REVIEW: The Paris Wife by Paula McClain

December was a fluff-read month for me. I had finished my book challenges and just wanted to enjoy some good stories that didn’t require active reading. My TBR shelves stared at me like overdue homework, but nothing on them fit the bill so I checked to see what the Timberland Regional Library had available. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain came up. Her Circling the Sun is on my TBR so I knew the name, and since I like Hemingway I checked it out.

My basic knowledge of Hemingway consists of his time on the Left Bank of Paris, his friendship/rivalries with other great names of his era, his time in Spain, his alcoholism and his suicide. The Paris Wife seems to be well researched about a time in Hemingway’s life that isn’t as well known, but since I don’t know anything about Hadley Richardson, his first wife, I can’t say whether or not the book is an accurate portrayal of her. Regardless, it’s a good read and at the very least inspired me to read more Hemingway,  Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson and add some more of Fitzgerald’s work to my TBR.

It’s the 1920’s – a time of post-war growth and endless possibilities. Hadley Richardson grew up a sheltered, sickly child in a well-to-do family. She meets Hemingway on one of her first trips away from home and they form a friendship that deepens with consistent letters to and from. They eventually marry and move to Paris. McLain portrays her as a steadying influence in Hemingway’s bull-by-the-horns way of life although Richardson drinks just as excessively and lives the carefree life right alongside him. She goes from being sheltered by her mother to being dominated by Hemingway never really coming in to her own. It is Hemingway that finally forces the end of their relationship.

Through Richardson’s eyes McLain portrays the mentally unstable genius that is the more known Hemingway. There doesn’t appear to be any new insight gained or revealed in this novel seemingly about a virtually unknown woman, but reliant on Hemingway to make the story. Most of the novel reads more like a romance novel than historical fiction. One without a happy ending.

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A Roundup of 2017 Reads

I surpassed my Goodreads goal of 52 books, mostly due to audiobooks prompted by Dragon Lair’s audiobook challenge. This was the first year I’ve listened to them and although I enjoy the stories as I knit or do something else with my hands, I realize I don’t get as much enjoyment from them as I do a physical book. The words on a page just seem to absorb me more and there’s something so comforting about sinking into a really good printed book.

I completed most of my book challenges. Netflix and Books cancelled theirs about four months in and TNBBC was just too large with over 200 titles to match. The challenges made me read things I normally don’t: poetry, plays, non-fiction. I arm chair travelled Europe with Rose City Reader and I read several classics that I had always meant to thanks to Back to the Classics and PopChartLabs. I made a dent in my TBR shelves thanks to Wendy the SuperLibrarian, but I hope to make 2018 more about reading the books that have been sitting on my TBR shelves for years and only plan to do two challenges (GirlXOXO and PopSugar) and the 24 hour read-a-thons by Dewey and 24in48.

I hope your 2017 was full of great reads and your 2018 is blessed with even more.

My year in review:

Totals

Number of books read

78

Number of pages read

11,377

Number of hours listened

2w 3d 2h 10m

Number of male authors read

38

Number of female authors read

40

Persons of Color authors

4

Number of audio books listened to

43

Number of print books read

30

Number of digital books read

4

Number of fiction books read

75

Number of non-fiction books read

3

Number of American authors

37

Number of foreign authors

41

Number of challenge books

78

Number of books read published in 2017

4

Number of backlist books read

18

Review: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

It’s been a long time since I fell in love with MacDonald’s The Way the Crow Flies and I can’t explain why Adult Onset sat on my TBR shelves for so long. Adult Onset wasn’t as gripping as the prior, but it was still full of the tense family drama that MacDonald is known for. The whole time I was reading it, I kept waiting for the breakdown, the hysteria, whatever it was that was subtly between the lines written on the pages. It never really came. MacDonald took the bubbling pressure of parenting to the rim of the pot, but never let it boil over. Anyone who has ever parented can probably relate to this story of stay-at-home mom Mary Rose MacKinnon.

Mary Rose tries to be the perfect parent, the good wife, the dutiful daughter and the supportive sister. She is also trying to maintain a formerly successful writing career. It is too much. She reflects on her mother’s mental illness and tries to make sense of what she remembers from her childhood – pain, anger, yelling, depression. Was there child abuse, physical in addition to emotional? “As long as she stays lying down nothing bad will happen. She gets up” Does she even know what she did and said? “I’d rather you had cancer,” she says. “I’d rather you’d been born dead.”

She tries to make sense of her mother’s current mental state – is it dementia? Or simply old age? And does Mary Rose’s sudden inability to think of words imply a simple case of “mommy brain” or is she following in her own mother’s footsteps?

The story takes place in one week while Mary Rose is single-parenting her spirited toddler and sensitive kindergartner and during that week so many things seem to go wrong. It would be enough to drive anyone to the brink. It is getting harder and harder to keep her anger under control. She comes close to losing it, but pulls herself back and along the way saves another struggling stay-at-home mom.

MacDonald excels at emotional drama, at women on the edge, at domestic darkness in seemingly normal families. Adult Onset is quintessential MacDonald.

