Tag Archives: literary fiction

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Review (Amazon): Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

My Review:

Executive Summary: slow to start but sweet at the end

This book took a little while to get into, but once you were, it was an easy read. It did remind me quite a bit of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was on our bookclub list pre-blog, thus it had been a few years since I read it, and it didn’t really make me like this book less.

As I’m writing this review, I just scrolled back to page 1 of the book, and I realize that the first sentence of the book is “Ove is fifty-nine.” Interestingly, I had forgotten this throughout the book, as Ove seems well into his seventies. He’s grouchy, stuck in his ways, and basically hates everyone and everything. He’s the neighbor you don’t want who does daily inspections around the neighborhood, ensuring that not a hair is out of line, even when it’s not a rule for the hair to be in line.

Ove used to be happily married to a teacher, Sonja, a ray of sunshine in Ove’s dark life. And when she died of cancer six months prior, Ove regressed into his darkness. The underlying plot of the book is Ove trying to commit suicide, in a dignified way, because he can’t go on living without his wife. However, each and every time, something bamboozles his attempt. He lives next door to another couple, Anita and Rune, who have been friends and frenemies over the course of their lives, and now that Rune has had a stroke, city officials are coming into the neighborhood to investigate whether Rune should be taken away from his home for his safety. Rune and Ove moved into the neighborhood at the same time and are two of the original members of the neighborhood. With Rune getting sick, Sonja dying, and the additions of various new neighbors, Ove sees his familiar, regimented old life slipping out of his grasp.

On his first neighborhood round of the book, we get introduced to most of the main players of the story. Ove meets a cat who he tells to scram. We meet Anders, who has a lot working against him. He’s divorced, self-employed, drives an Audi, goes jogging, and has a wife nicknamed “The Blonde Weed”. She has a little obnoxious dog, and Ove especially hates them both. Ove also finds a bicycle parked outside the bicycle shed, so he angrily puts it inside and continues on his route. And as he finishes inspecting unauthorized cars parked overnight in the guest parking or trash being properly sorted, we meet the new neighbor family as the husband backs their trailer into Ove’s house.

The Lanky One gets out of the Japanese car, and both Ove and The Lanky One’s pregnant Arabic wife begin to shout at him for being a moron. Ove thinks he may get along with her. The Lanky One tries again, and then runs over Ove’s mailbox, so Ove orders him out of the car so that he can maneuver the car into the driveway for them. Once finished, he shouts at them for driving where cars are not supposed to be and then stomps to his house! Shortly thereafter, the two daughters–a 7-year old and a 3-year old appear with food for Ove because their mom said he was probably hungry.

This begins a begrudging relationship with Parvaneh and her family. Parvaneh encourages Ove to take in the stray cat when it’s near death from being outside in the Swedish cold. Through this, he also reintroduces himself to Jimmy, as he uses his big body and its heat to help warm up the cat…and then realizes he’s allergic and Ove and Parvaneh take him to the hospital.

Parvaneh convinces Ove to teach her how to drive, and in the meantime, imposes herself and her children on him, always at crucial times during his suicide plots, to drive here various places.

But Ove isn’t only making friends with her family. He also helps the teen, Adrian, who owns the bicycle which was not in the shed like it was supposed to be. He’d agreed to help fix it it up for a girl who he likes.  Ove, with Parvaneh, deliver the bicycle to his place of employment, a cafe, where Ove learns that Adrian knows nothing about fixing bicycles, and his dad is in prison. So Ove shows him how to fix up the bicycle. Upon returning into the cafe, Ove meets one of Adrian’s coworkers, another adolescent named Mirsad, who is “bent”, and his father Amel. He also saves a man who has fallen onto the train tracks, as he is there planning to jump in front of them to take his own life. Through this, he makes the acquaintance of a journalist who he continues to shrug off for her story about his heroic deeds

Later in the story, Mirsad comes out to his father, who doesn’t take it well, and Ove ends up taking Mirsad into his home. Mirsad asks if he can accompany Ove and the cat on the daily neighborhood round. Upon this route, they stumble upon Jimmy who informs Ove that social services is coming to get Rune. Anita has been appealing it for two years, but the decision has been made. Ove is furious that he and Sonja didn’t know anything about this, but Jimmy says that they had specifically made the decision to not tell Ove and Sonja because they had had enough troubles of their own after the accident. Ove is furious. He’s had his share of run-ins with the “white shirts” over the years–first when he was younger and his house burned to the ground, and later after Sonja’s accident when the driver was drunk. In both cases, the bureaucracy did not work in Ove’s favor, and he was bound and determined that it wouldn’t happen again.

