I’ve Just Finished Reading… Turns 1!

Today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, a happy and proud day for me!

This blog has been a wonderful source of happiness and growth over the past year. It has been a way for me to connect with my fellow book-lovers around the world and, as you can guess from the title of my blog,  the blog has allowed me to recommend books to my friends and family (and to total strangers!) and to tell loved ones who have recommended books to me how much I enjoyed them.

I have been so thankful for all of my readers and visitors — especially my followers! — who have been so supportive: not just reading my blog, but sharing it, liking it, and commenting on it! (Side note: I LOVE your comments! Keep ’em coming, I promise to reply.) I hope that at least one of you found a good book that you may not have otherwise read because of this blog.

In the past year, I have posted 122 times which have been viewed by almost 3,000 readers. You all like my fiction posts best, with your all time highest views coming for the five Rainbow Rowell books I reviewed. (I promise to review any new books by her as soon as possible.) You like to read my blog best on Mondays and more of you visited my site in June than any other month; I promise to keep that in mind in the coming year.

Once again, thank you all, and happy reading!

 

 

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Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith (2014)

Spurred on by my enjoyment of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible (reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-BM) which was a lively and entertaining “modern retelling” of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I read Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma yesterday but with much less enthusiasm.

While I will agree with other critics that his writing style of lovely and his story-telling thoughtful, this novel was not all-together satisfying to read. Indeed, I nearly put it down multiple times over the course of the day but lacking in anything else to read at the moment, I continued.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the novel focuses on several men and women living in a small English country village who all are single, either by choice of circumstance. Enter Emma Woodhouse, rich, entitled, selfish socialite whose boredom draws her into a series of more and more ridiculous attempts at match-making among her friends and family…all the while loudly proclaiming to all who will listen that she herself has no need for love or marriage. “Many women made a bargain and endured the consequences stoically and with good humour, putting up with tedious and opinionated men in exchange for material comfort. Emma would never do that herself, of course; she had no need to — she was well off, so well off in fact, as not to require a man at all.”

Surely McCall Smith could have updated young Emma’s views of marriage and love just a bit, as very few modern women seem to be searching for any dull, wealthy man they can find to save them from spinsterhood, as they no doubt did when Austen wrote in 1815.

I am unable to tell if it is because Austen’s novel Emma  — which I admit I have only a hazy recollection of and remember reading it with lukewarm enthusiasm — was itself a bit insipid and lacking in depth or if it is McCall Smith’s retelling that feels that way. A story that is about the matchmaking and the search for love should feel more urgent and romantic. Instead these characters all leave me feeling as if they simple made a decision to pair-off for logistical reasons, rather than for passionate ones. The entire novel makes the process of finding a “suitable match” feel bloodless and cold, with an underlying feeling that some of the characters may be pairing up with someone who is not entirely desirable just to be done with it.

Even the titular character’s romance is regulated to just a few short, unimaginative paragraphs, it seems that her romance materialized out of nowhere with very little thought or warning, leaving her proclamations of love to feel entirely insincere. Indeed for a character who throughout the novel has foresworn love or marriage in any guise, to reverse her position on the institution with so little wooing shows the author’s lack of imagination. Even if Austen’s Emma could be convinced so quickly that she loved a man she largely ignored for the majority of the book, surely McCall Smith could have modernized his Emma slightly and demanded that she might take more convincing…as any modern women hopefully would.

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter (2016)

Will Trent Series #8kept-woman-cover

Since I read my first novel by Karin Slaughter last November, I have gone on to read all of her novels and was greatly anticipating her new novel, The Kept Woman, which is part of the Will Trent/Sara Linton series. Her murder mysteries, which I think of as falling into the sub-genre of CSI-style, cop procedural murder mysteries, are impossible to put down: dark, gritty, thrilling, unpredictable and populated with repeat characters that I really want to get the bad guy…and be lucky in life and love in their personal lives.

In The Kept Woman, our favorite investigators have just be called into solve the murder of a former cop whose body was found at the construction site of a soon-to-be night club owned by several multi-millionaire NBA players. It becomes almost immediately clear that more than one murder has taken place and the wild investigation that follows takes the characters all over Atlanta; into abandoned buildings populated by crack addicts and into the mansions of NBA superstars and many places in between.

