The Goldfish Boy, by Lisa Thompson

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Twelve-year-old Matthew is reluctant to leave his house due to his fear of illness and germs, so he watches and records the happenings in his neighborhood from the upstairs windows. Through those windows he’s learned a lot about his neighbors, and as he observes the happenings around him, we learn a lot about Matthew. When a young boy disappears from the cul-de-sac, Matthew is the last one to see him, and the neighborhood is in turmoil as everyone tries to figure out where the boy could be.

THE GOLDFISH BOY by Lisa Thompson is a middle grade novel with an intriguing story line. The disappearance of Teddy is what drives the plot, but Matthew’s struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder are what give it heart. Matthew is a frustratingly wonderful main character, and the book’s supporting cast is fleshed out admirably through Matthew’s observations and the bits of back-story that he provides through his memories.

The ending to THE GOLDFISH BOY wraps up nicely while still offering readers the opportunity to go out and explore the themes and topics discussed–perfect for the age group to which it’s geared.

My thanks to the publisher and YA Books Central for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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Evelyn Hugo is a Hollywood icon—Elizabeth Taylor meets Lauren Bacall, with more than a touch of Greta Garbo. She’s the woman that every woman wants to be, and that every man wants to have. Her meteoric rise to stardom and subsequent climb to superstardom leaves a pile of husbands by the wayside. To the outsider, her love life is very complicated. But in the context of her career, it makes perfect sense—to Evelyn, at least.

Evelyn is now in her late 70s, and she has been living quietly, having retired from public life decades before. She decides that it’s time to tell all. And there is much to tell. To do the job, she chooses a nobody, Monique Grant, who has been a magazine reporter for barely a year. Why Monique? That’s a mystery to everyone, including Monique, and Evelyn is in no hurry to give answers as she narrates her scandalous story.

It’s a wild ride indeed. We meet poor Eddie Diaz, goddamn Don Adler, gullible Mick Riva, clever Rex North, tortured Harry Cameron, disappointing Max Girard, and agreeable Robert Jamison, all of whom are lucky/unlucky enough to be married to Evelyn at some point. We also meet Celia St. James, Evelyn’s rival, dearest friend, and fellow Hollywood megastar. We learn, too, that the title of the book is a bit deceptive, as there is more to Evelyn’s love life than meets the eye.

The present-day story is told in the first person by the frankly uninteresting Monique, which works to give us an outside perspective on Evelyn—at least, Evelyn as a still-glamorous senior citizen. Evelyn’s story, though, is told in the first person by Evelyn, which is awkward. It’s just too much of a stretch for Evelyn to be able to remember full conversations and assign thoughts and feelings as she does. On the other hand, this approach does provide an explanation for the reader’s inability to grasp any of the other characters in the book—Evelyn is all about Evelyn, even when she’s protecting those she loves.

The answer to the first mystery of the book—who is Evelyn’s true love?–is revealed early; the answer to the second mystery—why Monique?—develops late and is a bit unsatisfying. And the book skips over some major, and potentially interesting, sections of Evelyn’s life. But despite its flaws, this is a rip-roaring beach romp through old Hollywood, with some interesting observations on love versus intimacy, and on the sacrifices needed to keep up appearances while living in the public eye.

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses….” And with this first line, the tone is set for Ordinary Grace, a quiet coming-of-age novel set in small-town Minnesota in the 1960s.

Frank Drum is just thirteen years old when the serene town of New Bremen is disrupted by a series of disturbing, deadly events, one of which causes Frank’s world to crack. With his sweet, stuttering younger brother Jake as his shadow, Frank pokes and prods the dark corners of the town, eavesdropping and exploring, trying to make sense of what has happened.

Frank’s father is the town pastor. Though he was originally on the path to become a lawyer, his searing World War II experiences diverted him to the ministry. Frank’s mother, who thought she was marrying a lawyer, is uncomfortable as the pastor’s wife and resentful of his reliance on faith. This novel is as much about the rifts in this marriage as it is about the disturbances in the town. Secrets are uncovered, faith is tested, grief must be dealt with. But ordinary grace proves to be this family’s salvation, and that grace finds its voice in surprising ways.

An Edgar Award-winning novel, Ordinary Grace is less a mystery book than a portrait of a family and a town in crisis. Frank is a boy who is always on the move, one who will climb out of the bedroom window in the middle of the night without hesitation if it will bring him answers. Jake might doubt his brother’s methods, but he’s by Frank’s side through thick and thin. They are a resilient pair with secrets of their own.

