The Trespasser by Tana French

The Trespasser

by Tana French

In this latest installment by Tana French, Det. Antoinette Conway and her partner, Det. Stephen Moran of the Dublin Murder Squad take center stage.  Handed what on its surface appears to be a textbook domestic abuse-turned-murder case to deal with, Det. Conway and Det. Moran quickly realize that all is not as it appears.  Battling sexism in the squad adds to the complexity of trying to solve a murder case.  Gathering evidence and interviewing parties with different connections to the murder victim lead Conway and Moran on what ends up being a wild goose chase – possibly intentionally.  In the end, who killed Aislinn Murray and why threatens to blow the Dublin Murder Squad apart.

I’ve been a devoted reader of Tana French since her first novel, In the Woods, was published a few years back.  Some of her novels I’ve liked more than others (the above-mentioned In the Woods, as well as The Likeness and Faithful Place, stand out).  The Trespasser is a superb whodunnit, but I was put off by Det. Antoinette Conway’s character.  She’s written as a little too tough-as-nails to be believable or likable.  While I appreciate French’s representation of sexism in the workplace, Conway feels like a bit of an overcompensation – an over-the-top cisgender, heterosexual anti-female.  I was also put off by Conway’s use of “retard” and “fucktard” in the story.  Come on, Ms. French.  Do we really have to continue to use slurs against marginalized people in an effort to be edgy?

Worth reading if you like police procedurals/murder mysteries, but with caveats.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg

Did You Ever Have a Family

by Bill Clegg

I heard about this book when it was first released last year, but put off buying it because I knew that the premise was a tragedy.  I’ve recently started a new book club in my new neighborhood, though, and decided to choose this book as our first book.

The premise of Did You Ever Have a Family is indeed a tragedy: a catastrophic house fire kills four people the night before a wedding.  The victims are the bride-to-be and her fiance, her father, and her mother’s boyfriend.  June, the bride’s mother, is the only survivor.  After the funerals, June flees without a word to anyone, setting out on a cross-country trip in an effort to outrun her grief.  She ends up on the opposite coast, holed up in a little seaside motel that her deceased daughter once stayed at.

In the wake of the horrors of the house fire, the stories of numerous other people emerge – June’s boyfriend’s mother, the florist who was supposed to provide the wedding flowers, Silas, a local teen who can only be described as a hoodlum, the couple who own the motel at which June takes refuge, and various other people whose lives intersect in various ways.

Ultimately, this is a story about family, but also about profound loss and grief, and the formidable effort of surviving all of those things.

I appreciated this story, but it wasn’t the tear-jerker I thought it would be.  I found it difficult to connect with any of the characters.  I wanted to feel sympathy for June, the main character, but she’s somewhat of an enigma, a little cold and a little distant, which made it hard for me to feel much for her.

Still, it’s a well-written, nuanced story that I wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See

by Anthony Doerr

Truth be told, I only read this book because I saw somewhere that President Obama had it on his summer reading list last year.  Although I was aware of the book before discovering that fact, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise, only because I’ve read so many books set during WWII that they don’t especially appeal to me at this point.  I’m glad I decided to read this one.

The story centers around a young blind girl named Marie-Laure who lives with her devoted father, a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History in Paris.  When Marie-Laure, motherless, loses her sight at a young age, her father goes to great lengths to ensure his daughter’s ability to navigate her world, spending years painstakingly crafting a miniature wooden replica of their neighborhood so that Marie-Laure could memorize its characteristics by touch and translate that to an understanding of the life-size reality of the landscape.

When France is invaded by Germany, Marie-Laure and her father flee to a seaside village and take refuge in the house of an eccentric and reclusive uncle.  The uncle, suffering all these years from PTSD from fighting in WWI, has not left his house in twenty years.  In this tall house in Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure’s father again undertakes the building of a model of the village in order that his daughter may be able to navigate it if the need arises.  Soon, Marie-Laure’s father leaves her with her uncle when he is summoned back to the museum, ostensibly to return a highly prized, rare, and valuable gemstone that he spirited out of Paris when the city was invaded.