With the help of all the neighbors, Anders, who works with a towing company, manages to tow the white shirt’s car, illegally parked in the neighborhood of course, while he’s in getting Rune ready to move out. When he comes out and finds his car missing, he of course assumes Ove, who has been badgering him about the illegally parked cars for years and calls the police. When the white shirt returns, with two other white shirts, the neighborhood is ready. Jimmy, Anders, Mirsad, Parvaneh and co., and of course Ove are all there to back her up. So is Lena, the journalist. They show the white shirts a bunch of information about themselves, and basically suggest that the white shirts leave Rune and Anita alone or the information will be published. (This was a bit of a stretch in the plot, but OK.)

They all go on to live their happy lives. We learn that Ove has a heart condition–his heart is too big! Oh the irony is a little ham fisted here. The book technically ends when Parvaneh has her third child, a boy. But of course there is an epilogue to give everyone closure on the story. Four months later, Ove dies in his sleep. He gifts many things to all his recent friends, and over 300 people come to his funeral.

Verdict: 3 stars

Generally pretty good. It’s drily funny, and I always love a good curmudgeon. The ending was a bit overdone in my opinion (a bit too Hollywood ending), but generally the story moved nicely and was a decent “feel good” tale.

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The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan

Review (Amazon): Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.

With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: Interesting but challenging

This was actually my book for book club this year. I chose historical fiction as my category, and while I wouldn’t really consider this to be hard historical fiction, it is in the past and is referencing a culture which is unfamiliar to me. So I think it counts.

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this review for over a month because I’ve been busy partly, but also, I don’t really know how to write a review for this book. It’s short stories of 4 Chinese women (one is written about her as she has just passed) who immigrated to America during a not-great period of relationships between China and America and their 4 Chinese American daughters. It’s sort of an auto-biographical account from what I can tell as Amy was born in 1952 to Chinese parents who were living in America.

The story shows in many different facets the dichotomy between the Chinese (mothers) and the Americans (daughters) and the rift that fluxes depending on the situations. All of the daughters had the option to be more free and more American than their mothers, but in differing ways, they realize their connections to the old country and cultures.

Most of the daughters (like most daughters in general) know very little about their mothers. The big reveal in the book is that Suyuan (the mother who has died) has two daughters who she had to leave behind in China that her daughter Jing-Mei didn’t know about. During the day of the Japanese invasion, Suyuan left her house with thousands of others, with nothing but a few staples and her 2 daughters. She eventually decides that because she is going to die (and that finding children with a dead mother would be a bad omen for someone who might take them), she leaves them with all the valuables she has and a note. However, she doesn’t die and is rescued and eventually goes on to move to America and have a new family.

A lot of the things that are weird and interesting to me in the book are the superstitions and customs. The horoscopes (whether you are born in the year of the Horse and are strong-willed), the fear of ghosts coming back to haunt people, general karma of behaviors, the jade stones that none of the younger people understand…

And I think that’s really what the book’s point comes to. The younger people are more like me (or just generally a person who doesn’t have a lot of family heritage and/or culture) and the mothers assume that they have inherited this. But the gap is that the mothers learned it because everyone around them when they were growing up believed the same culture and superstitions. So now the mothers are at a loss for why their daughters don’t believe what they believe, and the daughters are old enough to try to connect with their mothers but find that they don’t have the background to fully understand them.

Verdict: 3.5 Stars

Good book, and thought provoking. Really challenging to follow at times due to the way that it was written (broken up into little sections). At book club, we had to pull up the wikipedia article to be able to fully go back and place daughter with mother because it just is too disjointed to really remember who goes with whom.

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The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

Review (Amazon):

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that is not meant to be read…

My darling Cecilia,
If you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not only the life you have built together, but the lives of others as well. And then imagine that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything—and not just for her. There are other women who barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they, too, are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My Review (MAJOR SPOILERS!!!):

Executive Summary: deeper than first glance

This is our literary fiction for the year. It’s a bit of a love story (stories?), a bit of a whodunnit, but mostly just a people drama. It’s set in Australia, mostly Sydney, and it has multiple quickly intersecting stories.