This nostalgic, moving novel manages to be simultaneously sad and uplifting. Frank is telling the story forty years later, with the perspective of time—a wise choice by the author, as it allows the adult’s more mature viewpoint to overlay the child’s experiences. All of the characters are familiar and fully drawn, but Frank’s brother and father are particularly captivating in their generous,loving natures. It is a book that reminds me strongly of Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger—one of my favorite novels of all time. It lingers sweetly in the mind long after its central mystery is laid to rest.

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

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In post-apocalyptic Africa, there are two peoples: the dark-skinned, oppressed Okeke and the lighter-skinned, dominant Nuru. Our heroine, Onyesonwu—whose name means “Who fears death”—is born a mixed-race Ewu, conceived in a rape during a genocidal raid on her mother’s village. The rape was intended to create a powerful sorcerer, and it succeeded, though not quite as Onyesonwu’s evil magical father had intended. Emotional, passionate, curious, strong, impulsive, and fiercely independent, Onyesonwu is a girl who is no one’s sidekick.

The first half of the book shows Onyesonwu learning who she is while battling prejudice, both as a woman and as an Ewu. At first she tries to conform to the norms of the Okeke village in which she and her mother ultimately reside, but at the same time she begins to exhibit incredible powers that ensure that she will always be an outsider. Eventually she bonds with three other girls with whom she shares a clitoridectomy ceremony, and she grows close to a mysterious Ewu boy named Mwita. Then, when she finally persuades an extremely reluctant sorcerer to take her on as a student, Onyesonwu begins to learn her destiny.

As tends to happen in fantasy novels, there is a prophecy. Although Onyesonwu does not originally seem to fit the description of the one who will literally rewrite the rules, it soon becomes clear that fate may be wrong about some details. As tends to happen in fantasy novels, a journey must therefore be undertaken, and a fellowship must be formed.

The second half of the book follows Onyesonwu and her posse through five months in the desert on the way to a showdown with her father, who leads the Nuru in attacks meant to obliterate the Okeke. Nnedi Okorafor is a skilled raconteur, but given the buildup, the ending comes so quickly that it feels like an afterthought. And Onyesonwu is hardly an untainted heroine, given the destruction she heaps on two villages along her journey. Indeed, she exhibits—even welcomes—the violent tendencies that Ewu are assumed to possess because of the violence of their conception, which is the reason why Ewu are universally shunned. But then, conception is a central theme of this book, and Onyesonwu’s Ewu lover Mwita, born not of rape but of love between the two races, is a moderating force and a healer.

The book has a hard time settling into a groove. It feels at times like a YA novel, except that Onyesonwu and Mwita (not to mention Onyesonwu’s girlfriends) are constantly having sex. (Although their sex feels like YA sex—lots of reaching for each other, and then….) The story follows a fantasy outline, but it throws science fiction elements into the mix without following the paths they suggest. And though there’s nothing wrong with a little ambiguity, there are a ridiculous number of overly sly hints about how this world came to be, with too many questions left unanswered—including the question of how a Schoolhouse Rock lyric might become embedded in post-apocalyptic African lore.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t have a great many rewards. The author has grand ambitions for her story, most of which are at least partially satisfied. The female characters, Onyesonwu in particular, are fully drawn and thoroughly believable. The storytelling is deft and compelling. And the author uses her tale to ponder a variety of social topics,from feminism to racial inequality, from acceptance of one’s fate to control of one’s body. A reader is left to wonder whether “Who fears death” is a question or a statement, and whether the answer even matters to one for whom dying is just another bump in the road.

The Only Story, by Julian Barnes

The only story

I loved Julian Barnes’s meditative, Man Booker Prize-winning A Sense of an Ending, which I reviewed very briefly here. In it, a middle-aged Brit contemplated the relationships of his youth in spare but lovely prose. When The Only Story began, it felt like it might recapture the thoughtfulness of that earlier tale. Sadly, it was not to be.

In The Only Story, we are introduced to an annoying, self-important protagonist, Paul Casey, whose summer membership at the local country club at age 19 leads to a decade-long entanglement with his tennis partner, 48-year-old Susan MacLeod, a married mother of two. Susan is a spirited woman in a drab and occasionally violent marital relationship. She quickly identifies Paul as a head case, but one with whom she is happy to trade banter. She is not the world-weary Mrs. Robinson type, a cougar on the prowl; instead, she comes across more like a spunky kitten: a woman who is a bit naïve, who regrets her lack of experience but is finally ready to do something about it. She seems to see in Paul—what? A way to overwrite the choices she made at Paul’s age? It’s hard to tell; we never truly get to know Susan, whose mid-life decisions, seen through the filter of Paul’s self-absorption, seem odd at best. It’s Susan’s life that’s the tragedy here, yet the pompous Paul seizes for himself the role of tragic hero.