What unravels is an unbelievably complex story about the many ways that people can use their power and money to manipulate others and hide their sins with little effort.  Following the forensic evidence, witness statements, and gut instincts, the investigators begin to put reveal a massive coverup that includes abuse, murder, prostitution, rape, and drug addiction (to name just a few.)

Alongside the case, our beloved main characters Will Trent and Sara Linton are fighting to hang on to their unconventional romance and budding love for one another, even when ghosts from Will’s past threaten their happiness. After reading all six Sara Linton (Grant County) series and all eight books of the Will Trent series, I am enormously invested in seeing these two scarred, brilliant, amazing characters make a good life together, which they desperately deserve after years of heartache.

Note: Since this is my sixth book by Karin Slaughter reviewed on this blog, I have given the author her own tag “Karin Slaughter” so that those who want to read more about her books can do so easily.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (2009)

Although I have never heard of this novel, nor of its author, when I read a short review of it in our library’s newsletter, I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. Goolrick’s novel is a dreamy, mysterious story told with rich, ornate language that is beautiful even when it tells terrible tales.

The story begins on a snowy October night in rural Wisconsin, where two strangers meet for the first time before their arranged marriage. Both Ralph Truitt and Catherine Land have dark and angry pasts, their agreement to wed one another is born not out of love, but out of need. They claim their desire to marry is for companionship, but soon both Ralph and Catherine reveal shadowy, ulterior motives. His motives include a desperate need for sex and companionship, but he also needs Catherine to be a pawn in a complex plan to repair familial rift. It is his hope that by finally unburdening his past sins and lies to his new wife he can use her to right wrongs done in his youth, so that he will be able to begin a new life.

Catherine’s initial motivation for accepting Ralph’s offer of marriage is to achieve financial security and to have a chance to marry despite her advancing age. As the book progresses, she is exposed as much greedier and more desperate then Ralph could ever guess. Indeed, there is no end to her deceptions, which reveal themselves to readers one thin layer at a time. Just when it begins to feel that she has shown us her true self, she unveils yet another deceit.

Just when Catherine’s is within reach of concluding her dark plans, she has moment of crisis, wondering whether the she is willing to throw away a second chance at life with Ralph. Can she bring her schemes to a close, even though it means she will be denying herself a safe and comfortable life, a life she could never have imagined when she answered his ad for “a reliable wife?”

Goolrick’s novel is filled with gorgeous prose that tells readers complicated stories of love, passion, sex, revenge, and redemption. In addition to the lush storytelling and his well-drawn characters, also notable are his rich descriptions of the time, the beginning of the twentieth century, and the settings: both the wild, windswept, frozen lands of Wisconsin and the seedy, ragged cityscapes of Chicago and St. Louis.

 

 

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (2016)

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I am well aware that Amy Schumer’s brand of humor is problematic for many women and men, due in large part to her constant willingness to candidly discuss issues related to sex, body image, drinking, dating, success without concern to how uncomfortable her jokes can make audiences. While this does make her stand up and her television show cringe-worthy at times, it also clearly establishes her as a strident feminist who is unwilling to ignore the paradoxes of modern womanhood: be sexy and not slutty; appreciate your body as it is but work tirelessly to change it; stop worrying about pleasing men but make sure that their pleasure is secretly more important than your own; strive for success but be self-depreciating when it is achieved.

That said, if you find her comedy unappealing, you will might not enjoy this book. However, I feel that it is important for readers to remember that Schumer is using her unconventional and purposefully vulgar sense of humor to say important things about being a woman and it is only because of her trademark lack of decorum that her ideas are being heard. Had she stuck with being more ladylike, she might be more palatable but then a lot of the feminist issues she is raising would continue to remain unexplored.

“This book has no self-help info or advice for you. I’m a flawed fuckup and I haven’t figured anything out, so I have no wisdom to offer you. But I can help you with is showing you my mistakes and my pain and my laughter.” From the introduction to The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

In her first book of essays, Schumer does not disappoint her fans: she displays the same irreverence for propriety, the same disregard for rules, and she tackles issues (dating, orgasms, rape, abuse ) that women often shy away from discussing. And, of course, she does so while being at times vulgar but always very, very funny.