The “main” family that the book follows is perfect wife Cecilia and her husband John-Paul and their three children–Esther (a Berlin Wall enthusiast), Isabel and Polly (the outspoken beautiful youngster). One day, by accident, Cecilia finds a letter in her attic addressed “For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick to be opened only in the event of my death”.

We’re also introduced to Tess, her husband Will, her cousin Felicity, and her son Liam. Tess and Felicity have always been closer than sisters, and apparently even closer. After Felicity lost a ton of weight in the last year (after always being the fat girl), Will and Felicity fell in love. They announce to Tess who, understandably, freaks out and decides to take Liam back to Sydney (from Melbourne) to stay with her mother.

Next chapter, we meet Rachel. Rachel is a widow, and her only son Rob brought her over to tell her that he, his wife Lauren, and their son Jacob were going to be moving to New York for a few years. Rachel is overwhelmingly devastated. She had had a daughter, Janie,  who had been murdered many years earlier, and that pain had never healed. She feels like Jacob is all she has. Meanwhile she never really lets Rob or Lauren into her grief.

We cut back to Cecilia who brings up the letter she found when she knocked over some boxes in their crowded attic to her husband who is on a business trip. She can tell that he is trying to sound nonchalant, but that there’s more to it.

The following day, the connection between the 3 stories makes sense. Tess goes with her mother, Lucy to drop Liam off at his new school. Cecilia’s children go there as well, and Polly is in Liam’s grade. Rachel is the school’s secretary. While at the school, Tess also meets the gym teacher, Connor Whitby, a man who she dated years prior and who used to be an accountant. As soon as they meet, there’s obvious sexual tension.

Cecilia is going through all the things in her mind. She and John-Paul have not have sex in a year. Is he gay? Polly mentioned that Jean-Paul looks at Isabel strangely. Is he a pedophile? Esther saw him crying in the shower. Is he depressed? He tried to commit suicide once when he was younger…? She decides that she is in fact going to open the letter that evening after her Tupperware party she’s hosting. She volunteers to drive Rachel home from the party (her first one she’s attended) and arrives at home to find that John-Paul is home early. He asks her if she has opened it and she says no, but once he goes to bed, she opens it.

SPOILER! Stop reading here if you intend to read the book!!!

 

In the letter, John-Paul writes that he in fact is the person who killed Janie. They were secretly going out, not boyfriend/girlfriend, although that’s what he wanted. One day, Janie meets him at the park to break it off and tell him that there’s another boy who she’s more interested in. He’s furious and instead of being sympathetic, she laughs. He didn’t mean to kill her. He just attacked her in rage and before he knew what he was doing, she was dead. The police never suspected him because they didn’t know he was involved at all. He went to a different school, and Janie hadn’t told anyone about him. John-Paul said that he would have confessed had anyone else been accused for the crime, but the only person of interest was Connor Whitby and he had an alibi.

Welp, OK. So a) I figured out the secret ahead of time (because really what else could it be? there’s only one unsolved mystery in the story) and b) now what?! The book to me got really dull after this because the letter was opened less than halfway through!

So the book progresses that Tess begins sleeping with Connor. Rachel finds a video of Janie and Connor, and she turns it into the police as new evidence. She is convinced that Connor killed Janie and it just eats her alive seeing him at the school every day. Cecilia and John-Paul try to have a normal life, but Cecilia is having a lot of trouble keeping it together (at least to the perfect mom level she had previously).

And then it’s Good Friday. Apparently no one does anything at all on Good Friday in Australia except eat hot cross buns with lots of butter. (I thought hot cross buns were from a nursery rhyme and weren’t really a thing any more.)  So on Good Friday, Tess tells Connor that she and Liam will come to the park to fly a kite. Unfortunately, Felicity appears earlier in the day to tell her that she and Will are splitting up and he’s on his way to meet her to try to get Tess back. By the time she lets Connor know that they can’t meet him, he’s already at the park. Cecilia, John-Paul and the girls are also there on their bikes and Polly spots Connor, one of her favorite teachers, and races to catch him before he heads off. Unfortunately Good Friday is also the anniversary of Janie’s death. Rachel has spent the morning with Rob and Lauren visiting the grave site before getting the police call that they are not reopening the case due to her new evidence as it wasn’t substantial enough. All of those things pieced together lead to Rachel seeing Connor–the man she believes killed her daughter–about to walk into traffic and blinded with rage, she hits the accelerator and hits…Polly who is trying to get Connor’s attention.

