Daughter by Jane Shemilt

DaughterDaughter by Jane Shemilt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. It’s rare that I would describe a novel as gentle and brutal, delicate, and devastating, but Jane Shemilt’s debut Daughter manages to be all these things and more, making it one of the best books I’ve read this year.
Daughter is a slow burn of a tale which will appeal to fans of Broadchurch and the works of Tana French. The story is told in chapters alternating between the past (mostly set in Bristol) and the present (mostly in Dorset).
Our first person narrator is Jenny, a wife, family-practice doctor, and mother of three teenaged children. Jenny’s husband Ted is a neurosurgeon with a thriving practice in Bristol, Jenny’s daughter Naomi is a bright and lovely 15-year-old with a starring role in the school play, and Jenny’s twin sons Theo and Ed are each their own unique, apparently functional, people.
The kids are showing what Jenny assumes to be normal signs of teenage rebellion, but Jenny knows that she loves them, tries to communicate with them in the times when she is home, and more or less assumes that all is well.
However, when Naomi disappears after her performance as Maria in West Side Story, Jenny’s seemingly reasonable ideas about her family begin to fall apart.
As if she is peeling an onion, and with results which bring real tears, Jenny begins to look carefully for the first time beneath the surface of her daily life. As she searches for answers to her daughter’s disappearance, she uncovers truths about her husband, sons, daughter, and ultimately, about herself, which irrevocably change her world.
In this way, although Daughter has a catastrophic event as its starting place, Naomi’s disappearance is really just the opening that author Jane Shemilt needs to begin to deftly explore the dynamics of family, motherhood, and growing up.
Shemilt is a gifted writer. She is herself a family-practice doctor with children and a husband who is a neurosurgeon. Thus, her descriptions of balancing family and a career, as well as her insight into doctor/patient dynamics are intelligent and thought-provoking.
Shemilt also has a talent for evoking a sense of place. Both Bristol and Dorset are described with affection, familiarity, and an artist’s attention to detail.
Daughter becomes more and more powerful as it progresses, until, in the final pages, I literally could not put it down. It left me feeling emotional, amazed, sad, but also, deeply satisfied. I think that the story will continue to resonate with me for a long time. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers for the arc of Daughter, by Jane Shemilt.

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Wildalone (January 6, 2015) by Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone: A Novel

Wildalone: A Novel by Krassi Zourkova

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Thank you to William Morrow for my advanced reader’s edition of Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova.

I have so much to say about Wildalone.
I’ll begin with what got me interested in the novel in the first place – the promotions describing this debut as a “bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches.”
This description confused the heck out of me, because I was not a fan of Twilight. On the other hand, I loved The Secret History, when I read it 10 years ago. The gothic darkness of Jane Eyre tempts me, and A Discovery of Witches was one of those books that theoretically I should have loved, but which just didn’t compel me.
To me, the novels above all seem very, very different, and like they would appeal to distinct audiences.
The second thing about Wildalone which interested me is that Krassi Zourkova is from Bulgaria, and includes the myths of her country in this novel. I love reading about cultures I am unfamiliar with, so this aspect of Wildalone intrigued me.
The first several chapters of Wildalone in fact mirror Krassi Zourkova’s own life, in that she attended Princeton, and shares the main character Thea’s interest in art history. I was fascinated by the cultural aspect of Wildalone…seeing things through the perspective of someone newly arrived in the United States, at just about the same time I was going to college.
I was also especially interested in the narrator’s insights, because I had a Bulgarian acquaintance in high school. Many of Thea’s thoughts were in alignment with those I recall hearing from my high school friend, and so for me, Wildalone had an authentic resonance.
However, I will say that this was one book in which I thought an awful lot about the author/narrator crossover…how much is this really Thea talking, and how much is actually Krassi? In a way, this made reading the story difficult for me when Thea began to behave in ways that I found frustrating, or expressed opinions which I had issues with.
If I had thought of Thea as clearly a fictional character, it would have been easier for me to place her in a literary world and not feel like her views were being shoved on me. But as it was, some of the opinions she expressed about romance, stalking, and relationship dynamics made me uncomfortable.
Now to the nitty-gritty of the plot-the good and the bad-without giving away any spoilers!
Wildalone begins with our heroine, Thea, arriving in Princeton on a music scholarship. She leaves two loving parents back in Bulgaria, and, in coming to Princeton, is following in the footsteps of another Bulgarian girl, who attended the university 15 years earlier, and was found dead on campus. I’m being specifically vague here, as a big part of the mystery revolves around this girl, and what she means to Thea.
In short order, Thea meets two men, who both fall madly, instantly, passionately in love with her.
Here’s the Twilight part of the novel; we’ve got Rhys, gorgeous, obsessive, moody, with a potential for violence, and we’ve got Jake, gorgeous, obsessive, quiet, gentle. Who will Thea choose? Also, there is Ben (who I was secretly rooting for) the balanced, steady, sweet, friend who is always there for Thea, until she runs away from him to have passionate adventures with Rhys or Jake.
Also, Thea is searching for what really happened to the Bulgarian girl who looks just like her, and who disappeared 15 years before.
Also, Thea is investigating this weird mystery involving Greek legends, Orpheus, daemons, maenads, and the Underworld. This is encouraged by her art history professor, Giles, who to my mind is inappropriate in his interest in Thea.
Also, Thea, as an uber-talented pianist, is practicing Chopin, and then Albeniz, for major recitals that she is (somewhat inexplicably) given the opportunity to perform in.
And did I mention that this whole time, Thea is going to parties with her RA and new college friends, traveling to the Hamptons with Rhys, and taking a full load of classes? She’s a very busy girl.
Ultimately, for me, Wildalone was just too much. There was beautiful description, but there was so darn much of it.
The best things about Wildalone were:

