Sunday, December 17, 2017

Teen Angst, A Missing Child, A Motley Crew at Work...Three Books I Won't Even Try to Connect: Mirror, Mirror (Delevigne), The Child Finder (Denfeld), This Could Hurt (Medoff_

I'm making good on my promise to myself to make a dent in the book backlog. I love my job, but after sitting in front of a screen all day, I simply can't bring myself to engage with a screen beyond the tv (or the tablet posing as a tv).  But, I AM trying...I'm definitely prioritizing my Harper books since they deserve it for being patient, but I have actually read a handful of others including at least one semi-recent bestseller, a book I missed in the "middle grades" years, and a few random picks.

A brief note -- I'm not usually a reader of young adult novels, but I also know the category holds some of literature's very best from serious stories to jaunts that remind readers young and old that they are not alone. So I harbor no negative association with young adult novels, but they don't make up a very large share of my book collection.

I received this young adult book (def older young adults...I'd say 16+) from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The novel is narrated by Red, one of four high school students who went from being something of an outcast to a member of a much-loved, tight-knit band (one was popular...but, as is easy to see coming, misunderstood). A year or so after they formed, one of the girls suddenly goes missing. This story is about finding out what happened to her, and also about what happened to them...the story of the four kids becoming incredibly close and each kid's struggles with family, friends, and general teen-dom.

I saw several of the "surprises" coming, including the element that Red holds back from the reader for a good chunk of the book. There are a LOT of issues in here, though identifying them would pretty much mean revealing spoilers. I think this could be great fodder for discussion in the right forum...maybe some mix of older teens and parents or something...but it just wasn't quite for me. I certainly didn't despise it by any means, but I felt removed from it. I often read books where I can't relate directly to the plot or the characters, but here it almost felt more like I was watching a made-for-tv movie. I never really connected (admission: maybe I was jealous that I didn't find a little clique like this in HS).

Two-and-a-half to three stars. Liked the mixed formats (text conversations etc.), liked some of what the author had to say. But, it felt like too much tossed together and like other stories that try so hard to not paint cliched portraits that they become another sort of cliche. Oh, and I really liked Ash...the sister of the missing girl who is an unapologetic computer nerd and pretty darn cool (ok, you are probably supposed to think that...but I did....)

FYI -- If you're a parent or just someone who is bothered by such things, know that there is "foul language" and it does include depictions of sex, drug use, and violence (in a range of lights).

Five-year-old Madison wonders off while her family is looking for a Christmas tree in rural Oregon. The bulk of the novel occurs three years later when Naomi, a private investigator known as The Child Finder joins the (stale) search. For Naomi, every lost child is a personal mission. She has only snippets of memories from when she fled from...someplace...and ran to a group of strangers and eventually found herself in the care of an incredibly loving foster mother who also cares for a young boy with his own troubled tale. The reader hears from Madison throughout the novel, so we know quickly that she didn't simply suffer the fate of many a lost hiker who succumbed to the cold. We know she is with a man who keeps her in a below-ground room and, well, "loves" her in ways no adult should love a child.

There's a lot more here. In fact, as with far too many books, there's too much. There are several different plotlines and cutting a few would have. I like complex, full characters, and Denfeld has a talent for creating them. I just wish there had been a bit of extra editing here.  A second missing child case would have made a better short story....or might have been fine here if other lines were trimmed.  The number of plot paths made this book more challenging for me. And I truly disliked portions of Naomi's present-day personal tale. Her romantic storyline failed completely for me.

Still, there were elements here to enjoy. Madison's chapters are a bit unusual, but they rang true to me as a child's effort to survive the unsurvivable. They carried a disturbing beauty that showcases Denfeld's talent. As noted above, I didn't like where Naomi's story went, but I did like the peeks at her past (put another way, her backstory was a positive for me, but her present-day personal life was not). Another positive for me was the mixture of emotions that the ending to Madison's tale carried the shades of grey that tend to make books ring true for me. Both this ending and the chapters about Madison's survival show that this is the same author who crafted The Enchanted.

Overall, the positives were muted by the negatives. I struggled to pick the book up because so much of the novel was a slog through mud, pushing through the parts I didn't care for to get to the moments that felt like gems. Three stars .