Running parallel to Marie-Laure’s story is Werner Pfennig’s, a young German orphan boy with an affinity and aptitude for radios, which eventually earns him the attention of influential Nazis.  As a teen, rather than being sent to work in the coal mines like so many of his peers, Werner is sent to a prestigious boarding school for boys, which is his induction into the Hitler Youth.  Werner struggles continually with what he witnesses and takes part in, both willingly and by force.

Eventually, Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories collide in a way that is unexpected.

I began this story feeling a little ho-hum about it, but was quickly taken in.  It’s beautifully told, and full of characters and settings so vivid that I felt as if I were a bystander, watching it all unfold.  Weeks after finishing this book, I am still pondering it.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

51pfzg0xtsl-_sx367_bo1204203200_News of the World

by Paulette Jiles

Whew!  I’m finishing up January with my seventh book read.  I’m on a roll!

News of the World tells the story of Captain Jefferson Kidd, a veteran of the Civil War.  Captain Kidd is somewhat of a loner, a grouchy old widower who is still plagued by memories of war, who prefers solitude to the company of people.  However, to make a living, he travels from town to town reading from newspapers to paying audiences.

During his travels, he crosses paths with a representative of the U.S. army who has in his custody a ten-year-old white girl recently recovered from the Kiowa Indian band that killed her family and captured her.  Captain Kidd is offered $50 to take the girl and return her to her relatives in Texas, an offer he grudgingly accepts.

Young Johanna has been so completely assimilated into her Kiowa family that she believes herself to be Kiowa.  She has forgotten her biological family, her native language, and all of the white people customs she was ripped away from as a young child.

Over their 400-mile trek to Texas, Joanna gradually learns to trust Captain Kidd, whom she begins to address as “Grandfather” in Kiowa.  For his part, Captain Kidd grows attached to and protective of this wild orphan girl.

When Johanna is finally reunited with her aunt and uncle in Texas, she is bewildered at being left by Captain Kidd, and her aunt and uncle are not exactly thrilled to have her thrust upon them.  With many reservations, Captain Kidd does leave Johanna with them; what choice does he have?  He was paid to carry out a task, and the duty must be fulfilled.  Besides, the cold, stern German couple are Johanna’s next of kin.

What follows, you will have to read the book and find out for yourself.

I really enjoyed this novel.  By turns tender and harrowing, it’s a fascinating portrait of a child captured by Indians who became completely assimilated into the tribe and forever considered herself Indian.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

1jlegv-so-9The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

by Gabrielle Zevin

A.J. Fikry is trying to drink himself to death – or at least drink himself comfortably numb.  His beloved wife died in a car accident not too long ago, and the bookstore they opened together in a small east coast island town is failing.  When things seem like they can’t possibly get any worse, an extremely rare and valuable collection of poems by Edgar Allen Poe that served as A.J.’s nest egg is stolen.

Soon after, A.J. makes a strange and wholly unexpected discovery: a baby has been left in his bookstore.  Accompanying the two-year-old girl, Maya, is a diaper bag and a note from her mother imploring A.J. to care for her, as she is unable to care for the babe any longer.  A.J. knows nothing about babies, nor is he particularly fond of babies or children, or even people for that matter (he’s kind of an asshole, but we forgive him because who wouldn’t be an asshole having been through what he’s been through?).  A search for the child’s mother is undertaken, but it’s short-lived, as she is soon found dead of an apparent suicide.  When it is time to turn Maya over to the authorities so that she can enter the foster system, A.J. can’t bring himself to turn her loose; he has quickly become attached and feels responsible for the girl.

As you would imagine, A.J.’s life begins to turn around when Maya enters his life, and what ensues is the sweet evolution of a deep father-daughter bond.  A.J. also pursues Amy, a sales rep for a small publishing company who once arrived at the bookstore, before Maya’s appearance, to pitch the winter book releases to him and was insulted and driven out by a rude and curmudgeonly A.J. in short order.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a very enjoyable book about loss, starting over, and the love of books.  I think it tries to be profound at times but doesn’t quite get there, but all in all a good read.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

18339630All My Puny Sorrows

by Miriam Toews

This is a story about suicide.  It’s about other things, too: family, growing up Mennonite, resilience, grief, and friendship – but mainly, it’s about suicide.

