Lots of Books! (my recent reading)
It’s time for a bit of a blogfest, because I have a lot of books to catch up with you on.
Birds of California by Katie Cotugno
The author has written seven young adult novels – which means she knows how to write a book, how to shape a plot – but this is her first adult novel. She also co-authored a book called Rules for Being a Girl with Candace Bushnell (of Sex and the City fame, which is to say that Katie knows how to write good sex).
This is one of those allegedly predictable romances that actually didn’t go where I thought it would, and one of those alleged “light reads” that dealt with some heavy stuff and whose characters I missed much more than I thought I would after I finished the book.
Meet Fiona St. James, hugely successful child actor who crashed and burned very publicly and has since dropped out of sight. Meet Sam Fox, studly TV star who once played Fiona’s big bro on their TV show (Birds of California), now struggling in his own career. A reboot of the old show is proposed. Roll that plot!
Birds of California will be published in June; this is your beach read for sure.
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott
Oh my, oh my. Dare I say? It’s a hell of a book.
Winner of the 2021 National Book Award for Fiction, Mott’s novel has a clever conceit: it’s about an author’s dissolute book tour, touring the country for a book with bestseller potential, a book about… well, he doesn’t remember. Nor does he recall, apparently, that he’s a black man. But meanwhile, he’s having odd encounters along with way, including with a young black boy whom he calls The Kid who may or may not exist. And this is all interspersed with the story of another young black boy nicknamed Soot in a small southern town, who encounters the perils of small town racism. This also happens to be the town that the author is from. What’s the book really about? It’s about being a black man in America. This painful and necessary story is told in a powerfully original literary style.
So, so good. Brilliant, even.
The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier
The recent winner of the prestigious French Prix Goncourt begins in gruesome fashion with a chapter about a day in the life of a contract killer. Don’t let that put you off. (Or perhaps you like that?) Then it proceeds, each subsequent chapter about another different character. Where are we going? I wondered. Why are we hearing all these different stories? Are they related in some way and if so, how?
And then… oh! The blissful moment of realization! All of these characters were… well, I won’t tell you. I’ll let you have your own a ha moment and then follow it into this twisting and complex slightly Sci-Fi, slightly literary, and slightly speculative fiction tale about what the anomaly is and how it impacts these various characters.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley
In the style of Agatha Christie, put a bunch of colorful characters together in one place, introduce a shocking crime (a murder is always a good choice), and proceed to guess whodunnit. Make sure to give each character a good motive so as you go from one to the next, you become convinced each one is guilty. She did it! Oh, no, wait, he did! Oh, they did all did it!
In this case, the setting is ooh, la, la – a beautiful old Paris apartment. Throw in a little more Parisian scenery here and there, and we’re in a good place. A little mystery, a little crime, all leading up to the big reveal, which is, after having been led so merrily to this place and having had such fun along the way, always a little disappointing. Or a lot.
The latest from Lucy Foley, known for her bestseller The Guest House and other books.
I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell
Having thrilled to every word, every syllable, of O’Farrell’s brilliant and beautiful Hamnet, I wanted to read more by this author and chose this memoir about, well about what the title says it’s about. I read one or two essays and thought: do I want to read 15 more essays about almost dying? Turns out I did, because O’Farrell writes such beautifully crafted essays and each one tells a story with impact and meaningful takeaway such that book, instead of being about death, becomes a celebration of life and what we merit by surviving the hardships so as to enjoy the goodness. The final essay is particularly powerful, and left me in tears.
Like memoir? Read this, and read Hamnet too if you haven’t yet!
The Promise by Damon Galgut
Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize. (I like to read prize winners – see what they’re about and if they are deserving – this recent crop certainly was.) This is the story of several decades in the life of a white Afrikaner family in South Africa who are united periodically at funerals. We see the three children and how they deal with their family legacy, which includes a broken promise. Through the lens of this family, we witness the political upheaval and change going on in South Africa as it grapples with its legacy of racism.
Galgut’s writing style may confuse you at first as he jumps from first to second to third person, sometimes all in one paragraph or even sentence, and as he rapidly shifts point of view. Once you get used to it, it really works to show us the inner lives of numerous characters. And it makes sense when you hear the author explain that he was influenced by a screenplay he was hired to write while he was writing this book. He temporarily put this book (his ninth), aside and when he went back to it, he was less interested in writing a straightforward linear narrative, deciding instead to mimic the eye of the camera as in a screenplay.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
I’m still figuring out how I feel about this book.
What I like:
It is a first novel by a 64 year old woman – you go, girl!
It’s very feminist. It tells the story of Elizabeth Zott (everyone calls her Zott), who is a chemist, but has dropped out of grad school because she was sexually harassed, and now she works at a science institute and she is just trying to do her job but all those sexist male chauvinist scientists think she should be cleaning their test tubes (so to speak). She’s smart and good at chemistry and it’s fun to root for her.
Zott is an extremely quirky character in a fun way. When she goes on to star in a cooking show and she presents cooking methods by means of chemistry, it’s fun and entertaining to watch her straight-faced and committed approach.
By this point, she is a single mom, having loved and lost, and that’s an extra social struggle.
So, good story.
What I don’t like.
Well, in very large part, the cover. It’s total chick lit fluffy, and that’s not what the book is. At my Barnes & Noble, the book comes up in the system as literary fiction. Ain’t no literary fiction with a cover like that. This cover just screams BEACH READ (do you hear it screaming?) and does not reflect the content of the book. Misrepresentation.
And the story, what don’t I like about it, having said I like the protagonist and the premise? I guess it’s just that it’s written in large broad strokes that in some places border on caricature. And maybe the rescue that swoops in at the end is too pat. And I didn’t ruin anything there, because you know it’s coming.
So, sure, read it and have fun with it (on the beach or elsewhere), but temper your expectations. This book will be pleasant company for you for as much time as you spend with it.
One Italian Summer by Rebecca Searle
Searle is also a past YA writer, and this is her second adult novel. I read the first (In Five Years) and I like how she plays with time. I like time travel books, my favorite by far being The Time Traveler’s Wife, and I’ve also enjoyed the work of Matt Haig. Searle’s new book kicks off with a bereft 30 year old woman who has just lost her 60 year old mother, who was her best friend. She and her mother had been planning a trip to Positano in Italy, where the mother had once lived long ago. The woman decides to take the trip anyway, tells her husband not to come, that she needs to figure things out, and she heads off to Positano (where I have always wanted to go, so very good armchair travel in this book as well as in The Paris Apartment). Once she gets there, the magic begins when she meets another thirty year old woman who seems to be… her mother. Fun story, great scenery, and some thoughtful insights into human character. (Also some logistical plot problems, but I let those slide because the book was fun.)