Readers should know there are a lot of disturbing elements here and be ready for that...

With organizational charts sprinkled throughout (and used as an epilogue), this book focuses on the members of the human resources team at a large, struggling services company.  We meet a full cast of characters (the charts helped me keep track of who was who!) at various staged of their careers and their personal lives. Some live to work, some work to live. They are all navigating the complex balance between the two and facing the reality that working in an office means working with each other.

There were several places in this book where I stopped and read aloud to my husband (who is mid-career and getting a master's in an HR-related field), usually because a particular passage was at once humorous and observant. I've been in a few workplaces myself, and even worked in recruiting so have an HR element of my own, and I could imagine these characters in the office (or cubicle) next-door.  

I can't say I like every character. I can't say they were all as full and round as I usually prefer. And a large part of the central plot didn't really ring real for me. There's a Weekend At Bernie's style plotline that serves to tie the rest of the book together and I didn't really care for it. But, while it was very much a central driving force, it was also largely a device to tie everything together -- so while I didn't necessarily buy into it, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. 

But that was okay. Some books are nourishment, some are mind candy. Some are literature, some are...well...just books. This was the latter, but sometimes "just books" are perfect for your mood. They have an important place on a complete least for me...a "real" bookshelf versus one for show. It made me laugh and I enjoyed watching the relationships between the characters shift over time. This book was a fun diversion from a stressful time in my world (not work stress...though I can see this being particularly apt as a diversion from workplace drama).

4 stars. Review based on an ARC from the publisher provided in exchange for my honest thoughts.

P.S. Had to smile when I caught the HR chief struggling mightily with orders to rest and finding herself watching a tv movie called Hunger Point....since I group books by the same author together, this one will sit next to Medoff's novel, Hunger Point.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Portraits in words....The Reason You're Alive (Quick) and Rebellion (Patterson)

Okay...I've got a backlog to face, but I know I need to do it in little chunks...

Having read a few of Quick's past works, I was excited by the opportunity to receive a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

This is David Granger's story. It opens just after he has had brain surgery and he is forced, very much against his will, to spend time with his son Henry and his granddaughter Ella. He dotes on Ella but has long-clashed with his son. David is a Vietnam Vet who still battles his memories of the war and the "bad stuff" he did during his tour of duty. He is as politically incorrect as they come (and quite foul-mouthed....if profanity bothers you, steer clear), a strong proponent of the Second Amendment, and at a loss when it comes to how to interact with his liberal art-dealer son. But, underneath the gruff exterior is a big heart who cares deeply about a wide-range of people regardless of race, sexuality, or creed. David is also clearly still mourning the wife he lost years ago, a woman he loved deeply who suffered from intense mental illness.

I enjoyed this novel. It was a quick read and in some ways I want to call it an easy read, but the multitude of issues it raises are far from simple. Through David, Quick makes his reader confront their own assumptions and biases, pushing the reader to see the beauty and the good in a man whom many would immediately dismiss as a "right wing nut" (I suspect Quick's base is more than a little bit liberal-leaning and will identify more with David's son than with the protagonist). The style pushes the reader along at a fast pace, but the content lingers as he raises issues including the trauma of war and the complexity of loving someone consumed by mental demons. 

A high 4 stars (of 5). 
Rebellion (provided to me by the publisher is exchange for an honest review) takes the reader into the daily lives of women facing different worlds but calling upon the same inner strength to do their very best. Each begins at a moment of change, but carries through into the daily business of life. Louisa's tale begins in the late nineteenth century as she leaves her family home to live a hard life as a farmer's wife in rural Illinois. Her sister, Addie has also left home behind but for the very different role as a missionary's wife in China, plunged into a culture she doesn't understand where even her closest counterparts seem like they come from an entirely different world. Then there's Hazel, Louisa's daughter, whom we meet in the 1950s as she faces the sudden the loss of her husband and learns to manage both her responsibilities and her heart. There's also a recent college grad moving back from the city to her family's hotel in rural China in something close to the present day (why, yes, she is the one who held the least interest for me...). Not to mention a briefer portrait of Hazel's daughter, trying to balance a busy life in Chicago with helping her aging mother.

