Sunday, January 24, 2016

Books Read in 2015

What a sad, sad year for my SmallWorld Reads blog. I am sure I neglected to record lots of books that I read, and many of these on the list I didn't review. I don't know what happened to me! I didn't read as much, and I somehow wasn't motivated to review much.  According to my list, I read 31 books, but I know there were many that I just forgot to record here. I'm determined to do better in 2016!

My favorite 5 books of the year (not including re-reads) were
  1. Love, Anthony (Lisa Genova)
  2. Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)
  3. What She Knew(Gilly Macmillan)
  4. Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Anton diScalfani)
  5. Moloka'i (Alan Brennert)
Here are the books I recorded:
  1.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (multiple reread)
  2. Beekeeper's Apprentice (Laurie King)***
  3. Boston Girl (Anita Diamant)****
  4. The Crucible (multiple reread)
  5. Devil and Miss Prym (Paulo Coelho)***
  6. Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng)****
  7. Girl Who Fell From the Sky (Heidi Durrow)***
  8. Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins)*****
  9. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)***
  10. Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)***** - multiple reread
  11. Healing Stones (Nancy Rue)**
  12. Little Princes (Connor Grennan)****
  13. Love Anthony (Lisa Genova)*****
  14. Moloka'i (Alan Brennert)*****
  15. Night Strangers (Chris Bohjalian)***
  16. Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck) -- multiple reread
  17. Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)***** re-read
  18. Princess Academy (Shannon Hale)****
  19. Scarlet Letter (multiple re-read)
  20. Scarlet Pimpernel (Baroness Orczy)***
  21. Season to Taste (Molly Birnbaum)****
  22. Secrets of Eden (Chris Bohjalian)****
  23. Tenth Gift (Jane Johnson)***
  24. This Boy's Life (Tobias Wolff)****
  25. Under the Same Blue Sky (Pamela Schoenewaldt)***
  26. Undomestic Goddess (Sophie Kinsella)***
  27. Uninvited (Cat Winters)**
  28. What She Knew (Gilly Macmillan)*****
  29. When the Moon Is Low (Nadia Hashimi)****
  30. Widower's Tale (Julia Glass)***
  31. Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Anton diScalfani)****

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What She Knew

Gilly Macmillan's debut novel, What She Knew, turned out to be one of my favorites of 2015— right up there with The Girl on the Train. When I first read the premise—a little boy disappears in the park— I was a bit hesitant to read it. First, the thought of that happening has always terrified me— but my kids are teens or older now, so I figured I could make it through. Second, I didn't want to read about horrible things that happened to the little boy. The author handled this perfectly, and I had no reason to fear.

Ben and his mother, Rachel, are out for their daily walk in the park. Ben asks to run ahead to the rope swing, and Rachel agrees. When she gets to the rope swing, he's gone. I think probably all parents have experienced that moment of terror— and then that sweet moment of relief when you spy your child's feet as he hides in the racks at Target. But Rachel doesn't have that sweet moment of relief. Ben is really gone.

The rest of the novel follows various characters as the search for Ben begins and continues: Rachel, her ex-husband, and the detective in charge of the search. Everyone is a suspect, and, naturally, Rachel becomes an object of suspicion and hate in the public eye. How could this horrible mother have let her child run ahead in a park? Again, I usually avoid novels that involve child abduction, but Macmillan isn't out to instill fear in parents or give us glimpses into terrifying scenarios.

This was a fantastic psychological thriller, a genre I really need to explore more. I loved Gone Girl, although it was pretty gory and graphic, and The Girl on the Train was brilliant. I really felt like What She Knew was a terrific blending of the two books. It had the heart of The Girl on the Train and the mystery of Gone Girl— but it was more uplifting than either of those books (which, again, I absolutely loved). I stayed up way past my bedtime reading this novel and finished quickly.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

Finally, at the end of the year, I've hit upon a good streak of books. Last week was Anton diScalfani's The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, and this week it's Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. First of all, this book is scary if you are a parent of  teens. It reminds me just a tiny bit of Anne Lamott's Imperfect Birds in that "what do we not know about our kids" feeling. It's disconcerting, to say the least.

