As with other recent choices, this book came to me through the multiple raves of members of the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook group. Like the others I have read, I did my best not to learn what it was about until I decided to pick it up myself.
The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is a coming-of-age tale with something of a twist: Sam is born with ocular albinism, which results in him having red eyes. Everyone who encounters him does a double-take, starting with his father, when he takes one look at his new-born son and exclaims, “What in the Sam Hell?!” Their last name is Hill; they christen him “Samuel,” and the nickname sticks.
This story was so engaging, from page one. Sam’s mother is definitely the heroine of the early years, as she fiercely stands up to all the people who discriminate against Sam because of his weird appearance, starting with Sister Beatrice, the Catholic school principal who wants to exclude him from her school because he “may be a disturbing influence.” His mother is quick to point out the inherent lack of Christian charity in this attitude and the concomitant opportunity for her students to practice tolerance and, when this fails to accomplish her objective, takes the story to a friend at the local newspaper. Score one for Mom—Sam is admitted on day two. It’s not a blessing to Sam himself, however, who is shunned, mocked, and called “devil boy,” and eats his lunch alone on the bleachers. His salvation comes in the form of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in the school, who makes common cause with Sam, and Mickie Kennedy, whose mid-term banishment to Our Lady of Mercy is a blessing in disguise for all three of the children over the length of their extended friendship.
As a child who was targeted for being fat (despite the fact that there were at least three other kids bigger than me in my grade), I completely sympathized with Sam’s plight as a bullied outsider, although no one acted against me beyond hurtful words. But after a while, I wondered just how bad he really had it, especially when he became old enough to choose to wear contact lenses that hid his secret from the world, a luxury not afforded to those with more obvious “flaws.” I appreciated Mickie’s perspective on Sam’s “disability” when she finally delivers it to him, and wished that this had happened earlier in the story: When bad things happen to Sam and he is bewailing the results of “God’s will” (as his mother has always insisted on calling it), Mickie points out to him that despite his red eyes, Sam has grown up with two loving, involved parents, friends who have always had his back, and pretty much every other advantage, while Mickie lived with an alcoholic mother whose dysfunction caused Mickie to be the adult in the household from age 12. This perspective is a bit arresting for Sam and causes him to rethink some things.
The writing style flows easily, and the characters in this book are so personable and real that I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them, up until about 15 percent from the end. The book began to drain me of interest when Sam lets guilt over a terrible circumstance he could not have foreseen nor prevented run his life off the familiar track into a prolonged period of atonement for a nonexistent “sin.” Although he does eventually have an epiphany that brings him back to himself, I felt like the book turned sentimental and overtly religious, and I didn’t like the dragged-out ending, although I appreciated the author’s final conclusions (shorn of the religious overtones).
I found out in the afterword to the book that Robert Dugoni writes a mystery series about which many people rave. I can well believe, from his writing chops in this book, that they are good, and will regard this as my fortunate introduction to an excellent writer. Someone with fewer buttons to push regarding Christianity will no doubt love this book, as attested to by the many five-star ratings on Goodreads; I’m not sorry I read it—the characters will remain extraordinary in my memory—but I do look forward to enjoying some of the author’s product not focused on religious themes.
I picked up Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, because it has been so hyped and apparently so beloved by so many; and it sounded like an interesting story.
I have to say I can’t understand why this book gets almost exclusively four- and five-star ratings and rave reviews from everyone on Goodreads. First of all, it was interminably long relative to the story that emerges, which is to say that it was slow. In fact, I’m looking at my Goodreads timetable in disbelief, because it seemed like my reading experience went on so much longer than two days!
There were certainly tumultuous events included in the story, but in between it was a rather mundane accounting, and several times in various characters’ segments I thought to myself, Do I really need to know that about you? Isn’t there something more important or personal you’d like to share? There is a certain degree of soul-searching amongst the many protagonists, but mostly we get the symptoms without the explanation of the root of the problems (or else we are expected to intuit them for ourselves), and several of the characters dwell so obsessively within the symptoms that it becomes wearing on the reader.
