January 28, 2019

Book Review: Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Source: Vine

Alison has it all. A doting husband, adorable daughter, and a career on the rise--she's just been given her first murder case to defend. But all is never as it seems...

Just one more night. Then I'll end it.
Alison drinks too much. She's neglecting her family. And she's having an affair with a colleague whose taste for pushing boundaries may be more than she can handle.

I did it. I killed him. I should be locked up.
Alison's client doesn't deny that she stabbed her husband - she wants to plead guilty. And yet something about her story is deeply amiss. Saving this woman may be the first step to Alison saving herself.

I'm watching you. I know what you're doing.
But someone knows Alison's secrets. Someone who wants to make her pay for what she's done, and who won't stop until she's lost everything....

When I picked up this book, I was in a reading binge of psychological suspense and domestic thrillers. I craved nothing else. So I was predisposed to like this novel. However, the protagonist rubbed me the wrong way. I like reading about flawed characters but in a cast of unsavory people and dark and uneasy situations, I like connecting with a somewhat sympathetic heroine. Not in this case - I ended up disliking Alison early on and wanted to shake her at times for the terrible choices she made. I wanted to DNF this book multiple times but I talked myself out of it out of mere curiosity. My genuine need to know the truth overcame my dislike of not just Alison but pretty much every character here. There were twists I did not see coming and I was rewarded eventually for persevering. Secrets abound and the ending is a satisfying one.

January 21, 2019

Book Review: Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko

Our life is brief ..

Sasha Samokhina has been accepted to the Institute of Special Technologies.  Or, more precisely, she’s been chosen.

Situated in a tiny village, she finds the students are bizarre, and the curriculum even more so. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, it is their families that pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

I don't know how I came to be aware of Vita Nostra but it is in serious contention for one of the best, if not the best book I read in 2018.  It's written by a husband-and-wife team from the Ukraine. She is a former actress, he a former psychiatrist. According to the book jacket, the translator, Julia Hersey, started translating their novel from its original Russian because she wanted to share it with her family.  

The deeper I got into the novel, the more eager I became to turn the pages, unable to figure out where it was going even until the startling conclusion.  I read a review of Vita Nostra which mentioned its "Russian sensibility."  Although I can't properly explain what that means, I suppose it has to do with the fact that there is very little that is warm and fuzzy in this fantasy novel.  

Although it is about a young adult who is accepted into a school of magic, it is as far from Harry Potter as you can get.  Sasha is intimidated and threatened into going to the Institute of Special Technologies - either she attends (thereby surrendering her dream of going to an ordinary university) or... Nothing is explicitly stated, but it is clear that her beloved mother's life would be in danger otherwise.  

Kindly Dumbledore, her professors are not.  They are exacting, harsh, and relentless. Lessons are expected to be learned, without any explanation of what they are leading towards. The Institute is old and well, institutional, rather than a wondrous Hogwarts.  It is a cold and almost friendless life. Even the textbooks are frustrating to read because they are written in gibberish. Magic, when it arrives in the story, is subtle and without the glamor of the typical fantasy.  

“Every day she had to read sections, memorize, cram, and grind at snippets of nonsensical, unpleasant text. Sasha herself did not understand why this gobbledygook caused more and more revulsion with each passing day. Reading the barbaric combinations of half-familiar and alien words, she felt something brewing inside her: within her head, a wasp nest was waking up, and it droned and hummed in distress, searching in vain for an exit.”

Somehow, through sheer will and perseverance, Sasha begins to understand her lessons and takes to them beyond anyone's expectations.  And this is where things get really strange and metaphysical.  The ending left me puzzling; I had to read it a couple of times and even then I could only guess at what happened.  I could compare it to the ending of a couple of movies in recent years but that would spoil it for you.  Just suffice to say that it was unexpected.  

“’What am I being trained to become?’ The words escaped, surprising her.