Polly is rushed to the hospital, where she is in critical condition. She ends up having to lose her right arm below the elbow because it couldn’t be salvaged. Rachel is there too getting checked up and she goes to try to apologize to Cecilia and explains that she was enraged seeing Connor because he killed her daughter. At that moment, Cecilia confesses that it was actually John-Paul who had done it. And then the world was right and everyone got on with their lives.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

The book was fine. It had some ups and downs. The whole underlying premise though that this stupid boy murdered a girl who wasn’t even dating him because she nervous giggled at him. It makes me want to kill him. She died. His daughter only lost an arm. It’s not the same. I thought the prose itself was good so that helped a little, but all in all the story felt a bit like it was trying to prove a point then be realistic.

 

 

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My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Review (Amazon): Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: blah

Yes, that is two “blahs” in a row. Not great. This book is our literary fiction book for the year, and it might actually just be that I don’t really like literary fiction. On the plus side, this is a very quick read. I just happened to really dislike Lucy Barton.

As you probably figured out, the main character is a woman named Lucy Barton who is presumably in her early 30s. She lives in New York City and is married with two children. For some unknown reason she is in the hospital and has been for a little while when her mother arrives.

Lucy and her family (mom, dad, brother, sister) grew up very poor. Lucy’s mom did sewing and alterations and her dad, who had PTSD (although this wasn’t described in extensive detail) wasn’t able to hold a steady job. They had no TV and little climate control. Lucy would stay at school late to take advantage of the heat and space and did very well–well enough to go to college.

She ended up getting married to what seemed like a upper middle class husband and basically spent her entire life in complete denial of where she ended up. It was like mentally she couldn’t believe where she was and seemed somewhat intent on sabotaging it. She was separated from the rest of her family mostly due to the vast difference in their current statuses so it was a surprise that her husband (who doesn’t come to see her much because he hates hospitals) called her mother to come see her.

When her mother arrives, Lucy interacts with her through gossip and stories about people who they used to know. When she tries to bring up painful childhood memories, her mother moves on without addressing them or she simply just cannot remember what Lucy is talking about. However through these stories we learn a slight bit more about Lucy and her life. She wants to be a writer, attending writing workshops with an author she loves. She also has basically only one friend in New York City, an older gay man named Jeremy who ended up dying of AIDS while she was in the hospital.

Eventually Lucy gets out of the hospital from whatever mysterious illness she had. She still doesn’t keep in touch with her mother because she is busy with her own life and children and her best-selling novel (but also mostly just because she doesn’t really want to). She only visits her 9 years later when her mother is dying. She sees her father there as well, and he dies the following year. When Lucy’s children go off to college, she and her husband end up getting divorced. Lucy ends up getting married to a man who also grew up in poverty but now is a cellist in the Philharmonic Symphony.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

This book was not for me. If it had been any longer, I would have not made it through it. It was challenging to even write a review for it because literally nothing happened. I probably could have summed it up in about 3 sentences. When we discussed it at book club, we didn’t really seem to be able to answer any questions because the story was just so vague and focused on a bunch of trivial stories instead of anything important. Although, maybe that is the point? I don’t know.

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Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Review (Amazon): Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: fun

I’ve had this book on my list for quite a while so I’m glad I was actually able to squeeze it into my schedule. I enjoyed it a lot even though it was quite a bit different than I was expecting. It’s a dystopian novel, sure, but it’s really more of a people drama (aka literary fiction) set in the future.

The book jumps back and forth between pre-flu and post-flu. The connection between the two times is Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor who in his later days became a stage actor. The book begins with his last performance in King Lear. He has a heart attack and dies on stage. Arthur’s friend Clark is in charge of calling his ex-wives (all 3) to let them know. That same night, the Georgia flu pandemic arrives in Toronto killing most in its wake.

Post-flu time is measured in years starting with 1. The book starts its story in year 20. By this time, most of the chaos has died down, and people tend to live in towns. Kristen Raymonde is part of The Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the Great Lakes area doing Shakespeare performances. Kristen had been on stage and part of the production the night that Arthur died. She was only 8 at the time of the flu so her memory is very hazy regarding anything pre-flu. She does remember Arthur and she always looks for details about him in magazines and newspapers that she finds when they check abandoned buildings for supplies. They go in her pack with her paperweight and Station Eleven comic book that Arthur had given her.