It’s hard to know, from chapter to chapter, what—or whom—the book is about. It begins with two young rookie cops, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson, on the beat in the Bronx, but it only dwells on their work lives for a minute. Then it focuses on the fact that they both decide to move to a suburb known to be hospitable to those “on the job.” There is a lengthy description of the quiet, rather barren and empty vibe of Gillam by Francis’s wife, Lena, who would have preferred to stay in the lively and friendly heart of the city. Bill and his wife, Anne, then move in next door; but all Lena’s hopes for companionship and the raising of their children together is dashed by the cold aloofness of Anne despite all Lena’s friendly overtures. At this point in the book, I thought the story was going to be about this isolated and specialized town of cops, perhaps exploring the corruption or the bigotry that results from this false association of all one “kind” of people. But after Lena’s narration is done, not another mention is made of that aspect of the town, throughout the rest of the book. It felt to me like a complete false start, and I had to consciously reorient myself from that point in the story to see what the rest of it was about.
Despite Bill’s wife’s coldness and sense of superiority, their only son Peter ends up being best friends with Francis and Lena’s youngest daughter, Kate until, in the year they turn 14, everything goes off the rails in a volatile and ultimately tragic way. Then we get the years of estrangement from several points of view, detailing what happens to each of the characters, although this is quite uneven and gives vastly more attention to some than to others. It seems, despite everything that has happened between their families, that Peter and Kate are both adamant they are a match not to be broken, and they end up together. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the book description.) And then we get the details of their joint life and how everything plays out, influenced by the tragedy and drama of the past.
Again, I felt like I was reading several separate books. There’s the parents’ story, together and separately, there’s Peter’s story and Kate’s, there’s Peter’s and Kate’s together…and at each turn I felt at a loss to say what this book was about. Is the point of the story that true love prevails no matter what? Is the point that a person’s upbringing has lasting effects that reverberate throughout his life, even if he thinks he is fine and the past is the past? Is the point that people can recover from anything, given time and space and an occasional helping hand? Is the point that you’re stuck with your family, no matter what? Is the point that living in the suburbs is the kiss of death to a fulfilling or exciting life?
Many other reviewers noted that the book was a masterful character study, and I guess I could admit to this; but when I think back on what I actually know about some of these characters, it’s hard to say, based on the dearth of personal feelings they reveal. Peter’s character, in particular, has upsetting feelings that he is completely unable either to express or explain. So…what’s the point of an outsider dwelling on them? If I, as the reader, have insight into Peter that he doesn’t share, what does that benefit the story?
There was a comment in the book about things being very different in the 1970s than they were 25 years later in terms of therapy, shame, avoidance, and all the other ways to deal with mental illness or addiction, and that this reticence to talk about or even bring up the subject had a profound effect on people who suffered from or were associated with it, but I didn’t understand this as the point of an entire book. There is a resolution of sorts in the end, but it felt so anticlimactic and like such a platitude that I turned the last page with resentment for having had to go through every step with these characters to get there.
One reviewer compared this book to Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty, a book I read with enthusiasm and reviewed positively, finding it smart, witty, and suspenseful. Perhaps the disconnect with Ask Again, Yes is that I failed to find a home with any of the characters, to identify with one sufficiently that I cared about what happened to them. All I can say is, if you enjoy a character-driven plot (and aren’t put off by a somewhat disjointed story arc), you might love this book.
I did not.
As with her book The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh has found a nature-based analogy to support the story in We Never Asked for Wings. The theme of birds and their migratory habits is connected to more than just the immigration part of this tale in which people cross over the border between California and Mexico each for his or her own reasons, or in some cases try to avoid re-crossing that border at all costs. There is a fact about migration that sums up the actions of at least one of the protagonists:
Although she has born two children—Alex, now 15, and Luna, just six—Letty has in many respects been an absent mother for most of their lives. Only 18 when she became pregnant with Alex, she chose not to tell the father, who had a bright future with which she didn’t want to interfere, instead essentially handing over the baby to her own parents, who raised first Alex and then Luna while Letty worked three jobs to support the family and send money back to relatives in Mexico. She spent the rest of her time partying like a perennial teenager (which is how she ended up with Luna).