I feel out of breath just typing that. Once I got beyond the first 50 or so pages, I was able to cleanly separate out the various women's tales, which is sometimes hard for me. The book is divided into sections with several chapters on one woman before moving to another...each woman is heard from multiple times with each story stopping and starting to accommodate another. I grew to anticipate "hearing from" some of the women while feeling somewhat disappointed when others took their turn as protagonist. There are some big events that occur, but much of this novel is simply about what it takes to survive and thrive in daily life. Aside from the tie to the Boxer Rebellion, the rebellions of this novel are of the sort that let each woman assert herself and become herself in her world.

Patterson does a lovely job showing the reader two places at different time periods and the way her different protagonists navigate their worlds. She has definite talent. But there was just too much thrown together.  I think this would have been much more successful as two interconnected novels that allowed the reader to immerse herself more completely in the different settings and truly appreciate each,

Three stars. There's beauty in here, but there's too much crammed in to allow the reader to truly appreciate it...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Families, Secrets, Decisions - The Lightkeeper's Daughters (Pendziwol) and Everybody's Son (Umrigar)

I finally got my books unpacked and onto their new shelves. And, because I couldn't just keep on wondering, I counted.  Just over 500.  Yeah, I suppose that qualifies as a Book Hoarder.  I'll share them, but only share because I want all the words.

I've had a number of non-Harper books lingering on my "'to review' bookshelf" on Goodreads, but they will linger longer since I also have a number of Harper titles and they get priority. I doubt I'll get fully up to date in one post, but I'll start (and, of course, keep adding to the shelf as I got so I'll never quite get "there")...

When Morgan is caught spray-painting graffiti onto a fence by a senior living home, she gets forced into community-service. Although her work is centered on repairing the "damage" she caused, she ends up bonding with Elizabeth and helping her read recently recovered journals belonging to her father. While we see a bit of the present, including the budding tie between the teen and the older woman and the teen's own backstory, the majority of the story centers on Elizabeth's family and her youth spent living on an island where her father was the lighthouse keeper on a tiny island off Lake Superior. Family relationships are front-and-center (they also have two brothers), especially the bond between Elizabeth and her mute twin whose art eventually becomes well-known and collectible but who seems almost more nature than human.  Secrets abound, several of them of the sort that families just decide not to talk about rather than face (especially in the context of a rough climate in decades-past).

This isn't an action-packed page-turner, although there are a few tense scenes. Instead, it is much more a character study and an ode to a beautiful but dangerous place. The writing is quite enjoyable and the writer clearly has a love for the land. While I can't call it a favorite, I certainly enjoyed the book. I did find some elements of the concluding chapters a bit too neat with a few too many coincidences. That said, Pendziwol is a talented writer and it would be a lovely book to enjoy in a rocking chair on the porch of a summer lake house.

3.5 stars...I'll round up since I have to choose, but it isn't quite 4 stars for me. Definitely aimed at a lover of lyrical prose. I did enjoy the character of Morgan, the type of teen you just want to shake some sense into but who also has reasons for her lack of trust in the world.  Review based on an Advance Readers' Edition supplied by the publisher free of charge.

There is no doubt that David Coleman means least mostly, or at least so he tells himself. After losing their son to tragedy, he and his wife have toyed with the idea of taking in a foster child when David encounters Anton. Then 9 years old, Anton is found after he breaks a window to escape the stifling heat of an apartment locked from the outside where he has been alone for a week, largely without electricity. He takes Anton in and I don't think it gives away too much to say that Anton stays long-term, though exactly how that happens is a part of the story that needs to be experienced un-spoiled. Ultimately, Anton is the focus of this book and it is about how he lives and grows feeling trapped between two very different worlds. His foster family and his birth mom also play important roles in this drama. 

There is a lot here. It is the type of book that raises many questions. It does try to suggest some of the answers, perhaps a little too forcefully, but it also leaves room for uncertainty. Few good acts are truly selfless and what is a rescue to one person is a loss to another. I see how this novel was heavy-handed to some, but I was okay with that. I did feel like there was something a bit disjointed in the latter parts of the tale, maybe the time jumps just felt like too much, but I still enjoyed this read. Some of the issues raised here are uncomfortable...especially for those of us who like to think of ourselves as "good liberals," but they are worth studying.