“’Too early, my girl. It’s too soon for you to know.  Right now, you are still a slave of a framework, a plaster mold with a hint of imagination. With memory, with a personality… You will be changing not only from the inside but… you will undergo all sorts of changes…’”

Apparently Vita Nostra is the first of the Metomorphosis series.  The sequels will deal with the same theme, but with different characters.

TIP:  The Kindle version of The Burned Tower, a fantasy novella by the Dyanchekos, is free on Amazon!  

January 14, 2019

Book Review: Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Publication Date: January 15, 2019

Source: Vine

In this one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan, Alys Binat has sworn never to marry—until an encounter with one Mr. Darsee at a wedding makes her reconsider.

A scandal and vicious rumor concerning the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won’t make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and have children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire the girls to dream of more.

When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat, certain that their luck is about to change, excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for rich, eligible bachelors. On the first night of the festivities, Alys’s lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, the wildly successful—and single—entrepreneur. But Bungles’s friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways. As the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal—and Alys begins to realize that Darsee’s brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.

I thoroughly enjoyed this reimagining of Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Pakistan. P&P retellings are a dime a dozen and the storyline is so well-known that there are no narrative surprises – one already knows the outcome. So the journey towards that outcome must indeed be extraordinary to be enjoyed.  

First - the setting in circa-2000, marriage-obsessed Pakistan, which mirrors Regency Era England of the original.  I loved all the colorful and lively details of the culture, including the mouthwatering descriptions of food, customs and lavish wedding celebrations (only one wedding but like Indian weddings, the festivities can last an entire week!)  I was also tickled by this version's Mrs. Bennett, Pinkie Binat, whose single-minded, old-fashioned views and laughable mispronunciations kept me laughing.

Second, I was delighted by the passages detailing Alys's deep knowledge and love of literature.  As an English lit teacher in an all-girls school, the book opens with Alys tasking her students with rewriting the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice, with very revealing results.  All very meta, but Kamal also occasionally comments on the original, such as when she allows her version of Charlotte Lucas, Sherry, to explain convincingly why she chose her Mr. Collins, and then provides her with not only a comfortable arrangement, but a very happy marriage.  

Alys and Darsee work in this version of P&P because they both have a love of literature in common and, when not disagreeing about most things, have enviably rich conversations about the books they've read.  

January 7, 2019

Book Review: What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami

While training for the New York City Marathon, Haruki Murakami decided to keep a journal of his progress. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid recollections and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer. By turns funny and sobering, playful and philosophical, here is a rich and revelatory work that elevates the human need for motion to an art form.

Here is a sentence, I never thought I would write:  I have lately taken up running. Up until three months ago, I would have more likely said that I hate to run and that I was just not made for running.  In high school, I dreaded the annual physical tests, where I lagged in every single area, including running/limping/trying not to crawl the mile.  I was always dead last, wheezing and clutching my chest as I barely crossed the finish line. 

And if you had told my 16-year-old self that I had just finished a 10K race – willingly – she would have probably fainted from shock. So what changed?  I feel as if I walked through a passageway and entered a place I had only heard about.  And of course, I wanted to read up on this new place – not so much a how-to, but to describe its inner life. 

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running is that book.

According to Murakami, the most important aspect of marathon running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”  I feel that this is a truth for plain old running, at least for me. Yes, I will struggle for a mile or two until I get going and afterwards, my knees might hurt but whether I keep going or not is up to me. Somehow, I need to transcend what is happening to my body to keep going. Mind over matter.

Most of what he writes about resonates.  For instance, I would have thought that as he ran (6 miles a day!) he had deep, meaningful discourses with his inner self, or worked out a complicated plot to one of his fantastical novels.  But no, he mostly thinks about nothing, or about running itself.  I find myself nodding yes to this.  I also think about nothing - the weather, the road conditions, the sheer pleasure of running on soft dirt as opposed to hard pavement. What I also found gratifying was that he has days where getting up to go running is a joyless chore.  Many a dark, cold early morning I have battled with myself. It is a comfort - and a dread - that despite his many years of running, Murakami still has these difficult days. 