The Symphony arrives in a town that they went to two years prior, and where they left two of their members so that they could have their baby. When they return, they find that the town has changed dramatically and their members have left. When they finally find someone who can tell them where they went, the answer is Severn City, a city in an old airport. They do their performance followed by a speech by the prophet there, and then decide to get out of the strange religious city while they still can. A little ways away, they realize they have a stowaway. A small girl from St. Deborah by the Water was promised to be the prophet’s next wife.

Interspersed with the post-flu “current time” storyline are stories about Arthur. We learn that he was from a small island in British Columbia, moving away to Toronto as soon as he could, but he drops out of college and enrolls in acting classes. He’s good friends with Clark, and they stay friends until Arthur’s death even though they both know they grew apart years before. Arthur’s mother calls him one day to tell him about another girl from their island who just moved to Toronto. She’s seventeen and just enrolled in art school. Arthur agrees to meet with her for lunch, and then waits 7 years before contacting her again. At this point, he is 36 and she is 24 and they very much hit it off. Miranda is in a dead end relationship with an artist who isn’t selling, and she is supporting him. She goes back to her place after dinner and drinks with Arthur where her boyfriend physically abuses her. She shows up at Arthur’s door with her suitcase and the rest is history…until it isn’t.

Miranda is an artsy sort, not used to the pomp and circumstance that Arthur is now used to. They have a house in Hollywood and a Pomeranian and host dinner parties. Miranda likes to draw, and she has a story that she has been working on for years. It’s about Dr. Eleven. Eventually at one of the dinner parties, Miranda realizes that Arthur is having an affair with a woman Elizabeth. She spills the beans to the paparazzo outside who eventually will be the EMT who performs CPR on a dying Arthur. Miranda and Arthur divorce and he marries Elizabeth. They have a son, Tyler, but eventually they also divorce.

Back in current time, the Symphony are heading towards Severn City to find the members they left. Severn City is also where Clark lives. Clark was on a flight with Elizabeth (Arthur’s second wife) and Arthur’s son as one of the last flights before the flu fully hit and they detoured to Severn City. Elizabeth had a hard time coping with the post-flu world, and eventually she and Tyler leave with a religious cult, believing that there must have been a religious reason for the people who were killed and who were spared. Clark remains and is the curator of the Museum of Civilization–an assortment of newspapers, cell phones, high heels etc. within Severn City as it grows into a decent running operation.

En route to the old airport, the Symphony members begin disappearing at their stops. Kristen and August are out one time and when they return, the caravan and the rest of the members have vanished. Kristen and August are terrified at this point, but they continue to head in the direction of the City. They don’t see any signs that the caravan has gone by without them, and eventually they encounter why. The Prophet has been following them because he wants the girl who stowed away. He and his followers are trained assassins and can sneak silently. Luckily Kristen and August are well trained too. They kill the men and free their friend Sayid who  explains a bit more about what is going on. Unfortunately Sayid is hurt so the Prophet easily catches up with the three of them. The Prophet, whose dog is named Luli (the dog in Station Eleven), begins quoting Station Eleven, and Kristen continues the quote which distracts him. Meanwhile, one of his men kills him because he is sick of living the way that he is, but then knowing nothing else, he also kills himself.

They manage to get back to Severn City and reunite with most of the troupe (unfortunately one of Kristen’s best friends and former love interest was killed by the Prophet). They find the two members who had been left years prior, and in general things are good. Kristen meets Clark who knows her by a newspaper interview he read of hers from a few years prior and talks to her about Arthur. They realize that the Prophet was actually Arthur’s son Tyler, but they aren’t sure what ever happened to Elizabeth. Before Kristen leaves to return to the road with the symphony, Clark takes her up to the air traffic control tower. From there, they can see a town in the far distance which has lights! Before leaving, Kristen leaves Clark one of her issues of  Station Eleven for his Museum, and she promises that she will return and switch out the copies so that one is always with her and the other in the museum.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book was a fun easy read and the world in the story was easy to get lost in. But I was expecting more science fiction and less people drama. I wanted to know more about the civilization and the science. I really enjoyed the section about when Clark and Elizabeth landed in the airport and how they got started rebuilding civilization, and I wanted more. I don’t know whether the book plans for a sequel, but having the Symphony go to the town with the electricity would be a really interesting idea!

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The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

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In the Company of Others – Jan Karon

   Summary (Amazon): Jan Karon’s new Father Tim series, launched with her New York Times bestselling Home to Holly Springs, thrilled legions of Mitford devotees, and also attracted a whole new set of readers. “Lovely,” said USA Today. “Rejoice!” said The Washington Post.