4 stars. Love would be too strong a word, but it was a good read even if not always an easy one. While I liked some of what happens near the end, I wish some of the latter chapters would have been done differently. Readers definitely need to be ready for a heavy dose of "issues" including race and class matters. Thank you to Harper for supplying the book in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Two tales of people, place, and identity: Kiss Carlo (Trigiani) and No Other World (Mehta)

Summer has descended upon Northern Virginia. I've been enjoying reading in the cozy chairs we bought for our sunroom. Sadly, it will soon be too hot in there to breathe till Fall. Luckily, there's a pool nearby!

I'd find it hard to say "no" when offered a taste of Trigiani. I truly adored The Shoemaker's Wife. Still, I've also glanced at other novels she penned and felt immediately turned off. But, the adoration won out and I happily signed up to receive an advance edition of this novel (which came with lipstick!).

Although it takes a few trips...including to Italy and to a small town in PA...this book's heart is in Philadelphia. Nicky is growing up in a bustling family, adopted by an Aunt and Uncle when his mother passed and raised alongside their three sons. He eventually becomes part of the family taxi business, a thriving affair in 1949 as the economy bustles after the war, with their main competition coming from the uncle's estranged brother. Still, Nicky finds himself drawn to a small struggling theater company and works there part-time for years before revealing the secret to his longtime girlfriend just as he's thrust onto the stage when the company is shorthanded. This story develops alongside the story of a small PA town getting ready to welcome an important visitor from the town's struggling sister city in Italy.

And, well, to avoid saying too much (which some summaries do), I'll just say it all gets thrown in a jar and shaken.

I really wanted to love this book. I did FEEL the place, possibly more vividly since I'm half-Italian and grew up just outside of Philadelphia, and that's a credit to Trigiani. She paints several places beautifully. While her characters are interesting, they don't feel nearly as real as the places do. I certainly cheered for Nicky, but I got a bit weary as the story mixed him up into plots that seemed thrown together at random. It would have been a much better book if it was, well, several books. I could have handled some loose connections tying together a trilogy, though even then I feel like the overlaps would have needed to be minimized. There's just too much going on and Nicky is in the middle of all of it, when he just shouldn't be.

There are some great aspects of this book. As I've mentioned, she's a master of place. And I just loved Hortense, the taxi company's dispatcher, although her storyline follows Nicky's to the small town and loses me a bit (hers is a good tale, just felt too forced). And Calla, the daughter of the aging owner of the theater, is a pretty cool lady too. But, the fact that there was too MUCH, too MANY plots tied too loosely together, dominated and knocks what could have been a four-star novel down to three.

This is a story about family, culture, and identity. Kiran is born to a couple who immigrated to America from India in search of the American dream. In some ways, they have it. They are doing fine and living in a nice town in Western NY, but Kiran feels like he doesn't quite belong. He questions how he fits, both in his nation and in his own home. The book also introduces us to the uncle who stayed behind in India and eventually to his son as well, providing the reader different eyes on the story. Although Kiran is the protagonist, we also see stories he doesn't, including his mom's brief affair and his cousin's struggle during his brief visit to the U.S. As Kiran grows and becomes aware of his own identity as a gay man, other questions arise that make the study in identity even broader.

I liked the roundness of the characters here. We see imperfections and secrets and we see how even those who look at ease feel a bit lost. I enjoyed this book, but it didn't stay with me much beyond the last place. I also felt like a few of the storylines...the early mention of one girl's death on 9/11, the key moments in Kiran's trip to India...felt forced into the story like ideas the writer wanted to be sure to get on the page.

This DID feel real at many points and I think it would connect on a deeper level with first-generation Americans and also with those who know what it feels like to be gay in a culture that won't utter the word. 