The first half of this brief book tells the tale of the lovers’ happy-ish first years, in which Paul becomes a strange part of Susan’s household, bringing his college buddies home to her and doing crosswords with her husband. His parents are properly alarmed, which only makes Paul more pleased with his unconventional arrangement. Eventually, though, Paul and Susan decide to run off together, and here is where the story begins to fall apart.

The second half of the book drags, with Susan’s sad spiral glimpsed between Paul’s self-centered and stale musings on love. Paul, unsurprisingly, is ultimately unable to deal with his broken lover or accept his role in her decline, yet once he tosses her back to her family, he also remains too entangled to move on with his own life. For him, this is truly “the only story.”

The author plays with voice here, moving between first-, second-, and third-person observations with varying degrees of success, and as in previous books, he makes memory a central theme. As the book winds down, we wonder: Can we rely on Paul’s recollections or not? In the end, though, this bleak book brings few insights, and even the clean, crisp writing is not enough to wash away the sorrow of two lives wasted in the name of love.

The Story Collector, by Kristin O’Donnell Tubb

story collector

Once upon a time, Viviani Fedeler lived in the New York Public Library with her family, and she dreamed of having an exciting story of her own to tell. In THE STORY COLLECTOR, Kristin O’Donnell Tubb does that for her as she takes components of the real life of Viviani and weaves them into a wonderful tale filled with pre-teen friend drama, family relationships, a ghost story, and a mystery–all in the awesome setting of the New York Public Library of the 1920s.

I love historical fiction, and I am always happy when I find an author I can trust to be historically accurate while relaying a good story. I’ve read Tubb’s other books, and the thing that shines in all of them (including this one) is her attention to detail when dealing with a setting. Tubb researches the heck out of things, and it shows. I felt I was wandering through the NYPL with Viviani and company throughout THE STORY COLLECTOR, and as is the case with all the best books, I desperately envied the main character … and Viviani is a wonderful character. She’s sweet, funny, smart, and flawed–because perfect characters are annoying. She’s also a good friend, daughter, and sibling. Her love of a good story is her strongest trait; it’s the one that gets her in and out of trouble, and it’s what propels the plot.

As should be the case in a book about a wordsmith, there’s beauty in many of the quotes from THE STORY COLLECTOR, too. I wish I had marked the pages so that I could reference all of them, but “courage is simply fear stuffed with hope” is definitely one of my favorites, and that sums up Viviani and her adventures pretty well.

One aspect of the plot that I particularly liked was the debate on stories vs. lies. Viviani is, of course, a storyteller, and Merit, the new girl at school, challenges Viviani by saying that her stories are actually lies. The tension this causes is something that every middle school student will understand.

I was sad to finish THE STORY COLLECTOR because I really enjoyed my time with Viviani, her friends and family, and in the New York Public Library setting. Those who know me will be shocked to hear that I’ve never visited the building, but this book makes me want to get there soon. I just wish I could hang out with Viviani when I do visit.

My thanks to the author for a copy of the book. I won it during an Instagram giveaway, and in entering into the contest, I was invited to reflect on my favorite library. So, I’d like to give a shout out to Willard Library in Battle Creek, Michigan. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking downtown to get a stack of books (hopefully enough to last a week so I wouldn’t have to annoy my sister by digging through her books to find something to read), and it’s where I had my first real job as a Reference Page to the best librarian I’ve ever met, Jo Emerson.

 

 

Hey There, Dumpling!: 100 Recipes for Dumplings, Buns, Noodles, and Other Asian Treats, by Kenny Lao

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In case there’s anyone out there looking for cookbook recommendations …

I love cooking, and I LOVE cookbooks. Fortunately, I have an understanding partner (Dan) who loves both things as much as I do. Therefore, when I signed up to review this book for NetGalley, we took our job seriously. I downloaded the cookbook, and we set out to cook as many of the recipes as possible. Dan and I have been cooking dumplings for years, so we were pretty sure there wasn’t anything we could learn from this book beyond a few new filling recipes.

Boy, were we wrong.

First, we learned the importance of a good wrapper and the differences between the different styles of wrappers. Although the author offers a recommendation for his preferred wrapper, we tried a few different styles and thicknesses (because, as I said, we took our job seriously!) and came up with the best wrapper available in our area–and it wasn’t the one recommended by the cookbook. If you have a chance, and if you aren’t going to make your own, pick up the PF Select Shanghai-style wrappers for all of your dumplings. You won’t be disappointed. If you can’t find PF Select, the author’s suggestion of Grand Marquis Shanghai-style will do, but they’re a bit more doughy.