This novel, set in the 1970s, is the story of the Lee family, and, the opening line puts us right there: "Lydia is dead." The Lees are an interracial couple long before it was generally acceptable to be so in the midwest: James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white. Lydia is their middle child, and clearly their favorite. She's the one they pin all their hopes and dreams on. For Marilyn, Lydia will stand out. She will be the doctor that Marilyn never became—a woman of intelligence and power. For James, Lydia will be the quintessential American teen. She'll be the most popular girl in school. She'll have more friends and boyfriends than she could ever hope for.

But Lydia's just a 16-year-old girl who wants to please her parents, and so she fakes it all. No one knows who Lydia really is, including Lydia. The novel is a journey of discovery in a family that was precariously balanced before Lydia's death and possibly redemptive after her death. It's beautifully written but alarming at times. So many secrets— not huge ones, but the little ones that add up to that eerie feeling of "do I really even know you?"

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Book Review: The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls

This hasn't been the most thrilling year for reading nor reviewing books. Few novels this year stand out for me: Paula Hawkins' Girl on the Train is one, and Anton diScalfani's The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls will definitely be another.

I didn't know what I was getting into with this novel. I thought it was a coming-of-age novel, maybe even a light read. I didn't expect this dark, mesmerizing novel of loss, rejection, and perseverance.

Set in the 1930s, the story centers on 15-year-old Thea Atwell, who has done something bad. We don't know what she's done, only that it involved her twin brother and their cousin, who was like another brother to them. As the book opens, Thea is being deposited at Yonahlossee Riding Camp, which is really just a name for a boarding school for rich girls—or, in Thea's case, a home for girls who have been bad. Her parents can't stand to be around her anymore, and sending her off to school seems like the only option.

Thea has never been around anyone besides her family: her parents, brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin. She's never had a girlfriend, never attended a fancy dinner, didn't know the codes between girls or that they even existed. She's thrown from a comfortable home in which she was the beloved only daughter into a world she didn't know existed.

And she loves it. She loves being part of this sisterhood and, most of all, loves that she gets to spend hours and hours each day riding her horse. She also loves that she is the best rider in the school. But Thea has an insatiable need to be loved and to prove that she is a person of value— she needs to reclaim her position as one who is prized. Why did her world fall apart back in Florida? Why did her parents toss her aside like trash?

Flashbacks lead up to the story of  the Big Event that sent The and her family into a downward spiral. As Thea pieces together what she did wrong, she continues on a similar path at the boarding school. Thea is a complex protagonist, bent on self-preservation but mired in self-destructive behavior. She's selfish with flashes of compassion, unstable yet admiring of stability. She's a 15-year-old girl who doesn't know how to contain her passions and enjoys the power she has over men.

While Thea is a strangely likable character is spite of her self-absorption. The novel is graphic and violent at times, but it's incredibly compelling. I stayed up way past my bedtime a couple of nights reading it. If you're in the mood for something complex and a little dark, this is a great choice.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Book Review: The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

Heidi Durrow's The Girl Who Fell From the Sky is a survivor's story. Rachel is the 11-year-old girl who fell, except she didn't fall accidentally: her mother, chased by her own demons and bad decisions, takes flight with all the kids from the top of a roof. Rachel lives.

The daughter of a white Danish woman and a black GI, Rachel now has to learn who she is. Is she black or is she white? Is she poor Rachel or lucky Rachel? And why did her mother do it?

After recovering from her severe injuries, Rachel goes to live with her black grandmother in Oregon. This is a whole new world to her, and her sense of "otherness" is almost more than she can bear. She struggles to find her place in this new world and also to attempt to grasp why her mother could possibly have thought that killing herself and her children was the only solution. The story of Rachel's mother is told through the points-of-view of the grandmother, the neighbor boy who saw the family's fall from the roof, and her mother's employer, who packed up her possessions and read her journals.

The story of Rachel's mother is really never fully explained, but I was okay with that, mostly. I didn't feel like her story was fleshed out enough to come even close to "justifying" her crime, but I suppose that's another story. Likewise, why Rachel's father never comes back for her isn't really clear at all, and I was mostly okay with that. Mostly.