In this second installment in the series, Father Tim and Cynthia arrive in the west of Ireland, intent on researching his Kavanagh ancestry from the comfort of a charming fishing lodge. The charm, however, is broken entirely when Cynthia startles a burglar and sprains her already-injured ankle. Then a cherished and valuable painting is stolen from the lodge owners, and Cynthia’s pain pales in comparison to the wound at the center of this bitterly estranged Irish family.

In the Company of Others is a moving testament to the desperate struggle to hide the truth at any cost and the powerful need to confess. Of all her winning novels, Jan Karon says this “dark-haired child” is her favorite.

My Review:

Executive Summary: pensive

I borrowed this book for our book club book swap. It’s not a book that I would have picked by myself, which is why book swaps can really be a hit or a miss. In this case, it was a little of both.

The story is about an (American) Episocopal priest, Father (Reverend) Tim Kavanaugh and his wife Cynthia.  My understanding is that this is the second book in the “Father Tim” stories, and it’s one of a bunch of books in “The Mitford Series.” (I may be incorrect. I’m unfamiliar with this author.)

Tim and Cynthia decide to go on vacation to Ireland to a little B&B that Tim had visited many years earlier when he was a bachelor. They are planning to meet with Tim’s cousin and his wife to travel all around Ireland, but things don’t exactly go as planned. While there, Cynthia goes back up to her room and there is an intruder hiding in their wardrobe. He jumps out and flees out the window, but Cynthia is so startled, she turns her ankle and is all but bedridden for most of the trip (conveniently to prolong the story, as she gets better, she slips again setting herself back in recovery).

This mystery followed with the unsettled attitude surrounding nearly every family member of the inn’s owners is the basic premise for the story. The inn is owned by Liam and Anna. Anna’s daughter Bella is also around as well as Anna’s father, William. Liam’s mother and brother live nearby, and there is a great schism in their relationship. At the same time, Cynthia finds a journal written by the original builder of Liam’s mother’s place. So all the stories become intertwined. This honestly was very confusing to me at times because it was very difficult to keep track of all of the characters (as well as the extraneous characters who were also staying at the inn and people who Tim and Cynthia knew from home).

One by one, all of the main characters who were alive (begrudgingly at times) confess what is causing them anguish to either Father Tim or in some cases (Bella) to Cynthia. The reader finds out piecemealed that Anna’s father, William, was in love with Liam’s mother, Evelyn. Back in the day, he was a boxer, and by the time he got some sense into him and came back to her, she was already married and had had Liam’s brother Paddy. Liam was born only 9 months later, causing both Liam and Anna to separately believe that they might be half-siblings. Eleanor had a hard life, being abandoned by William, and then “causing” an explosion which killed her parents and siblings. (She didn’t actually cause the explosion; she merely opened the door causing oxygen to enter the already gas-laden house). She never mentally recovered from this and took out her anguish on everyone in her reach. In her old age, she needs to withdraw from alcohol as her liver is close to failure. During this, she also falls, injuring herself and is bedridden for all of the detox. Some combination of the detox, old age, and Father Tim causes her to repent and make her amends to everyone.

At the same time, the mystery of the intruder, and later in the story, the stolen painting, is traced back to Bella. An angsty teen, she recently moved back in with her mother, and is very unhappy with the lack of music as well as the solitude of the place. A previous employee named Jack Slade (obviously a baddie with a name like that) convinced Bella that he would get some money and take her to London with him. After helping him steal the painting and seeing the after-effect anguish that it had on her mother, Bella turns him in (he’s already in jail for stabbing a guy) and makes amends with Anna and Liam.

After solving all the problems in the area, and Cynthia’s ankle healing enough to be able to travel, Tim and Cynthia head off to Dublin for a few days before heading home, promising to visit again soon.

Verdict: 3 stars

I thought the book overall was good. It was lighthearted, and was not overly forceful on the religious aspects. The main drawback for me on the book was both its length (and associated lack of plot to sustain the length) as well as the overwhelming number of characters. The descriptive sections were great of the main (living) characters. It felt almost as though you knew them and felt like you were at the place. I felt it hard to follow the story of the characters in the journal, and despite one tie-in of the book to the current time, I did not really see the point of it. I wonder if I had read the prior book, if I would have enjoyed this book more.

 

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