Three and a half stars. Provided to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

A Blaze with Smoke that Lingers Long After, A Burst that Burns Bright but Fades Fast: Night of Fire (Thubron) and The Comet Seekers Sedgwick)

Time marches on. Spring is here, summer is looming. Sitting in our lovely sunroom and committing myself to at least getting two reviews churned out. The truth is that I do love writing these, but somehow it is also incredibly draining so I'll leave a third ARC review for another day along with several reviews of books I actually purchased (those reviews I owe to myself and, in a hard-to-define way, the authors...these are owed in a much more concrete, direct fashion and promised to the lovely folks a Harper who help keep my nightstand stocked)

This book is at once extraordinarily complex and extremely simple. The title succinctly conveys the least that of the present old, (clearly dangerous) Victorian home that has been divided into apartments is burning with six tenants (including the landlord) trapped inside. As we see each tenant's room catch aflame, we journey into the past and dive fairly deep into each individual life. There is the lone woman, a naturalist, whose love of butterflies is the force that pushes her story forward. There is the priest, whose story focuses on the last months of his training and the other young men who are on the same journey (both a physical one and a spiritual one). There is a neurosurgeon whose life's work involves a deep connection to memory, both as a fragile product of the brain and as something wholly different. As other reviews note, there are many recurring themes and motifs in the individual stories from the suicide of an acquaintance to the presence of butterflies.

I am a character-driven reader...I read to experience lives that are not my own (I'm a people-watcher and I'll strike up a conversation with anyone, but deep connection is hard for me)...and this is a character-driven book. In some ways, its style is one that has been very much overdone in the past 5 years or so, a series of interconnected but stories that create a product in a grey zone between novel and short story collection. Yet, there is also something new and different here.

Thubron's characters are amazingly deep despite only living for a few dozen pages. They are all complex and compelling, though certainly every reader will find one or two stand out (for me, the naturalist was most fascinating while the priest dragged a bit). The brief overlaps are far too numerous to appear as coincidences and yet are, purposely, never really fleshed out. There are some answers suggested, but none proffered as the answer/explanation for what is really happening and what is being said.

I think this is a novel that would benefit from a circular read that wraps back and starts again the moment it finishes. I can't claim, however, to have given it that treatment and don't know when it'll find its way to the nightstand again. Still, a solid 4-star book (5-star scale, book provided free of charge by the publisher in exchange for an honest review).. Recommended for character-driven reader who are ready to fall into a story and to ponder deeper meanings that belie the very simple description of the present day action.

I must confess to start that I finished this book, provided to me by the publisher is exchange for a review, several weeks ago. Sometimes I think delays (which I admit are quite common these days!) hamper my ability to write a review, other times I think that a delayed review can be far more telling...esp with my very odd memory..and capture the essence of a story more than an immediate write-up could.

This novel has two primary protagonists but also touches down in moments across several centuries. At the simplest level, it is the love story of Francois and Roisin. At another level, it is an ode to comets. At its core, it is about time, about love, about memory, and about the past that is always present in, well, the present. It begins at the end of the story, when Francois and Roisin are (finally, an odd word for a preface but an accurate one) connecting under the Antarctic sky. The reader is then taken back in their lives. Roisin's arc centers on a love of the night sky and a complex relationship with a cousin, a relationship that is intense in youth (intensified by being taboo) and teeters on the edge of soul-matehood but is tested by different destinies and dreams. In Francois's story, the focus is on his tie to his mother who is either insane or possesses a deep, inherited gift that allows her to see deceased relatives whenever a comet passes overhead (it is these predecessors whose stories are told in the chapters dating back much further in time, always tied to the appearance of a comet).  

There are moments in this book that feel so very intense. And there are moments that feel desperately disappointing, when the writer falls back on what feels like too-simple tropes (e.g., near-misses in the histories of the two protagonists). There are moments of magic and others that feel forced (including the connection to a famous tapestry and the characters depicted thereon). I did enjoy the lessons about history and science and appreciated the research that went into the book. And overall, and I recognize this is such a wimpy statement, I think I liked it. But, like a comet blazing across the horizon and then disappearing into the dark, it faded very fast.