1. The interesting cultural perspective that Thea had regarding attending Princeton, as well as the insight she shared into life in Bulgaria.
2. Some of the description. There’s no doubt that Krassi Zourkova can create a sense of place. I also really enjoyed her descriptions of Chopin and Albeniz…giving new perspective to interpretations of music. Except that it kept going, and going….

What frustrated me about Wildalone:
1. The characters. This, for me, was the Twilight part… basically picture Bella, Edward, and Jake, a few years older, and with a lot more sex, and you’ve got Wildalone.
2. The attitudes towards sex, romantic relationships, true love, obsession, stalking. In brief, Thea tells us that in Bulgaria, there is not a word for stalking, and that what her concerned RA sees as worrying behavior from Rhys seems romantic to her. I tended to agree with the RA.
I would never, ever, date Rhys. I would probably never date Jake. Also, I would never, ever have dated Edward in Twilight. So I guess, depending on your preferences/viewpoints, you may either find the romance in Wildalone sexy and passionate, or it may just make you angry.
3. The too-muchness. There was everything in this novel. Music, art (painting, pottery, architecture), poetry, Greek myths, Bulgarian myths, astronomy and how it related to myths, secret codes in old texts and how it related to myths. I love each of these things, but they were all happening together, all over the place. And it was all described at length. It made everything lose impact, because it seemed like everything was gorgeous, there were no rules, anything at all could, and did happen. When everything is happening, then nothing really seems that incredible.
4. So I got tired. I got tired of the constant beauty, riches, sex, perfection.
5. And, when the book finally ended at page 374, I thought, “wait a sec!? Is this the first in a series?!!!” Because Wildalone did not end with any kind of a real resolution. There was a bit of explanation, inexplicably offered by one character at the end of the novel. But the action itself, and primarily, Thea’s love life, was not resolved. I didn’t even understand what she was doing at the end.
Wildalone left me lost. And worn out. There were a lot of things to enjoy about it, but ultimately, I was left with a feeling that nothing had really made much sense, that I really disliked several of the main characters, that I disagreed with the main character’s ideas, and that I had been shown a lot of flash, but not a lot of brilliance.

