A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

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A MAN CALLED OVE by Fredrik Backman should come with a warning label. I listened to the book during a two-day, nine-hundred-mile drive, and I’m sure I looked like a lunatic to my fellow motorists as I alternately laughed and wept my way across three states and back again.

Yes, I know. I may be the last person in the world to get around to “reading” A MAN CALLED OVE. My sister ordered me to read it a couple of years ago when she found out I hadn’t done so yet, and she even provided me a copy with strict instructions to return the book to her when I was done with it. This was unusual–not the part where Sherry ordered me around, of course, but the part where she requested a book be returned after reading. I was intrigued, but life got in the way of me meeting up with OVE. Until now.

With an Audible credit ready to be spent, and a 15-hour drive planned, I finally downloaded the audiobook and started it up with my teenage son in the car during a lull in our road trip.

A MAN CALLED OVE is the completely charming/hilarious/heartbreaking story of a very taciturn/steady/grouchy man named (of course) Ove. He loves his wife, Sonja, and he loves his Saab(s), and that’s about it. The rest of the world is either worthy of bemused tolerance or complete disgust (sometimes thinly veiled, but often not). Through chapters that reveal both Ove’s formative years and his current state, the book tells the story of an ordinary man who lives an extraordinary life over the course of his 60+ years. The author draws Ove and his supporting cast with amazing attention to the subtle details that help pull a reader firmly into a story, and the narrator of the audiobook, George Newbern, offers a spot-on portrayal of the many characters.

I don’t often offer written reviews of audiobooks because they rarely hold my attention in the same way as the written word, but that was not a problem with A MAN CALLED OVE. In fact, I had twenty minutes left on the book when I pulled into my driveway, and I finished the book as soon as I could after settling in at home after my trip. My teenage son was so enthralled by the first half of the book (and wasn’t with me to listen to the second half of it) that I got him a copy of the book to read … though he’ll need to give me that copy when he’s done with it so I can have it on my shelf to loan to anyone who hasn’t been fortunate enough to meet Ove yet.

My thanks to my wise sister for insisting I dive into this book. I loved spending time with Ove and his neighbors, and I look forward to revisiting them when I read the book again–because this is definitely one that will need to be re-read.

And yes, Sherry, I’ll be returning your book the next time we get to hang out.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami

Author Haruki Murakami is a rock star in Japan, where his books—including this one—are instant bestsellers. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage isn’t quite as catchy a title as, say, IQ84, but then, at this point, Murakami can name his book Blah Blah Blah and it wouldn’t affect sales.

The basis for the story is very simple. In high school, Tsukuru had four dear friends with whom he formed an extremely tight-knit group. After high school, Tsukuru headed to college in Tokyo, but when he returned to hometown for a break during his sophomore year, these very close friends “announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn’t dare ask.”

Tsukuru was understandably confused, then devastated, and Murakami details the excruciating after-effects of being inexplicably declared persona non grata. The emotions are searing. We see Tsukuru’s shaky mental state and watch him make subsequent choices, mostly poor, that flow directly from his broken heart.

After college, Tsukuru works for a railway company designing stations. He struggles with his few personal relationships until, at age 36, he meets Sara, who draws him out and encourages him to track down his former friends to finally find out why they had so cruelly abandoned him.

The plot is as plain as that. The writing, though, has a dreamy quality that made me wish that I could read the book in the original Japanese. Translated into English, the metaphors and wordplay Murakami uses need to be explained in detail; I suspect that the subtlety of reading it in the original may create a more seamless experience. Color is an obvious theme, as each of Tsukuru’s high-school friends has a last name that involves a color, and their nicknames become those colors: The boys are Red and Blue, the girls are White and Black. Only Tsukuru, as the title reminds us, is colorless. But those of us who are reading a translation only know this because the translation spells it out in great detail.

There was much in the story that made me uncomfortable, not least of which was the answer to the central mystery. I also found Tsukuru to be a difficult character to connect with, despite my sympathy for his pain. Then there were the rather odd hallucinogenic scenes thrown into the mix. I came away wondering whether I should blame the story for my discomfort, or the translation, or maybe both. But because I couldn’t read the book the way the author intended me to, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I found myself thinking about Tsukuru long after I’d finished the book– a sign that the story had resonated. The tale made me consider how our friends can define us—after all, would Tsukuru be “colorless” in a group that was not defined by color? It also made me think about how our unwillingness to put ourselves out there socially in the short term—why, oh why, didn’t Tsukuru simply ask what had caused his banishment in the first place?—can lead to unnecessary long-term pain and, yes, pilgrimage.

Mostly, the book made me think about translations of various types, and how they affect our interactions with art, with history, with each other. The limits of translation are clear in a book like this, where so much of the effect seems to depend on wordplay in another language. The author’s intentions fade a bit without the sharpness of the original Japanese. But in the end, this simple tale about a simple man with a broken heart depicts the joy, suffering, and color that friends can bring to one other, and makes it worth the reader’s effort to become acquainted with Tsukuru and his colorful, colorless life.

Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna

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In TWO GIRLS DOWN by Louisa Luna, Bailey and Kylie Brandt, ages 8 and 10, disappeared when their mom dashed into a store to pick up a birthday gift for the party of one of Kylie’s friends. The local police in Denville, PA are short staffed and unable to cope with the level of manpower needed to track down leads, so the great-aunt of the two missing girls hires a private investigator to find them. Alice Vega is ridiculously successful at finding missing kids: she’s had 18 cases, and she has found all of them–and most of them have been alive. Working in an unknown town means that Vega decides to tap into the resources and connections of a local private investigator. Max Caplan resigned in disgrace from the Denville police department a few years ago, and he’s been making his living by collecting information on cheating spouses. When Vega approaches him to help her locate the girls, he initially shies away from the case; however, his precocious sixteen-year-old daughter, Nell, talks him into it.

Alice Vega and Max “Cap” Caplan are fantastic characters. Alice is a complete badass, and although she isn’t good at dealing with people, she has trained herself in how to behave in social situations. She also has a sharp mind, is incredibly resourceful, and she can kick anyone’s heinie if she can catch them by surprise. Cap is a pretty typical literary ex-cop. He drinks a little too much, but most people really like him, they want to talk to him and tell him their secrets, and he’s good at piecing puzzles together. I really liked both of them, and Vega’s shadowy assistant, The Bastard, is so intriguing that I’d love for him to get a book of his own.

Louisa Luna is a good writer who writes tight action scenes while stringing words together in a sometimes lyrical manner. Her characters are well constructed, and the mystery surrounding the missing girls is a good one. The ending was actually a surprise to me!

I really hope that Cap and Vega team up in future novels, because now that I’ve spent some time with them, I don’t want to let them go. Plus, it’s rare that a thriller keeps me guessing until the end, but TWO GIRLS DOWN did! My thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

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.