3.5 stars. Readers should be looking for love stories that can be more about history than romance, for a heavy dose of magic, for a little bit of science, and for a lot emotion....but also ready to accept a few literary foibles and a story that burns hot at moments and fades near-to-dark at others. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Meh...A Rare Did-Not-Finish (Marrow by Elizabeth Lesser) and a Mixed Bag (Mister Monkey by Francine Prose)

(Insert usual comments about how I need to get on here more often. There are a number of books on my "to be reviewed" shelf on Goodreads, but I've written up two of the reviews and might as well get some of those reshelved! Sadly, neither is a particularly positive review, but there ARE some books on the shelf that will get positive reviews (when I get to them...)!)

It is rare that I close a book and put it on the shelf unfinished. It feels like a defeat to me and like an insult to the book. However, after a bit of internal turmoil, I did just that with Marrow. I'm not going to give it a rating in terms of stars, but I think it still warrants a short "review" of sorts.

I'm definitely more of a fiction gal, but I was drawn to Marrow when it first came to my attention (note: I received a review copy from the publisher free of charge). I finally pulled it down to delve into (life has been more than a bit busy) after hearing the author talking about some related items on NPR. I was interested in how the two sisters came to know each other, how they accomplished the merger of souls as they went through the donation process. I got a few glimpses of this and enjoyed a few pages here and there about the very different childhoods that can be had within the same walls.  However, the portion devoted to this was so tiny. Much more of the book, at least in the just-shy-of-100pps I read, was something akin to either a self-help book crossed with a primer on the author's view of the life (a mix of various social science disciplines).

I didn't want that and I almost began to resent the time I spent on the book. With time a precious commodity of late and truly needing my reading to be about pleasure and to help me feel refreshed rather than drained, I put this aside.

First things first...this is about a children's play that involves a monkey played by a young boy. It is not, however, a children's book.

Okay, moving on. This novel follows a number of people both directly and tangentially tied to a mediocre production of a fairly mediocre play based on a beloved children's novel. Early on, the reader experiences a particularly notable showing in which the young boy, a gymnast on the verge of puberty who has a wreck of a stage mother as his primary parent) who plays the monkey wreaks a bit of havoc including sexually assaulting one of the adult actresses (he's supposed to jump in her arms, he...well...humps in them instead). This episode factors into a number of the different narratives the reader comes across as Prose takes them from one character to another to another, with each character serving as the protagonist for one chapter.

As I suppose is common with this sort of book, I found myself really enjoying some chapters and hurrying to get through others. The word "zany" pops up in many reviews...both in reference to the book and to the play at the center of its orbit...and that's pretty much the best way to sum it up. Zany but also, at times, dark. Along those lines, I feel like it was far from a serious read, although it did have some serious moments and serious thoughts including a lot about destiny, loneliness, and even the suitability of evolution as a topic for children. Honestly, I finished it a while back and while I remember my response to some characters' tales, I can't really remember a feeling about the book as a whole. I think that probably sums it up best. 

3 stars. That falls a bit below my somewhat standard 3.5 which is what I'd usually give a book that I  generally enjoyed but didn't feel all that strongly about. The lower score meshes with the fact that I enjoyed parts of it but was very much ready for this book to end. I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

It doesn't bother me and I imagine it is evident from the summary and the reviews one can find here and elsewhere, but both sex and religion (largely in reference to the aforementioned issue of evolution) come up.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Readin' in the Rain -- Commonwealth (Patchett), Mercury (Livesay), I'll Take You There (Lamb)

Yes, I've been mighty remiss in my review-writing.  Working full-time after years of disability IS rewarding, but it is also tiring.

And, then, there's simply the fact that none of the books I've read recently have really compelled me to write a rapidfire, excited review. The first two are decidedly mediocre reviews....there's good in both, but it fights against the not-so-good.  The third is a bit more on the positive side. While I hate writing reviews with a negative slant, I also believe they are important.  In addition to the value they carry in and of themselves (i,e. helping people who are deciding on their next read, creating a "conversation" of sorts with other readers), they also give value to my reviews overall since they increase the validity of the positive ratings. This may all tie back to a kids' movie review show that was on during my childhood about which my stepdad routinely griped "they like everything!"

Commonwealth is the story of a family tree that grows from an infidelity. When Bert attends a christening alone, he ends up kissing Beverly, mother of the child. This sets off the end of two marriages and throws six children into a modern and evolving family tree. We see these players at the day of the christening and at many points over the decades to come. I'm not sure how to say more without saying too much....