Told in first person, Yolandi, or Yoli for short, tells about growing up in a cloistered Mennonite community in Canada with her parents and her sister, Elfrieda, or Elf as she is known by her loved ones. Elf is a piano prodigy, and at seventeen leaves home to study piano abroad, where she soon becomes a world-renowned classical pianist.  As the years go by, she also becomes more and more tortured.  Numerous suicide attempts ensue, and we find out at some point in the story that Yoli and Elf’s father committed suicide by kneeling in the path of an oncoming train (this incident is taken straight out of the author’s real life; her father actually did commit suicide in that manner, which she wrote about in her memoir, Swing Low: A Life, which I have not read).

Much of the story takes place in the psych ward of the hospital in which Elf ends up after her various suicide attempts.  There, Yoli keeps a devoted vigil over her beloved sister, willing her to want to live.  But alas, Elf is determined to die.  Now in her late forties, she is weary of life.  The story takes a turn when Elf begs Yoli to help her die.  At first, Yoli is predictably horrified by the idea, but gradually she begins to wonder if it wouldn’t in fact be an act of love to help her sister gain the peaceful oblivion she so desperately wants.

While all of this is going on, there are other family dramas taking place.  Yoli is in the middle of a divorce, she’s sleeping around a bit to comfort herself, her teenage daughter is giving her a run for her money, Elf’s husband needs propping up, Elf and Yoli’s aging mother and their aunt are suffering health problems – and, oh yeah, we find out that a cousin also committed suicide a number of years back.

The story is told with a fair amount of humor, but it still feels pretty heavy.  I wanted very much to feel like I could root for Elf’s autonomy and her right to die with dignity, and I applaud Miriam Toews for tackling such a taboo.  However, I couldn’t shake a feeling of anger at Elf’s selfishness.

It’s not that I think suicide is necessarily a selfish act.  I understand that it’s complicated, and that mental illness is often complicated.  I do believe in a person’s right to autonomy over his or her own life and right to die, but what makes this story difficult is the profound pain Elf causes her family by her numerous half-assed – maybe that’s a bit harsh; let’s say unsuccessful – attempts to end her life.  I kept thinking that if someone truly, truly wanted to end their life, they would find a method by which to carry it out that would be quick and effective.  More than that, though, is how Elfrieda drags Yoli into it by imploring her to help her kill herself.  She doesn’t want to die alone, so she places this immense burden on her sister by making her feel tormented by guilt and a sense of duty to end her sister’s suffering.

Toews delivers a well-written story about a difficult topic, but in the end, it’s not a story I cared for.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

28815371The Mothers

by Brit Bennett

This debut novel really got under my skin, and for days I’ve been trying to formulate a review that does it justice, and I’m still not sure I can.

Set in a black community in San Diego, California, the central character is Nadia Turner, who, at the beginning of the story is a seventeen-year-old high school senior whose life has recently been shattered by her mother’s violent suicide – which nobody saw coming.  Nadia’s father, a retired Marine, has retreated into quiet grief, and Nadia, in her own grief, becomes a wild girl who the rest of the parishioners at Upper Room Chapel whisper about.  Nadia enters a brief relationship with the reverend’s son, twenty-one-year old Luke Sheppard, whose ambitions to play pro football were dashed by a serious injury.  An unplanned pregnancy results, and the choice that is made, and how exactly that choice is handled by both Luke and Nadia, reverberates out into their close-knit community, and into their adult lives.  That summer – the summer Nadia quietly has an abortion, the summer before she is set to head off to college in Chicago on an academic scholarship – she finds unexpected solace in her blossoming friendship with Aubrey, a quiet, pious girl her age.  The two girls are opposite in almost every way, but they both throw themselves into a friendship that will bind them for many years.

The book’s title refers to a small group of elderly women, also from the Upper Room Chapel congregation, who collect all the prayer requests and meet regularly to pray together.  These women are the eyes and ears of this little community, and the story is narrated by them.  But more than them, the title refers to mothers who leave, mothers who stay, mothers who choose not to be mothers, and all the ways community members mother one another.

Bennett has created a vivid community, and Nadia, Luke, and Aubrey are complex, none of them all good or all bad. I will say that I deeply hope that nobody reads this book and takes it as a cautionary tale about abortion, because I don’t think that’s the intent at all.  It’s neither a condemnation nor an endorsement of abortion, but rather an extremely intelligent and deeply felt story about loss, grief, family ties, community ties, ambition, and how the choices we make when we’re young can follow us in good and bad ways.