That said, Durrow's writing is wonderful, and Rachel's story is intriguing enough on its own. Perhaps the novel would have lost some of its lovely, sparse narrative had the stories of the parents been deeper. I definitely recommend this one!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Book Review: Secrets of Eden

Chris Bohjalian has got to be one of today’s best American authors. When I think about each of his novels that I’ve read, I’m astounded at the depth and breadth of his subjects, from midwifery to post WW2 to the Great Gatsby to domestic violence, the focus of Secrets of Eden.

Secrets of Eden tells the story of the murder of Alice Hayward by her abusive husband and his subsequent suicide. Well, apparent suicide.  It’s told in four sections by four narrators: the pastor, the state's attorney, an author who writes about angels, and the Hayward’s 15-year-old daughter. The questions each of them asks: what really happened here? 

It is obvious that George killed Alice. But who killed George? The angle of the gun wasn't quite right for a suicide and, although everyone agrees that George was a scumbag, the state's attorney has an obligation to find his killer. The four narrators, who have four distinct voices, provide different perspectives on the life of George and Alice while investigating and analyzing their own lives.

I thought Bohjalian treated all his characters with unusual respect without any of the usual stereotypes. The Baptist preacher was not a fire-and-brimstone psycho; the attorney was not cold-hearted; the teenage girl wasn't cold and rebellious; and the author angel, while kooky, had her own serious issues that balanced that out.

It's a good psychological thriller, although certainly sad and disturbing, that's beautifully written.

Other Bohjalian novels I've reviewed:
The Double Bind
The Buffalo Soldier
Skeletons at the Feast

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Book Review: Under the Same Blue Sky

Pamela Schoenewaldt features an era that few novelists explore in Under the Same Blue Sky — World War 1. I’ve read dozens of World War 2 era novels, but I can’t think of a single novel of the Great War I’ve read other than a children’s book or two.

The novel begins in Pittsburgh in 1914, before America enters the European conflict. Hazel Renner is a young woman on the brink of adulthood. She’s ready to venture into the world, although she isn’t sure what that looks like yet. She’s had a comfortable, loving childhood in a German-American neighborhood.

As the war in Europe escalates, animosity toward German-Americans also rises. Hazel and her parents fall under suspicion and hatred. Neighbors turn against them as the war wages. Hazel’s father becomes obsessed and depressed over the war casualties, and Hazel’s life changes drastically as she uncovers a family secret.

Hazel leaves home to become a teacher in a small town. This whole part of the novel was strange to me. While she is in this town, Hazel discovers she has healing powers. When she touches people and touches her blue house simultaneously, she is able to miraculously heal people. This was an odd addition to the novel, and I can’t say I understand why it was necessary. For me personally, the novel would have been stronger without this foray into healing of the sick. I think the author was working toward a theme of healing in many forms, but this never jelled in my mind.

Hazel loses her healing power quickly, however, and moves to the next phase of her journey: back to the castle where she was born. This is a castle built by a reclusive German baron, who came to America to escape his tyrannical father. Here Hazel puts the pieces of her early years together and falls in love with the gardener.

But all can’t be happily-ever-after: the War rages in Europe, killing millions. And influenza rages everywhere, killing even more than the war. Those that are left behind are shell-shocked, struggling to make sense of what has happened and to forge a new life in the midst of so much loss. Hazel loses many loved ones, but ultimately she finds happiness and learns to navigate in a world ravaged by war and disease.

A lot happens within these 300+ pages. I was especially intrigued in the first half of the novel, as all my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Germany to America in the late 1800s. With very German names, they surely must have faced persecution during World War 1. My mother’s Uncle Grover fought in the war and came back disabled by poison gas. My grandfather, Uncle Grover’s youngest brother, was saved from the ravages of war only because he contracted influenza and nearly died. It occurred to me as I read this novel that those are the only two family stories I know of this time. I’ll have to see if my mother had any others passed down to her, as her solidly German family must have suffered many of the same horrors as do Hazel’s family in the novel.

This is a great read, especially if you enjoy delving into a bit of history that doesn't get much attention.