Of course, there is only so many similarities I can draw between me and this Nobel prize contender.  He wrote his first novel almost on a whim, just deciding one day to sit down and write one, which in turn won a prize.  He runs a marathon once a year.  And in fact, the narrative arc of this book seems to build up to the New York marathon as the climax. However before that, Murakami sneaks in the one time he ran an ultramarathon- 62 miles. His description of how he physically and mentally battled his way to the finish was so painful, I felt drained just reading it.  This was the true climax of the book, and the New York marathon, oddly enough, is never described.  

Juicy tidbit: He likes to listen to Lovin' Spoonful during his daily runs.

January 1, 2019

2018: My Year in Books


1. Bellamy and the Brute by Alicia Michaels *
2. The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers (V)
3. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn *(L) (1/24/18)
4. Everless by Sara Holland (L) (1/28/18)


5. The English Wife by Lauren Willig (L) (2/1/18)
6. How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry (L)* (2/23/18)


7. Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughn (L) (3/24/18)


8. Half Bad by Veronica Henry (L)* (5/3/18)
9. Matchmaking for Beginners by Maggie Dawson *
10. Every Last Lie by Mary Kubica * (5/21/18)
11. Venice as I Love It by France Thierard (5/22/18)


12. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware (L)
13. The Wife between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (L) (6/9/18)
14. The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (L) (6/9/18) 
15. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (L) (6/12/18)
16. The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll (L) * (6/14/18)
17. The Girlfriend by Michelle Frances (L) * (6/15/18)
18. Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell (L)* (6/16/18)
19. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney (L) (6/19/18)
20. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani (L) (6/21/18)
21. Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough (L) (6/23/18)
22. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton (6/25/18) (reread)
23. Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris (L) (6/25/18)
24. The Broken Ones by Sarah A. Denzil * (6/26/18)


25. A Paris All Your Own edited by Eleanor Brown (7/1/18)
26. Keeping the Castle by Patrice Kindl (L) (7/12/18)
27. A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell (L) (7/21/18)
28. Nightmare House by Douglas Clegg * (7/24/18)
29. How to Stop Time by Matt Haig (L) (7/27/18)
30. Believe Me by J.P. Delaney (V) (7/28/18)


31. Grim Lovelies by Megan Shepherd (NG) * (8/2/18)
32. Paris Times Eight by Deirdre Kelly (L) (8/4/16)
33. Paris Ever After by K.S.R Burns * (8/5/18)
34. I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis (L) (8/9/18)
35. Our House by Louise Candlish (L) (8/14/18)


36. Calypso by David Sedaris (L) (9/8/18)
37. The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland (L) (9/13/18)
38. Ghosted by Rosie Walsh (L) (9/14/18)


39. Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling (L)* (10/1/18)
40. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (L)* (10/4/18)


41. The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (11/23/18)
42. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami (11/25/18)


43. You Think It I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (L) (12/1/18)
44. The Library of Lost and Found by Phaedra Patrick (V) (12/1/18)
45. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko (L) (12/15/18)
46. The Night Bookmobile by Audrey Niffenegger (L) (12/21/18)
47. French Milk by Lucy Knisley (L) (12/22/18)
48. The Burned Tower by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko * (12/26/18)
49. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi (L) (12/28/18)
50. Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (L) (12/30/18)
51. The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (L) (12/30/18)
52. The Witness for the Prosecution by Agatha Christie (L) * (12/30/18)
53. Little Darlings by Melanie Golding (V) (12/31/18)

Sometime in November, I felt sure I was not going to make my goal of 52 books this year, but lo and behold, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyanchenko broke my mini reading slump. As was the situation last year, graphic novels helped pushed me to the finish line and a thoroughly mesmerizing ARC, Little Darlings (review to come), led me to exceed my goal.

My one big reading obsession this year was the domestic thriller - you have only to peruse June's mammoth list, which includes 12 entries in that genre to see that.  Once I had my fill, I next indulged in a small binge of humorous memoirs. Some historical fiction, some nonfiction, some fantasy round out 2018. What reading pleasures will 2019 bring me?