What may surprise potential readers, as it did me, was the fact that many of her stories are not at all scandalous or obscenity riddled. Many are touching, heartfelt accounts of experiences in her life. She talks candidly about what it is like to be rich after years of barely getting by; she shares the hard truth about her first non-consensual sexual experience and her abusive relationship; she tells of the relentlessness of making it in comedy and the extra work she had to put in because she is a woman; she talks honestly about break ups and illness and her intense need for solitude…all essays are that thought-provoking and powerful without being at all incendiary. But there are some racy essays too, because, let’s face it this is Amy Schumer and raunchy is her bread and butter.

A fun, fast read that made me like and appreciate her even more than I already did.

 

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman (2010 Edition)

“Keeping love alive in our marriages is serious business.”

I completed a second reading of The Five Love Languages this week as part of an Internet book club of sorts, in which I am participating — along with thousands of others — whom follow the “Happier with Gretchen Rubin” podcast with hosts Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft.

You can find a link to the episode of “Happier” that discusses The Five Love Languages here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/08/podcast-80-five-love-languages/

My first reading of this book took place years ago, as part of a now hazy class that I participated in. The reason for the class has been lost to the sands of time but I still remember the lively discussions the class and this reading provoked between my then brand-new husband and I. This time around, I read it a bit more quickly, with an eye towards tips for tuning up our fifteen year old marriage in those areas where we may have let our “love language” communication slip. All these years later, I found the book (and the podcast) to have loads of really useful information that I can put into practice today to improve my already-great marriage tomorrow.

A note to readers: Although grounded in Chapman’s Christian faith and his examples are exclusively presented in terms of “marriage” and “husband and wife,” the book’s lessons are universal to all couples (married or not, gay or straight).

Chapman presents readers with a method for understanding why some couples find it hard to maintain the “in love” feelings they felt for one another at the start of their relationships. He suggests that once the passion and thrill of the courtship have worn off, and the partners settle into their day to day lives, they sometimes fail to express love to their partners in they way that they partners need to hear it. Therefore, Chapman recommends that we take the time to learn the Five Love Languages; determine what language our partner “speaks,” and then find ways to speak to them in their language; and lastly learn our own language and communicate to our partner how we could feel more love from them.

Of importance in this rubric is the understanding that we need to seek out ways to show our partner love simply for their sake: we cannot set out to find ways to communicate better with them in order to manipulate them into treating us differently. The choice to choose to speak your partner’s love language is a selfless one: “Real love requires effort and discipline. It is a choice to expend energy in an effort to benefit the other person, knowing that if his or her life is enriched by your effort, you too will find a sense of satisfaction of having genuinely loving another.”

The Five Love Languages, and some thoughts from Chapman on how to express them, are:

  • Words of Affirmation — telling your loved one how much you care, love them, appreciate them; recognize their efforts, praise their appearance, offer compliments, brag to others. This is never harsh words, demands, nagging, or snappish “about time” comments…just simple words of recognition, encouragement, and thanks. “Love is kind…we must use kind words.”
  • Quality Time — spending one-on-one time, sharing activities, share meaningful conversations, listen without interrupting, and reconnect with one another.
  • Receiving Gifts — surprise acts of gift giving to show you care and have been thinking of them, items or tokens or handmade crafts that show you have been paying attention to their preferences. (Hints for things your partner may like lie the gifts she has given others, in the things she has expressed interest in, or are similar to things she likes to pick out for herself.) “Physical presence in the time of crisis is the most powerful gift you can give if your spouses’ language is receiving gifts.”
  • Acts of Service — these are acts you do unprompted to make your partner’s life easier, less stressful, or to make them feel pampered or taken care of. (Taking our the trash, watching the kids so she can nap, volunteering to run errands on your way home from work)
  • Physical Touch — these are any physical connections, including but not limited to romantic touch (sex, kissing, hand holding, hugs) and simple closeness (cuddling or snuggling on couch.) Chapman insist those of us whose partner’s use this language remember, “Your best instructor in loving touch is your partner, she is the one you are seeking to love. Don’t insist on touching her in your way or in your time. Don’t make the mistake of believing what brings you pleasure will bring pleasure to her. Learn her dialect.”

Despite feeling a times a bit dopey discussing our relationship in terms of the love languages — for the record, I hear love through “Acts of Service” and to a lesser degree “Words of Affirmation;” my husband is “Touch” and “Words of Affirmation” — we had a hours-long conversation on Saturday of ways we could improve our relationship by remembering one another’s love language. We also discussed the book with our three sons and found that each of them easily identified their love language as well, sparking a lively dinner debate about how to be more loving to one another. We rarely do things that outwardly self-help-esque and so I was thrilled at their willingness to talk it over, especially our teenager.