This is the type of book I tend to love. It is filled with flawed, multi-faceted characters who matter more than the plots they inhabit. And I write this a month after finishing the book, I really remember none of them. What I do remember is that I was ready to move on far before the last page and it took a lot of work to keep going. There were interesting moments...including moments spread all across the pages...but it just never held me. I mixed up the siblings, and maybe I was supposed to but that isn't for me.

Two stars. This book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an open, honest review.  Read Patchett's Bel Canto instead for a much better ensemble. 

I'll open with a disclaimer -- I'm terrified of horses. I can absolutely see their beauty and their power, but put me too close and I'll cry.

Mercury is a portrait of a marriage in decay and a woman obsessed. The first half is told by Donald, the second by his wife Viv. Donald is an optometrist in the Boston area who misses his previous work as an eye surgeon and is still grieving the death of his father, To some extent, he knows that his wife Viv has gotten lost in the shuffle of life. Viv is working at a stables, bringing back a childhood passion for riding and competing. A horse named Mercury is brought to the stables and Viv becomes truly and wholly obsessed, although Donald misses most of the signs that this is going beyond typical love for an animal. There are other players in the story...Donald's good friend who is legally blind, a childhood friend with whom Donald stopped corresponding after a move (I think they were 8ish) which he still regrets, Mercury's owner, and a handful of others. Some see more of Viv's obsession than Donald does, but no one imagines how far it will go.

I don't need to like characters, but I feel like a good book leaves me feeling like I understand them. Here, that simply didn't happen. I certainly didn't get Viv's true, deep obsession with Mercury and the lengths she'd go to protect the horse. While I understand Donald's various distractions...his grief, feeling "stuck" professionally, etc....I didn't get his complete blindness towards his wife's growing emotional/mental imbalance. Further, while I like the concept of looking at blindness from a physical and metaphorical standpoint, it was a bit too heavily telegraphed here.

This certainly isn't without its merits. There IS some lovely writing here. It IS character-driven which I like and they are well-rounded which is essential. There also are enough events for those readers who get frustrated with books where very little actually happens. I also liked seeing the same moments from Viv's perspective after seeing them through Donald's eyes.

Sadly, however, the negatives outweighed the positives and I'm at two-and-a-half stars, probably rounded down where sites force my hand to pick "full stars." I tried to like it (despite the horse!), but I just wasn't drawn in. Might be better for a horse lover. Best-suited for someone who wants a balance of action and character with an accessible chunk of psychology and the examination of a marriage and a woman in turmoil.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An opportunity to read a Lamb book free of charge (in exchange for a review) is one I'm not likely to pass up. Ultimately, this is far from the utter triumph that is She's Come Undone (or The Hour I First Believed & I Know this Much Is True but that didn't make the impression on me that Undone did), but I still enjoyed it.

Felix is a film-lover and film-scholar. He is also the younger brother to two powerful sister, an ex-husband to another strong woman who is an ardent feminist, and the father to a twenty-something woman making her way as a writer. Felix is in an old theater when he is visited by two spirits who, in scenes interspersed with his current day life, show him scenes from his past and even put him firmly into the "film" so he can re-experience moments of his childhood.

There is a LOT in here...a look at the good and bad of beauty contests, an examination of women's evolving place, a brush with eating disorders, a lot about family.  For the most part, Lamb is skillful enough to balance it all, but it still is a bit much at times. I wasn't too fond of the concept of the ghostly visitors, but I liked how it allowed Felix to experience moments both as they happened and with the knowledge of what was to come. Some of the story regarding his middle sister (to say more risks spoiler-territory) could have been a separate book (or maybe a short story) and I think the book would have improved from a few harsh cuts. The reader was also spoon-fed too much of the political/social message about feminism.

Still, it's Lamb and he's magic. He understands the inner workings of people (ok, mostly of women since even with a male narrator, the women dominate the story). I'd put it someplace between 3.5 (solid score for me, worth reading but not worth raving) and 4 stars (veers towards being worth a recommendation, worth a reread some day). I think it would be a good book club read. It isn't his best doesn't even come close...but it is a good book and I enjoyed the visit to its world.