Saturday, December 30, 2017

Best of 2017

This was not one of my stellar years for reading. In part, it was because I read a lot of sub-par books for publicists. Sometimes, it is apparent that I don’t know how to say no. On the other hand, I read several great books that I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t gotten an advanced reader’s copy from the publisher. Not sure what the solution is to the problem of too many books and too little time.


Hillbilly Elegy: A memoir of a family and culture in crisis  by J.D. Vance. This was, of course, one of the year’s most popular books. In it, JD Vance tells about a childhood in Ohio, but his family was attached deeply to Kentucky. Vance became an eloquent voice of conservative Republicanism and Trump followers during the election. My husband and I read this book during the weeks following the election.  

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. Oops, for some reason, I didn’t post a review of this book, but I loved, loved, loved it. Read it for my book club. Then in November, Noah was in town at our local auditorium. He is a brilliant commentator on society, in part, because of his childhood in apartheid South Africa. This is the theme of his book. Besides, you gotta love a guy who gives credit to his mother. 

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alesandria Marzano-Lesnevich. This book purports to be two things—a true crime nonfiction narrative and a memoir. In actuality, the memoir is far more engrossing than the true crime, but in combination, the book is so compelling that it made it to my list of favorites for the year, primarily because it is genre busting. 


The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World by Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman. My husband and I read this book aloud and we were entranced. The book discusses the creative process and how it bends, breaks, and blends with the scientific process. This book is really important as people learn how science and the arts are so intimately connected.  

Literary Fiction

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan. This is my favorite book of the year. Egan is a master of intense and complicated plots, but this book is much more traditional than her groundbreaking A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize. World War II New York City and a feisty young woman.

A Hundred Small Lessons by Ashley Hay. A lovely, reflective book about choosing and being chosen, about motherhood, and a meditation on the many decisions that a person makes that changes the course of a life.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. A most incredible novel with the slimmest of premises: an aristocrat stuck in a hotel (albeit a grand hotel) for 30 years. A meditative book with a breathtaking and ingenious ending. 

Mystery and Thriller

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers over the course of the year. Far and away the best books were those by Louise Penny. As you probably remember, I was in Three Pines, Quebec, the home of Inspector Gamache, for the launch of Penny’s thirteenth mystery. Here are the ones I reviewed this year: Still Life; A Fatal Grace; The Cruelest Month;  A Rule Against Murder;  and Bury Your Dead


Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. We listened to this book, read by the author, on our way to our summer trip to Norway. Equally brutal, poignant, and humorous, the retellings were a perfect introduction to my imagination. We learned the legends of Odon, Thor, Loki and Freya in a clever, non-threatening way
Al Franken Giant of the Senate by Al Franken. Although we loved listening to Al Franken read his humorous memoir, I hesitated to put it on this list because of the sexual allegations surrounding him and his resignation from the US Senate. On the other hand, we really loved listening to the book. Hence, I put it on my list.

Other notables.

Most Overrated: The Woman in Cabin 10  by Ruth Ware
Biggest Surprise: Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo by Stephanie Storie
Most Painful to Read: Homesick for Another World  by Ottessa Moshfegh
Best Kid’s Book: Whatis Hip Hop by Eric Morse and Anny Yi
Best Book Title: Deadbomb Bingo Ray by Jeff Johnson
Most messed up: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

The Wife Between Us

By Greer Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen
St. Martin’s Press      2018
352 pages     Thriller

The best thing I can do to introduce you to this thriller is to paste the publisher’s lead:
When you read this book, you will make many assumptions.
You will assume you are reading about a jealous ex-wife.
You will assume she is obsessed with her replacement – a beautiful, younger woman who is about to marry the man they both love.
You will assume you know the anatomy of this tangled love triangle.
Assume nothing.

Twisted and deliciously chilling, Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen's The Wife Between Us exposes the secret complexities of an enviable marriage - and the dangerous truths we ignore in the name of love.
Read between the lies.