Suddenly, everything changes: Letty’s father makes the decision to visit Mexico and, while he initially allows his family to believe he will return, he doesn’t. Once Letty’s mother realizes he’s not coming back—whether by choice or because the “coyote” they paid to bring him was no good—she leaves San Francisco, her grandchildren, and Letty, with a freezer full of pre-made meals, a bunch of notes on how to do all the parenting tasks so foreign to her daughter, and a belief constructed almost entirely from her own wishes that everything will be okay with them.
Everything is emphatically not okay—they get off to a rocky start and, as the story progresses partly through Letty’s eyes and partly narrated by Alex, their existence becomes increasingly complicated and precarious. But all of them are given the opportunity, like the migrating birds, to correct their paths, and it’s the chronicle of these struggles to do right that makes up the rest of this engaging story.
Diffenbaugh deals in this book with a lot of themes—immigration, parenting, bullying, responsibility, and love—seriously, but with a light touch. The book held my attention throughout, and I enjoyed the change of voice between Alex and his mother and their different perceptions of what was going on in their lives. I can’t say I enjoyed it quite as much as I did The Language of Flowers, but it’s definitely a worthy addition to the author’s oeuvre.
Appended note: The cover is sadly inappropriate. The child is too young to be Luna; they never (would never) have a bird in a cage; and I can only conclude that whoever designed it didn’t read the book. The cover on the Italian version, depicting a worried-looking young woman who could be the frantic Letty, is a better fit, but why not do something with the grandfather’s beautiful traditional feather art or include some migratory birds? A big miss.
I decided to read When We Believed in Mermaids, by Barbara O’Neal, because it has been so constantly hyped on the Facebook page “What should I read next?” and with consistently good reviews. The reviews on Goodreads are less conforming and more critical, with people falling into the two categories of love and hate more or less equally.
The plot: Kit, a workaholic Emergency Room doctor in Santa Cruz, California, the product of a tumultuous childhood, is watching the news one night as a club fire is being reported in Auckland, New Zealand. She is shocked when a woman walks out of the clouds of smoke towards the reporter’s camera and she sees the unmistakable face and form of her sister, Josie, who supposedly died on a train in a terrorist bombing in France more than 15 years previous. Kit’s mother also sees the broadcast, and encourages Kit to take some time off work to go to New Zealand and track down her sister. Kit is both baffled and angry at the possibility that her beloved sister has let the family believe she was dead all this time, but decides the best way to put these feelings to rest is to discover the truth, and gets on a plane.
The story is told from two points of view, and in two time periods: The narrative alternates between Kit and her sister, formerly Josie but now Mari, and details the present-day circumstances and the past history of both, nicely weaving them together.
There were things I really loved about this book—O’Neal’s lush language employed in the description of New Zealand (and surfing), which made me want to hop on a plane; the details of the sisters’ past history, told interestingly from the point of view of the elder—damaged, reckless, and doomed by her own addictions—and the younger, who experienced many of the same events but perceived them in a completely different way; and the ambivalence of both at the necessity of tearing down the walls and telling the truth, finally. I also enjoyed Kit’s unexpected and rather steamy connection with Javier, the Spanish musician whom she meets in a restaurant on her first night in New Zealand, and who pursues her despite her best efforts to remain indifferent.
