of romantic love – he is determined to put a stop to it.

Like all of Haruf’s other novels, Our Souls At Night is short in pages but long in heart.  This is a very poignant and tender story of loneliness, loss, and second chances.  I can’t say that I found the ending satisfying, but the story overall is a jewel.  It’s certainly worth the read in its own right, but especially if you’re a Kent Haruf fan, it’s a must read.  I was very sad to learn that Mr. Haruf died, and that I’ve now read everything he will ever write.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy by Rachel Joyce

UnknownThe Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy

by Rachel Joyce

Written as a “companion” novel to Joyce’s 2013 bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy tells a parallel story, offering Queenie’s perspective.  You really need to read Harold Fry first, however, in order for Queenie Hennessy to make sense.

In the first novel, Harold Fry, a sixty-five year old man receives a letter one day from a co-worker and friend whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years, telling him that she is dying from cancer.  Queenie Hennessy is that old friend.  Harold, taken by surprise, quickly scratches out a reply to Queenie and walks to the mailbox to post his note to her, only he keeps on walking.  What began as a quick trip up the road to mail a letter becomes a pilgrimage: Harold walks the length of England to get to the hospice in which Queenie lay dying, believing that as long as he keeps walking, she’ll keep living.  Along the way, Harold faces grief and regret and is ultimately transformed by what he learns about himself, those closest to him, and people in general.

In The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Queenie herself is fleshed out: where did she come from?  What had shaped her?  What regrets did she have?  What did she do while Harold was walking the length of England to her?  And why did she write to Harold in the first place after a twenty-year silence?

The premise of Queenie Hennessy is well-imagined, and the character of Queenie is well-developed.  However, I did find aspects of the story disappointing: that she spent twenty years feeling responsible for what happened to Harold’s son David felt foolish, self-indulgent, and even somewhat self-aggrandizing, and that she fancied herself so in love with Harold that she became a martyr – saving his job twice, taking the blame for something he did and losing her job as a result, and living out the rest of her life essentially as a recluse because her love for Harold overshadowed any possibility of pursuing a fulfilling relationship with someone who was not married and who was actually aware of her feelings.

I loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – so much so that I’m currently re-reading it.  It’s a beautiful story about the human heart.

I just wish Queenie’s story had been different, I guess.  It’s interesting enough to keep reading, but in the end it’s mostly just another story about unrequited love and a woman who sacrifices everything for a man.