The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

This is not an easy book to read. Not because of the writing, which is magnificent, but because of the subject. Romy Hall is one of those people who never stood a chance despite being a relatively smart women. Born to a feckless mother, surrounded by poverty, it seems inevitable when she finds herself in prison, sentenced to life for murder. We sympathize with Romy not only because of her circumstances, which include a young son now abandoned to foster care, but because her case isn’t clear-cut and she has no access to the kind of legal representation needed to prove reasonable doubt. In this book, the author manages to make us feel the tragic waste of Romy’s young life as well as the horror of the legal and penal system, unfair and broken. Although the topic is timely and shows the grievous need for prison reform, the real star of the book is the writing which is rich, textured and unique. This isn’t a beach read, but if you like good literature it’s for you. 

Advertisements

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman

This quirky slice of life novel is so good I never wanted it to end. Eleanor Oliphant is Scottish and the woman no one wants to be: socially awkward, dowdy, unsuccessful and all alone. At first, it’s hard to like her because Eleanor is very set in her ways and more than a little judgmental. She spends her time working, avoiding human contact outside the office, chatting with her mother on the phone once a week and getting blitzed on vodka every weekend. But when glimpses of her deeply troubled childhood begin to surface, it’s hard not to respect the fact that she’s somehow managed to survive. Enter Raymond, the office IT guy who’s far from handsome, but has a heart of gold. Raymond seems to have no problem overlooking Eleanor’s weird behavior and it isn’t long before association with him has her reaching for a different kind of life. This book is exceptionally well written, the Glasgow setting giving it an added element of charm. I found myself rooting for Eleanor hard and did not see the twist coming at the end of the book at all. Highly recommend.

Circe – Madeline Miller

Circe, known in mythology only for her brief encounter with Odysseus, is fully realized in this inventive lush novel. A daughter of the Sun God and his alluring nymph bride, Circe is lonely as a child, too compassionate for the world of Gods. She’s also late to discover her power which is awakened only when another nymph steals her first love. Banished to an uninhabited island ostensibly for using magic to turn her rival into a monster, the reality is her witchcraft scares the mightiest Gods who fear her power might rival their own. On the island, she hones her ability taming wild beasts and crossing paths with famous figures in mythology like Hermes, the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, murderous Media and, of course, sly Odysseus. Far from a footnote, this fierce Circe turns men into pigs because they deserve it. In all honesty, I thought the premise of this book iffy, but I’m so glad I took the risk. The writing and creativity are beyond exception. The only good thing about finishing was finding she has another book titled, Song of Achilles. Yay. 

The Great Alone – Kristin Hannah

Leni has it hard. Her dad, Ernt, a Vietnam POW, and her mom, Cora, who gave birth way too young, have a tie as intense as it is toxic. Ernt can’t hold a job and is always moving the family as he chases the next big idea. The one enduring constant in Leni’s life is the love she shares with her mom. When Ernt finds he’s been left an Alaskan homestead he thinks their problems are solved. Cora and Leni are less certain given the remoteness. Unprepared for Alaska’s long cold, isolating winters, they learn to adapt with the help of locals, including Matthew-Leni’s first real friend. Unfortunately, the harsh conditions bring out the worst in Ernt whose paranoia dominates their lives. The book follows Leni from teen years into early adulthood as she copes with her father’s increasing violence and her mom’s refusal to leave. It’s both a love song to Alaska, and the bond between mothers and daughters. A shorter beginning would have improved pacing, and the end is too neatly resolved, but like every Hannah book it sucks you in and leaves you wanting more when finished.

A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

I resisted reading this book for a long time because the main character-cranky old Swedish guy-didn’t sound very appealing. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge. Ove is the angry old man next door. He’s a curmudgeon with sometimes strange principles set in stone. (Only people who drive Saabs are to be trusted.) He has a strict routine and a short fuse. He distrusts the modern world and isn’t afraid to say so. But Ove’s well-ordered yet stark world is upended one day when a young couple with two small children move into the neighborhood. Suddenly, he’s confronted with seemingly endless requests, a stray cat who looks like the devil but won’t go away, and an old enemy who can’t fight anymore and is in desperate need of help. This is a funny book, but one with tons of heart. Set in Sweden, it could really take place anywhere because we all have an Ove in our lives. At its core, the book’s about community and serves as a reminder life is only worth living when shared with others.

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia brings about sweeping changes, especially for the aristocracy. Count Rostov finds himself sentenced to house arrest in The Metropol, a grande dame of a hotel not far from the Kremlin. Rostov isn’t permitted his usual accommodations but must make do with a tiny room in the attic. How he adjusts to his confinement and reduced circumstances provides the crux of the novel. Instead of crumbling, the Count uses his charm and wit to carve out a life for himself as year after year slips by while tumultuous events occur outside the hotel’s doors. Even in his small world, Rostov manages to make friends, fall in love, experience fatherhood and find purpose in life. The pacing of this book is slow and it took me awhile to get into it. However, the writing is eloquent and the Count such a gentleman I soon found myself worrying about and rooting for him. An epic story well worth the time and effort.

 

 

The Women in the Castle – Jessica Shattuck

I got immediately sucked into this historical drama as three women struggle to survive in post WWII Germany. Smart bold Marianne’s husband is killed after a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She vows to help the families of his fellow conspirators. To that end, she rescues beautiful but broken Benita, being taken advantage of by Russian soldiers, as well as Benita’s son. She finds strong practical Ania and her two boys languishing in a refugee camp for displaced persons. With Marianne’s three children, the makeshift family lives in a rundown castle where they must forage for food and fend off marauding predators. But their struggle is more than physical as they cope with jealousy, dangerous secrets, class differences, children left scarred by war and hatred for the Nazis. The book is very well written and emotionally gripping as the author explores themes of love, friendship, survival, judgment and ultimately forgiveness in the face of unimaginable horror. WWII is not my favorite time period to read about, but I didn’t want this one to end.

A Piece of the World – Christina Baker Kline

From the author of Orphan Train, I literally couldn’t put this book down even though I had a hard time picking it up. The topic sounds boring: Christina Olson, whose whole life is a small remote farm in coastal Maine becomes the unlikely inspiration for one of artist Andrew Wyeth’s best known paintings, Christina’s World, despite an increasingly incapacitating illness. But I knew after reading a few pages I’d be up all night with this one, and I was. The author weaves fact with fiction bringing into focus the little known woman behind the portrait, her complicated family relationships and an unexpected romance. Christina’s life is small, but the everydayness is its charm, along with the lyrical writing reminiscent of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. I’m not going to lie, for some this book will be unbearably depressing. I’m not a fan of needlessly sad novels or unhappy endings myself. But the writing and Christina’s stubborn pride, intelligence and hope throughout a life of hardship and tragedy almost make the subject disappear. I’m giving this one my highest recommendation.

Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

Every blue moon a book comes along that makes you incredibly sad when it’s over. This is one of them. Beautifully written, the book begins with two sisters born into 18th century Ghana. One becomes the consort of a white soldier and lives in relative comfort; the other is sold as a slave and makes the harrowing journey from Africa to America. Each succeeding generation must deal with historical forces such as tribal warfare, slavery, British colonization, inhumane imprisonment, drug addiction and racism. A man called H, for example, is freed from slavery only to find himself jailed for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines of Alabama. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away. There are stories of horror, but also ones of hope and redemption. No matter which, the author writes in lyrical fashion impossible to put down. You know a book is great when you can’t wait to get back to it, and you’re still thinking about it well after it’s done.