I began reading the psychological thriller, The Wife Between Us, expecting it to be similar to Best Day Ever or Gone Girl or one of the several other unreliable female narrator thrillers that I have read over the past few years. About 1/3 of the way through, I sat up straight—what did I just read? I had to go back, reread, and I still wasn’t sure what had just happened. The first twist is amazing, and then the plot just keeps twisting and twisting. The female characters are at once vulnerable and powerful; the philandering husband is just what you would expect; and the decisions made by the characters are haunting. The thing I liked most about the women is that these are women that you know, women who think that they are going to “have it all” when they marry well, but nothing is as it seems at first glance. 

There is really not much more that can be said about the book that won’t give away the plot. This is all you are going to get out of me. I want you to jump up as I did and shout, “What did I just read?” All I can say is that revenge is sweet. 

The Wife Between Us is the first novel by the writing duo of Hendricks and Pekkanen. I was very intrigued by their partnership. Hendricks was Pekkanen’s editor for seven of Pekkanen’s novels, and they became fast friends and now writing partners. They wrote the pages of this novel separately, and then met once a month to edit what they wrote and share ideas. The writing is seamless and very skillfully done. Here is an article about their collaboration. The Wife Between Us is not out yet (January 9) but it has already been optioned for a movie by Stephen Spielberg’s company. 

Although the Kirkus reviewer was only mildly intrigued by The Wife Between Us, both Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal gave it starred reviews. I really enjoyed it and highly recommend it.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A Hundred Small Lessons

By Ashley Hay
Atria  2017
288 pages     Literary

I had an existential experience yesterday as I was nearing the end of A Hundred Small Lessons. Not sure if it was my existential moment, or one projected onto the two main women characters in the book—each of whom is experiencing her own existential moments.

Elsie Gormley lived in her house in Brisbane, Australia for more than 60 years, raised her twin son and daughter there, buried her husband Clem, and lived by herself until she fell and her kids moved her to an assisted living facility. She is totally disoriented and keeps trying to get home.

Lucy, her husband Ben, and her toddler, Tom, have purchased Elsie’s house, but Lucy is as disoriented as Elsie. Lucy and Ben had lived internationally, and when Tom was born, they moved to Ben’s home town of Brisbane to settle down, buy a house, and raise their family. Lucy doesn’t come to motherhood easily, and she is upset that she is struggling. She thinks that she keeps seeing Elsie when she is wandering around the house at night; who is this woman who used to live in her house?

A Hundred Small Lessons is a lovely, reflective book. Nothing moves very rapidly; there is no enormous plot twist, but the novel is always engaging and satisfying. There are three main themes: the first is about choosing and being chosen. Both women are loved, and both women have chosen to love. It is also about motherhood. All Elsie wanted in life was to be a mother, and she is completely fulfilled in that role. Her own daughter, Elaine, is of another generation, and although she has a lovely daughter, she has spent her adult life trying to distance herself from her mother’s form of motherhood. Lucy, another generation behind Elaine, knows that being a mother is just one part of the life she plans for herself. Finally, it is a meditation on the many decisions that a person makes that change the course of a life.

The house, itself, plays a huge role in the novel.  All of Elsie’s memory is attached to that house, and as Lucy attempts to create a home, she can’t get the aura of Elsie out of the house. Part of the emotional resonance of the book is the understanding of home. The Kirkus review begins with the statement, “If home is where the heart is, when does a house become a home—or, conversely, stop being one? Two women struggle to find the answer.” I have lived in houses, and I have lived in homes. The difference, I believe, is what happened within that structure.  

Hay is an accomplished novelist, and is well known in her native Australia. She mentions that there are some autobiographical moments in the book, and those who know Brisbane recognize places where scenes take place. The plot is spare and sometimes non-existent, but the atmosphere and the finely-drawn characters are what moves the reader forward. Someone called it a comfort read. I guess I would describe it that way as well, and thus the existential experience I had yesterday. I saw myself in both women’s places—the old woman having to leave, and the young woman just beginning. I loved them both.  

Ashley Hay’s website.