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Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I listened to the audio version of Station Eleven, read by Kirsten Potter.
I had high expectations going in, as the book came recommended by friends and in reviews. But especially on the heels of reading The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey, which blew my socks off, I found Station Eleven to be a bit of a let down.
What you should know, if you’re thinking of reading it:
Station Eleven is much more a story about people’s lives intertwining, than it is about exploring their lives in a specific, imagined, post-epidemic future.  This is not a bad thing, but what it means is that Station Eleven is
more a work of fiction, than it is a work of science fiction or suspense.
However, this said, Station Eleven left me curiously unmoved, feeling kind of flat. The structure of the novel, which includes looping flashbacks and perspective shifts, didn’t work for me. I believe the author meant to use this structure in order to show how everyone’s lives “interlock,” which I believe she mentions at one point. But the way this was done merely served to keep me from identifying strongly with anyone in the novel.
Also, rather than using this flashback/perspective shift structure to reveal new opinions and viewpoints, the author instead often ended up repeating the same facts multiple times. For example, several different characters described the same, unusual crossbow. The repetition added a Groundhog-Day element to the story, and was not necessary to clarify what was going on.
One clearly spelled-out theme in Station Eleven is the Star Trek quote, “survival is insufficient.” This quote is written on the caravans of the traveling symphony, which performs for the survivors of the post-apocalyptic world of the novel.
Unfortunately, the ideas presented regarding art and survival never crystallized in a powerful way. Station Eleven ended without a sense of completion, or of something new shared, or realized.
Although Station Eleven contained some beautiful scenes, it left me ultimately uninspired.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last night I dreamt of The Goldfinch. Not a dream inspired by The Goldfinch, but that I was literally discussing the themes of The Goldfinch with another reader.
I rarely dream of novels, and have certainly never dreamt of discussing a novel. And the fact that I did, says something about how, and to what extent, The Goldfinch got under my skin.
With a novel like The Goldfinch, there is soooooo much hype and expectation built up, that I almost flinch from reading the actual thing. As someone who has become highly cynical in my old age (haha) as well as someone with a fear of disappointment that probably merits being labeled a psychogical disorder, I was wary of reading this 771 page Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by author Donna Tartt.
Here’s what I knew about it beforehand.
1. Some reviewers who adored the cult-status The Secret History, Tartt’s debut novel, did not like The Goldfinch too much.
2. Every woman my age or older seemed to be mentioning The Goldfinch to me as something her friends were reading and praising.
3. One reviewer made the point (with which I agree) that although The Goldfinch was a good story, there was something fundamentally wrong with the pacing.
4. The Goldfinch has won the Pulitzer Prize.

Item #4 settled the decision that I would tackle this hefty tome. I mean, if I didn’t like the book, I could always use it as a weapon to brain would-be intruders trying to steal all the valuable art in my home.

Here, after more than a week of what felt like reading, eating, and sleeping, are my thoughts on Donna Tartt’s acclaimed masterpiece.

The Goldfinch is too long.
There, I said it, and that is the first, and most glaring thing that I feel about this novel.
I am not a fan of long books, in fact, I have noticed with dismay that many thrillers of late seem to have increased to the 300-400 page mark, rather than the 200-300 page mark, and imo, this addition of verbage is unnecessary.
At 771 pages, (which I checked, multiple times, as I read this book) The Goldfinch felt like a never-ending journey towards an unknown destination.
The book was roughly divided into sections reflecting periods in the narrator’s life.
The following is a demarcation of the sections, with descriptions. Though I stick to facts which shouldn’t really spoil the plot, those who don’t want to know anything about the story before reading might want to skip these paragraphs.
There is a large section detailing the initial, formative event, when the narrator, Theo, is orphaned in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and fatefully(?) steals the painting that is the title, and cover image, on this novel.
The second couple of sections cover different chapters in his childhood, first as he lives with a restrained, old-money family in New York, and meets Hobie, a muddled but kind renovator of antique furniture.
Next, we follow Theo to the Las Vegas desert, where he meets the unpredictable, joyful, Boris. Boris is Russian/Polish/Ukrainian, has also lived in Indonesia and Australia and has an absent mobster father. In Boris’s company, Theo experiences drink, drugs, shoplifting, and a sort of untethered, free-falling existence which began, in many ways, with the explosion in the museum.
After this, the novel jumps ahead several years to Theo as an adult, back in New York, working for Hobie, and all the trouble that he gets in to with swindling, drugs, sex, and self-destruction.
Through it all, is the painting, The Goldfinch, which is clearly a symbol of something for Theo, and a sort of secret that grounds him in the world.
The final 200 pages of the novel seemed in many ways like a different story to me, as the pace changes and escalates when Theo becomes involved in a murder/shootout/heist in Amsterdam.
And finally, The Goldfinch ends with Theo waxing poetic, explaining the epiphany of his life, and the last 700+ pages, as he speaks directly to the reader.
Whew!
The morning after finishing this novel, here are my conclusions on all of the above.
For the first 500 pages of the novel, I was more than anything, frustrated with the pacing. The story itself was interesting. I enjoyed learning about the antique trade. The characters were also compelling. I grew to love the affable and sweet Hobie, the irrepressible Boris, the Luna-Lovegood-like Pippa. But my goodness! If something could be said in 10 words, in The Goldfinch, it took a page.
The strange thing about this is that, as in the way of some other long, but good, books I have read, the fact that The Goldfinch was so long meant that I spent more time with the characters than I do when reading shorter books. So, about 500 pages in, I started to realize that I was growing attached to Theo, to Boris, to the wonderful little dog Popchick. I began to realize that I would miss them when the book was over.
It was at about this point in the novel that the pace suddenly increased from about 5 miles an hour to 150. All of a sudden, The Goldfinch became a hard-to-put-down thriller, reminiscent of a movie like The Italian Job. I found myself saying out loud, “no, don’t do that!” to the characters, in much the same way viewers caution girls not to wander off alone in a horror movie.
And then, it stopped. I hesitate to say that the story ended, because as we leave Theo, he lives in a kind of exalted, dream-like limbo. The final chunk of the novel consists of Theo talking to us about what his life has meant, the epiphany that he has come to, and what he “urgently” wants to tell us.
Ahh, the Pulitzer-Prize winning conclusion. I have very mixed thoughts on the epiphany that Theo/Tartt shares with the reader. On the one hand, I felt a little like I was being lectured to, in what I would guess would be something like Ayn Rand style. Also, the switch from plot-driven story to theorizing about the meaning of life seemed abrupt and not particularly subtly written. As well as this, some of the things Theo was saying were actually ambiguously written, or I just didn’t get.
Which may, I am absolutely willing to admit, only reflect on my own lack of insight.
However.
There were some ideas that Theo shared which did strongly affect me. Which shook me. Which made me uncomfortable, and made me tread new ground in the possibilities I saw in the world. For literally less than a second, I experienced a glimpse of how it would feel to live my life in a completely different way. And then, as conscious restrictions took over, the threat/fear? of this revolutionary vision vanished behind the sealed door of my habitual safe patterns.
I don’t know if I will be able to sense that new way of being again. I think the door opened because I didn’t see it coming. I plan to reread the ending of The Goldfinch, and over time, I will know more, perhaps, of what I feel about the novel.
Right now, I’m not really sure. It might have had some brilliant, affecting insights. At the same time, something in Theo’s assertions was unutterably bleak. Even as he exorted us not to despair, his epiphany left me feeling horribly sad.
Perhaps, for this reader, only time will tell.
The Goldfinch left me thinking, rather than shutting down my thoughts. I’m not sure I agree with what Donna Tartt has to say, I’m not sure if The Goldfinch will ultimately make me a happier, or a sadder, person. I don’t even know if it will stay with me, or fade, much like spiritual experiences of great love that seem impossible to recapture in the mundaneness of everyday life.
But the fact that I am even comparing reading The Goldfinch to a spiritual experience speaks for itself, and may be, in the end, why The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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Still Life by Louise Penny