REVIEW: The Guts by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle is one of my favorite authors and his Barrytown trilogy is one of my favorite reads so I’m not sure how I missed The Guts. I was buying his new book, Smile, when I came across it so immediately grabbed it as well.

Jimmy is back, middle-aged now with a wife and kids of his own, and recently diagnosed with bowel cancer. Music is still his life, but now he re-groups and promotes bygone bands to new audiences online. One of his sons is a musician and takes one of the old songs and turns it into the latest hit in what feels like a completed circle to when we first met Jimmy and his pals 30 years ago in The Commitments.

Doyle does Irish sarcasm and wit better than any Irish writer I’ve had the pleasure of reading. His books are laugh out loud funny to me. I love them and I love his characters as if they were my own family. The Guts was no different as Doyle successfully makes cancer, middle-age and the crash of the Celtic tiger heart-warming, funny and wistful all at the same time.

The constant conversations with his da, his wife, his children, his old mates take us directly into Jimmy’s life, as if we are listening in from a forgotten corner of the room. Doyle does this so beautifully, less “he said”, “she said”, and more dialogue that lets you be right there with them, in the kitchen, in the pub, in the church – the hearts of many an Irish family.

I am so at home when I read Doyle and I am forever grateful he continues to write books that take me there.

REVIEW: Mr. Churchill’s Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal

I rarely read mysteries, but I was looking for a historical fiction book to listen to from my library and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary happen to be available. I didn’t realize it was a mystery until I was about a quarter of the way in, but it was reminding me of The Bletchley Circle on BBC so I stuck it out. Regrettably I think. The book just wasn’t that good.

The story is entertaining enough – woman ahead of her time, back in London during the war, ends up working as a typist for Churchill and turns out to be best friends with a spy – but none of the characters are that well developed and it’s hard to connect with any of them. The heroine in the story, Maggie Hope, despite being educated beyond what would have been common for a girl in the 1940s (she has a PhD in mathematics), isn’t actually that strong or modern and the story reads more like a romance novel where there didn’t appear to be much more historical fiction than the time period it was set in.

So much of the mystery part wasn’t even a mystery. At least not in the typical suspense building way. MacNeal just narrates the solution before her characters even have time to discover it. Either the author thinks her readers are dense or she doesn’t use suspense building in writing mysteries. I’m not sure which, but I have no desire to read any more of her books to find out.

REVIEW: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Reading this just after Heart of Darkness, had me immensely grateful to be back in Brooklyn again with Woodson’s August, Sylvia, Angela and Gigi in this heartwarming coming-of-age story. After her mother left, August’s father moved them from Tennessee to Brooklyn which is where she met this posse of girls that got her through the tumultuous 1970s.

Women’s rights were only burgeoning. Young girls had even less and virtually no protection from the predatory men of their neighborhood. August escapes through school and work, but her father’s death has brought her back and the memories are flooding in. “This is memory.”

The trauma of losing her mother and uncle led her to an anthropology career of studying different cultures’ rituals of death and it is this August that is back 20 years later reliving her adolescence.

She remembers being melancholy and alone, wishing she had friends. She remembers being taken in by this group of girls she watched from afar, wondering why they liked her, but grateful that they did. She remembers the poverty of her neighborhood, the addictions of her neighbors. This wasn’t the hip, trendy Brooklyn of today, this was a place to run from, not to. Together the girls learn to navigate the rough streets, the drunks, the lechers and the dangers that lurked around every corner.

Some of their dreams come true in spite of the tumultuous circumstances of their lives, some of them die with the girl herself. “I know now that what is tragic isn’t the moment. It is the memory.”

Another Brooklyn is a haunting, poetic read that finds beauty in tragedy and Woodson is a lyrical storyteller.

Review: The McCray Family Series by Greg Kincaid

Ticking my holiday read for Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s challenge, I listened to A Christmas Home, Christmas with Tucker and A Dog Named Christmas during the week leading up to Christmas. I didn’t listen to them in the order of release, but rather as the my library holds became available. It didn’t seem to matter as these short, sweet, cozy reads are relatively self-contained stories.

A Dog Named Christmas was released in 2008 and we were introduced to the steadfast McCray family living in rural Kansas. Their developmentally delayed son Todd discovers his love for dogs and a talent in working with them and joins the staff of the local animal shelter after making their holiday adoption plan in to a huge success. He convinces his reluctant father to take one of the dogs home for the holidays and of course, the dog joins the family as a permanent member. The book became a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 2009.

In A Christmas Home, released in 2012, the shelter is being threatened with closure due to lack of city funds. Todd rallies a local consumer advocate reporter and other community members and saves the shelter. He also leaves his family and small town for a dog training job at a school in Kansas City and discovers love.

Christmas with Tucker, released in 2010, takes us back to the childhood of the Todd’s father George in 1962 Kansas. He stays on his grandparents farm after his father’s tragic death and his mother and sisters have moved back to Minnesota. He falls in love with a neighbor’s dog he’s been asked to care for. Eventually the dog is given to him and later passes away after George leaves for Vietnam.

The stories are simple reads about family, community and the love of a good dog that warm the heart in the holiday season and listening to them often brought tears to my eyes remembering dogs of my own that I have loved and lost. There is no truer friend.