There were also things I didn’t particularly care for, and some that were almost completely extraneous to the story and would have improved it had they been left out. There is a whole subplot about a famous and historically significant house acquired by “Mari” and her husband, Simon, that acted as a distraction: The mysterious unsolved murder of its movie star owner is brought up and dwelt upon at length, and it seems like it will be an integral part of the plot, but then it just fizzles out and is wrapped up in a “by the way” near the end that is infuriating after all the time and attention paid to it. At one point when Mari is exploring the house and making notes about its contents, a stash of books all on the subject of mermaids is discovered, and the reader logically expects that these will play a part later in the narrative, but they never do. There are other references to mermaids that pull together the reason for the book’s title, but this particular one is a baffling throwaway. And there is way too much attention paid to whether Kit’s mother, a former alcoholic, is capable of adequately caring for Kit’s cat, Hobo, while Kit is away.
Beyond these specifics, I feel like the book also took way too long to finally get the sisters together, and then attenuated the time and conversation necessary for a plausible reunion or a resumption of any kind of relationship. I read the book on my Kindle, which obligingly gives a “percent of story read” statistic, and it took until around 85 percent to arrive at the heart of the matter, with 15 percent left to resolve things. The story would have been better had these events taken place at, say, 75 percent, with a little more attention paid to the climax.
I still enjoyed the book, identified with the characters, and was particularly intrigued by their unusual and somewhat horrific upbringing that led to all the subsequent drama, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book to others. But just as on Goodreads, some may thank me for it while others may ask “Why?”
I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.
Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES
Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).
The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.
The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.
The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!
I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.
These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.
As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.
Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.
And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.
Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.
Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.
Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.
Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.
The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.
The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.
These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.
I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?
Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.
A book about books?
I really wanted to like The Last Book Party, by Karen Dukess, but honestly? I just didn’t, much.
There were elements of it that I anticipated liking. First of all, I think I gravitated to it because it was set during a summer at (in? on? never know the terminology here) Cape Cod, and after recently reading several enjoyable books set at such memorable places as Martha’s Vineyard and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I wasn’t quite ready to let go of the summer/island settings.
Second, the protagonist works in book publishing in New York City, which I always thought of as the pinnacle of jobs, and she’s trying to write on the side, with which occupation I have sympathy, having tried to do that myself off and on for years in the middle of my life.
Third, there is a lot of talk of books and authors, which always delights me, either because they are familiar and I concur with the writer’s opinion of them, or because they are unfamiliar and give me new titles for my TBR list.
And lastly, I loved the cover!
But ultimately a book is only as good as its characters and story arc, and this one was, what word do I want to use? Slight.
Eve Rosen is an aspiring writer working as an assistant at a prestigious book publishing firm in New York City. She comes from a conventional suburban Jewish background, and thought New York would be the answer to her longings to be an artist, but so far it’s only been by proxy. One of her duties as an assistant is to correspond with some of the firm’s writers, and one of her favorites is the witty and urbane New Yorker writer, Henry Grey.
She is invited to a gathering at his Cape Cod home (her parents have a summer house there and she lets him know she will be around for the weekend) to meet a dazzling array of avant garde artists, including his wife, Tillie, a poet. Grey casually mentions that he could use a research assistant; when Eve returns to New York to discover that a new employee has been promoted over her head, she decides to leave the firm and reaches out to the writer to see if he was serious. Soon she is ensconced in Henry’s study, working on research materials for various of his projects and continuing in awe of him and his artistic circle. But some of the things she learns about this seemingly enviable literary world are not what she expected nor what she wants.
I can’t tell much more of the plot without revealing the whole thing, because there’s not a lot more TO it. The book is set up like a coming-of-age story in which Eve is figuring out who she wants to be; but the way she goes about it is shallow, self-deceptive, and clichéd. I spent most of the story wanting to hand her both a mirror and a backbone. There is a significant moment in the book where you expect major fireworks to happen; instead you get one outraged rant by Eve and then the matter is dropped as if it isn’t important. Considering what it was, I found this highly disturbing. And finally, the ending is one of those frustrating “two years later, here’s what I learned from my experience” epilogues that I loathe.
So although I will add this to my list of “books about books,” I won’t be touting it to anyone as a good read. It’s not horrible, either; I give it a resounding “meh.”