Still Life (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #1)Still Life by Louise Penny

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I began Still Life, the first book in Louise Penny’s award-winning Chief Inspector Gamache series, with low expectations. This was due to having read mediocre reviews of this mystery novel. However, I had also read that one of the strengths of the series was the character development, and thus, it was important to read about Gamache’s adventures in order. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this novel.
Things I liked about it:
1. The gorgeous setting…Three Pines, a tiny village in Quebec, which Penny describes with evident love.
2. The humor! This was perhaps the biggest surprise to me. Penny’s writing frequently made me laugh out loud…(for those who have read the novel, and without giving away any plot elements, one of my favorite instances being when Clara encounters Gamache in the deer blind). Penny’s humor is the kind that makes you giggle in delight at the absurd, but her humor is not at all cynical or cruel. In fact, that leads me to another thing I liked about Still Life
3. The kindness, the humanness, of the characters. Three Pines is a close-knit community, with characters who are quirky, unique, and flawed, but who, for the most part, are also gentle, decent people.
4. The lack of gore. So many crime novels today are really dark, such as the immensely popular, immensely bleak, genre of Nordic noir. It was a welcome change to read a murder mystery that left me feeling warm and fuzzy, rather than like I needed a hug.

Things I didn’t like so much:
1. Still Life was slow. Perhaps in part due to the fact that it is the first installment of the series, and requires extra explanation, or because the characters have yet to be developed, Still Life didn’t have much suspense.
2. The mystery was nothing to write home about. The plot was not what kept me reading, rather, it was the characters and escape to a beautiful place.

That are my first impressions after finishing Still Life. It is very clearly the first novel in a series, with characters who are in transition, and whose lives will be explored further. In my opinion, Still Life is not a “cozy” mystery, as I have seen it described in some reviews. While it is similar to cozys in that it avoids graphic violence, to me, Still Life hints at much deeper themes, while most cozys are like cotton candy….sweet, but ephemeral and easily forgotten.
I plan to read more of the Inspector Gamache series, but at least after this first mystery, I don’t feel like I have to go on to mystery #2 immediately. I plan to plunge back into literary danger, suspense, and intrigue…and then, when I need to come back up for a breath of fresh mountain air, I will be revisiting the comfortable, and comforting characters of Three Pines once again.

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