Second, we learned new folding styles for dumplings beyond the traditional half-moon.

Third, Kenny Lao has a method for cooking dumplings that is absolutely fantastic. In the past, we’ve fried them, and we’ve steamed them, but his treatment gives you a potsticker that is the best of both worlds and is oh-so-easy. It’s also a great method for making dumplings for a crowd.

Fourth, we were skeptical of Lao’s assertion that freezing the dumplings using his method would yield excellent results. After freezing dumplings based on Lao’s instructions, we have taken to making and freezing dumplings once a month, and we will never return to frozen grocery store dumplings again. There is absolutely no comparison.

Finally, there are the recipes. We tried four different recipes for fillings, two different soups, many of the dipping sauces, and three of the side dishes. All were quite tasty, and we definitely have our favorites.

Overall, this is a great cookbook. The layout is not overwhelming, the recipes are great, and the “how to” sections are clear. Plus, it has a variety of recipes that will appeal to cooks of all skill levels.

We have a lot of detailed notes about specific recipes, but that might be going a bit overboard for this review. Hit me up if you’re interested!

We’ll be buying a copy of this cookbook for ourselves, and we’ll be getting additional copies for friends. We definitely enjoyed our first attempt at cookbook reviewing, and we hope to do many more!

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

Past Tense, by Lee Child

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I’ve been a fan of Jack Reacher for years. My parents introduced me to him about when book three came out, and I devoured the books in the series as quickly as Lee Child could write them–as did Mom and Dad. I soon introduced my oldest son to Jack … my son was a high school student who wanted to be a US Marine (and has since become one), and he was immediately enthralled. How many authors can have that impact on teens, parents, and grandparents?!

Then Jack and I lost touch for a while, though I thought of him fondly, and probably more often than one should think about a fictional character. When I saw NetGalley was offering up a copy of Lee Child’s soon-to-be-released book, I had to ask for a copy, and I was rewarded with an ebook of PAST TENSE.

If you read Lee Child’s books, you know what to expect. Jack Reacher is wandering through a town, and something keeps him there. The story lines are built on the details surrounding whatever it is that forces his stay in the town in which he finds himself, and Reacher is always Awesome (with a capital A). PAST TENSE follows the formula, and in this instance, Reacher is investigating something is pretty personal: his father’s past. Of course it’s not as simple as hitting the public library, sitting at a computer, going on Ancestry.com, and finding out that everything is exactly as it seems. Nope. This is Jack Reacher, so there are mysteries. And secrets. And fist fights. And there’s another part of the story in which a couple of nice Canadian twenty-somethings are being kept captive in a motel for nefarious purposes. What there *isn’t* is Jack Reacher ending up in bed with miscellaneous female character; that surprised me, but it was actually a relief.

All in all, PAST TENSE is exactly what one expects from of a Lee Child/Jack Reacher book. Reacher is Reacher through and through. The mysteries surrounding his dad and the Canadian captives are intriguing. The action scenes are written really well, and although the slower paced moments made me roll my eyes a bit, I knew there would be some mayhem with just a turn of the page. PAST TENSE isn’t my favorite of the Jack Reacher books, but it does its job and the last half of the book ended up being as entertaining as I had hoped.

My thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for a copy of the ebook in exchange for my honest review.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Moscow in 1922 is no place for a count. The Bolsheviks are in charge, and they are not fond of the leisure class. Happily for Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, there are those who feel that despite his membership in the ranks of the elite, he is a hero of the prerevolutionary cause, thanks to an inspiring poem he published in 1913. Thus, rather than execute him, the Emergency Committee of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs decides that he should be confined to his recent place of residence: Moscow’s grand and glorious Metropol hotel. But if the Count should ever step outside of the building, he will be shot.

Thus begins the splendid story of the Count’s decades-long house arrest. The Count—already, in his own gentlemanly way, a man of the people—may find himself in reduced circumstances, but his charm, humor, and powers of observation will serve him in good stead. He makes his attic hovel into a home and accidentally creates a family out of the Metropol staff and guests.

The cast of characters is delightful: the precocious young girl with a fondness for yellow, whose curiosity cannot be contained (and who ends up giving the Count two precious gifts); the brilliant, temperamental chef; the snooty actress; the warm-hearted seamstress; the officer of the Party with a thirst for knowledge (and for film noir); and many, many more. Each character has a role to play, and all offer the Count ample opportunities for bon mots, erudite ruminations, and cheeky capers.