I really enjoyed this book; I think I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

 

To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

41qpsissbfl-_sy344_bo1204203200_To the Bright Edge of the World

by Eowyn Ivey

Ivey’s debut novel, The Snow Child, entranced me when I read it a couple of years ago, so when I discovered that she had published a new novel, I was eager to read it.

To the Bright Edge of the World is a multi-layered tale.  The story opens as a man named Josh, the curator of a small museum in Alpine, Alaska receives a letter from an old man named Walt in Montana, along with a collection of old letters and diaries.  The letters and diaries were written by his great uncle, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forester, and great aunt,  Sophie.  In the winter of 1885, Lieutenant Colonel Forester left his young pregnant wife, Sophie, to lead an expedition into the wilds of Alaska to map the area of the Wolverine River Valley and gather information for the U.S. Army about the geography and native people.  Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.

Alternating between the contemporary correspondence between Walt and Josh – by means of which a friendship grows between these two very different strangers – and the old diaries and letters of Allen and Sophie, this story of love, grief, adventure, and survival is told.  During the months-long Alaskan expedition Lieutenant Colonel Forester and his men are subject to harrowing conditions and bizarre, inexplicable incidents, while back home at Vancouver barracks in Washington territory, Sophie makes her way through her own ordeals, ultimately finding solace in photography.

As in The Snow Child, Ivey demonstrates here a gift for the fantastical, where the lines between what is real, what is not real, and what is possible are indiscernible.

A fine work of fiction.

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

Ack.  This is one of those books that I just didn’t get.  Apparently, it’s longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named one of the best books of the year by all sorts of prestigious publications.  I didn’t feel it.

The story is told in the first person.  Lucy Barton, now past her prime, recounts a time many years ago when she was a young mother and became very ill and spent nine weeks in the hospital.  During that time, her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, comes to visit her and stays for five days and nights, sitting at Lucy’s bedside.  During those five days and nights, mother and daughter warily try to heal old wounds, without actually facing them head on.  Lucy also revisits scenes from her childhood, many of which were painful (there is a scene in which she was repeatedly locked in a truck for hours by her parents when she was very small, that was quite unsettling).  Lucy comes to understand her mother perhaps a little better (though her mother is stubbornly enigmatic and closed off), and perhaps herself a little better, but there really is never any resolution, and her mother ends her visit as suddenly as she showed up.

I think what bugged me is that Lucy very much seems like a victim, and she never really rises above that.  She reverts to behaving like a little girl in her mother’s presence and is never able to stand up to her mother.  I’m drawn to stories about fraught mother-daughter relationships because they often resonate with me, but this one fell a little flat.  I finished the story wondering “What was the point of that?”

Elizabeth Strout is a gifted novelist, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

25111119Barkskins

by Annie Proulx

Best known for having written Brokeback Mountain, Proulx has now written an epic novel spanning several hundred years.  In a nutshell, it is about the deforestation of North America (and secondarily, the destruction of forest land in Europe and New Zealand, and of the rain forests of South America).  But of course, it is about more than that.

The novel opens in the seventeenth century with two young and illiterate Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, following a feudal lord through the vast, dense, and seemingly infinite forest of “New France” (Canada).  Sel and Duquet are indentured servants, charged with the hard labor of cutting down trees for their cruel seigneur for three years in exchange for small plots of land they can call their own.  Duquet is wily, however, and soon runs away and becomes a fur trader.  Ever ambitious and determined, he eventually marries well and sets up a timber business.  Meanwhile, Sel is forced by his seigneur to marry an Indian woman, for whom he actually develops a genuine affection.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, the lives of Rene Sel’s and Charles Duquet’s descendants intersect and diverge.  Meanwhile, both families’ lives are dependent in one way or another on the forests, and the forests diminish by degrees until the modern day when the world is in a state of ecological crisis.

Not only is this a story of disappearing trees and the impact on the earth, but it’s also a story of adventure, violence, endurance, greed, family, and cultural annihilation.

It’s a hefty tome, but well worth the read.