In all, there is no circumstance in which putting extra time and thought into how to strengthen your relationship is not a worth-while investment. The book is worth a glance if you have never read it, and the framework it presents is a unique and valuable way to think about being more loving.

“Being sincere is not enough. We must be willing to learn our spouse’s primary love language if we are to be effective communicators of love.”

 

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (2013)

Cormoran Strike Series, #1

“Lula and the homeless outsider lying in the chilly morgue…had not taken every reasonable precaution against violence or chance; they had not tethered themselves to life with mortgages or voluntary work, safe husbands and clean-faced dependents: their deaths, therefore, were not classed as ‘tragic’ in the same way. How easy was it to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.”

Over the course of this debut novel, author Robert Galbraith (a pseudonym for JK Rowling) not only writes an astonishing good private investigator murder mystery, but he also establishes a new set of super-stars in the genre: the battle-worn and oft-unlucky in life (but very lucky in work) Comoran Strike and his brilliant and utterly lovable, learns-as-she-goes assistant Robin Ellacott.

The opening of this novel, and with it the entire Cormoran Strike series, readers are introduced to story’s protagonist at one of his lowest points. An ex-army investigator and amputee, Cormoran Strike currently finds himself broke, his firm without clients, and his love life in shambles. “He felt as though he were accompanied by a specter that haunted him. It lurked in corners and whispered to him. It urged him to consider how far he had fallen: his age; his penury; his shattered love life; his homelessness. Thirty-five years and nothing to show for it.”

In one wild half-hour on a Monday morning, he finds himself with an unexpected assistant and a new wealthy client and his luck begins to turn. In his beautiful, young temporary assistant Robin Ellacott, Comoran is shocked and pleased to find a “professional…efficient… undemanding woman with unusual restraint.” With little prodding and zero training, Robin steps right into the firm’s brand-new investigation and proves herself, almost immediately, to be indispensable. Comoran clearly recognizes both Robin’s good looks and her professional potential, he “found Robin completely satisfactory and restful, not only because she was hanging off every word, but because that little sapphire ring on her third finger was like a neat full stop: thus far, and no further. It suited him perfectly.”

Robin herself is experiencing her own “moment of wonder” at being, unwittingly, assigned to a private investigator’s office to work. “She had never confided in a solitary human being her lifelong, secret, childish ambition” to work as an investigator and live the “life the large man beside her was living.”

The new client who arrived along with Robin Ellacott, is the well-to-do brother of a international super-star model, Lula Landry, whose death just months before was ruled a suicide. He is offering Comoran top dollar to take a second look into whether or not she was murdered. Comoran, and indeed Robin, both are familiar with the case and hold little hope that they will be able to turn up any evidence of murder when the police investigation had not. None-the-less,  Strike is both desperately broke and “had an incurable habit of thoroughness” and immediately sets out to begin his own inquiry.

The story that follows take readers through a glitzy world of modeling and fame; into the sedate mansions and law firms of the super-rich; into the homeless shelters of London; and beyond. All the while, Galbraith slowly, expertly unravels a mystery that readers cannot resist being drawn into; one which seeks to explore the complications of race, family, money, and trust…and the reasons those bonds can lead to murder.

Almost, to my mind, as thrilling as the story is the revelation of Robin’s burgeoning investigative skills and the outstanding, if very, very, unlikely partnership, she and Comoran form. He brings to the partnership years of experience and the dogged determination needed to piece together the mystery: she brings her keen intelligence, sharp observational skills, and her deep desire to prove herself in this new career. Although their personal problems — his infamous family, her controlling fiance — threaten to complicate the case, in the end their dedication and professionalism lead them to all of the right answers. Together, they are truly one of the best PI duos currently being written about. Indeed, all of the characters in the novel — both big and small — are so wonderfully drawn, that everyone of them seems utterly real…at times colorful, unsettling, sleazy, and manipulative, but still real.

If you are a fan of murder mysteries, or a simply a fan of wonderful writing, you should read this book and they immediately set out to read the next two books in the series: The Silkworm and Career of Evil http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1l

And then, like me, you can anxiously await the publication of book number four.

cuckoos calling cover