Though occasionally the author gets a little too cute (the bouillabaisse project comes to mind) and the depiction of Stalinist Russia can be a little too jaunty, all is forgiven when Count Rostov begins to muse–which he does often. He is a gracious and endearing companion, a man who manages to make fine wine from the grapes at hand, and saying adieu to him as the book came to an end was sweet sorrow.

Behind Closed Doors, by B. A. Paris

Ever since Gone Girl, I’ve been waiting for the next great creepy relationship book with a twist. There’s just something about a gripping story in which an attractive façade disguises true, shudder-producing evil. The key to a successful story like that, though, is that its dangers need to be shocking, and its pretty surface needs to be at least passingly believable—we need to be horrified that such evil can live unquestioned in plain sight, and feel the emotional claustrophobia of the situation.

Here’s where Behind Closed Doors fails. We’re introduced to a successful 40-year-old lawyer, the ironically named Jack Angel, who has built his career defending domestic abuse victims. He is smooth, drop-dead gorgeous, and unmarried, and (we later find out) he has built a very pretty house of horror with metal security shutters on all of the downstairs windows on spec. After all, who knows when you’re going to run across the ideal prey? He’s been a creep since he was 13 years old and killed his mother—maybe. But apparently since then he’s gone regularly to Thailand to fulfill his nonspecific terrifying fantasies that don’t include sex with vague, nameless people, as one can apparently do with impunity in Thailand. It seems that he’d really like to up his game, though, and ideally move his horror show closer to home, for convenience. After all, he went to all of that trouble, building the house.

Fortunately for Jack, he eventually happens upon Grace, a young, successful, beautiful, globe-trotting professional woman with ridiculously irresponsible parents and a sister, Millie, who was born with Down’s Syndrome. He courts Grace and quickly wins her devotion by being nice to her sister. They marry hastily, Jack bizarrely skips out on the wedding night, and the next thing Grace knows, she’s in Thailand on her honeymoon, locked outside day after day on a hotel balcony, unable either to go to the bathroom (which I found to be the most chilling part) or to make anyone believe that her brand-new husband is a raving lunatic, despite her best efforts. But then, a thriller that can do no better than “My experience … was made even worse by the knowledge that when Jack wasn’t with me, he was exhilarating in someone else’s fear” is no thriller at all.

When the newlyweds return to the US from this idyllic (for one of them, anyway) wedding trip, Jack continues to hold Grace hostage. Every day, as Jack goes off to work, he locks Grace in an empty room for the day with nothing to do. If Grace somehow displeases him, she is forced to miss a weekend of visitation at Millie’s special boarding school. (Apparently, no one from Millie’s school finds it odd that previously devoted Grace would go almost two months without visiting her sister.) But the real threat is that once Millie graduates, Jack is planning to bring her to live with them and have his totally unspecified nonsexual but terrifying way with her, somehow feeding off of Millie’s fear, which Grace finds too frightening to even contemplate. He puts together a secret red room for Millie (despite the fact that her favorite color is yellow—the horror!) in the pretty house’s basement and decorates it with portraits of battered women that he forces Grace (a very, very amateur painter) to paint as a form of torture. When Grace has been particularly uncooperative, he punishes her with the ultimate form of torture, by making her … sit in the red room looking at the awful portraits she’s painted. The couples with whom he makes her socialize on the weekend and for whom she’s forced to bake perfect souffles have no idea of the anguish Grace is enduring, because she has no way of saying anything—Jack has cut off all access to pens.

As Millie inches closer to leaving her boarding school and coming to live permanently with Jack and Grace in the menacing red room, Grace finally feels the need to take action. Grace’s conundrum is that although she desperately needs to get away from Jack, she knows that in everyone else’s view, he’s Prince Charming. So whatever she plans to do needs to hold up against the judgment of the outside world. In unbelievable fashion, Millie herself hatches a surprising plot, giving Grace an unexpected tool. (What luck that Millie had been recently listening to Agatha Christie audiobooks!) Grace then creates her own elaborate plot and lays the groundwork for carrying it out by demanding a glass of whiskey every night in her prison room. For some reason, once she really puts her foot down, Jack is happy to share a whiskey with her night after night—whew! Thank goodness! Because without that poor decision on his part, Grace is never going to be able to carry out her plan to get out of her empty room and save Millie from the miserable fate of Jack feeding off of her fear in undefined but nonsexual ways!

Author B. A. Paris just doesn’t seem to be able to dredge up the kind of ickiness needed for this kind of story. And there’s really no shame in not having a sick, twisted mind—it just means less fun for the rest of us. With characters and plot that have little grounding in reality, the cringe-worthy questions the book asks on its cover—“The perfect marriage? Or the perfect lie?”—beg for a third option: The perfect dud.