The Last Cruise

by Kate Christensen
First sentence: “As Christine walked out of the air conditioned terminal into the balmy, sweet air of Southern California, she inhaled sharply and wanted to laugh.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There’s a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs) and some on-screen sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m going to pitch this the same way the publisher rep pitched it to us. It’s a great character study set on this cruise ship — the last cruise of an old, retiring ship — and that’s all you think it is until something happens — I’m not going to say what — and everything gets really intense. You probably  won’t want to read this while on a cruise.

See, I don’t know what you’d expect from that, but I expected something Really Interesting. A murder perhaps. Or an accident that capsizes the ship. Something… intense. He was right: it is a really good character study of three main characters. A Hungarian chef, who wasn’t supposed to be on the cruise and who is considering getting out to start a restaurant (or something) and who just wants to be with his girlfriend in Paris; a New England farmer’s wife, who maybe just wants a little more out of her life; and an Israeli violist, who is in love with the first violinist in her quartet, whose wife has recently died and so they are now able to follow their hearts.

But, it never got intense. The Thing I Was Waiting For never happened. Something did happen — the engine dies, they’re stranded at sea, and everyone gets sick with norovirus — and when it first started I thought it was going to be big. But, it really wasn’t. They floated along for a week or so, and then they were rescued. A few people died from the sickness. Meh.

I think Christensen missed out on a really good opportunity by not focusing on the disgruntled kitchen staff — they organized a walk out to demand higher pay and their contracts reinstated  but it got lost in the engines dying — that sounded like it could be an interesting story.

In the end, this was just a reminder of why I don’t read too many adult fiction books.

 

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Still Life

by Louise Penny
First sentence: “Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.”
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Content: There are a few f-bombs, and some other mild swearing as well as few instances of disturbing violence. It’s in the mystery section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while, just to see what the fuss about the Inspector Gamache stories are (we have a ton of customers who just love this series). This is the first one, which takes place in a small village in Quebec, around Thanksgiving weekend (which, since it’s Canada, is in mid-October…). A local woman, Jane Neal, dies in a hunting “accident”, pierced through the heart with a hunting arrow. Gamache is called in from Montreal to solve this case. There are ups and downs, setbacks and advances, and a junior detective that I didn’t get why Gamache was so impatient with. It’s a pretty simple plot, and one in which I guessed the ending early on, but then second guessed myself, so I was pretty miffed when it turned out to be the person I guessed.

It was an interesting portrait of a small town, but I didn’t love Gamache enough to want to revisit this series again and again. Still, I’m not disappointed to have read it.

My Name is Asher Lev

by Chaim Potok
First sentence: “My name is Asher Lev, the Asher Lev, about whom you have read in newspapers and magazines, about whom you talk so much at your dinner affairs and cocktail parties, the notorious and legendary Lev of the Brooklyn Crucifixion. ”
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Content: It’s long and often philosophical. It’s in the adult fiction section, but I think high schoolers who are interested in art should read this.

I’ve briefly talked about this book (in 2004 and in 2007), but I’ve not written a proper review. I probably haven’t picked up the story of Asher Lev in about 10 years, and doing the #ICTReads challenge gave me a chance to revisit this world of Brooklyn Hasidic Jews and the struggle between religion and art.

The basic story — if you haven’t heard — is that of  prodigy artist and orthodox Jew Asher Lev’s childhood and teenage years. His father was an ambassador for their sect leader, the Rebbe, and his mother ended up going to school to learn Russian to help with the work as well. They were both fully committed to their religion, to helping build up yeshivas (schools) around the world, and to helping Jews escape communist countries in the years after World War II. Asher’s passion, on the other hand, was to draw. He had a drive to do it, sometimes not even realizing that he was drawing. That’s not to say he wasn’t religious — he was. He went to school and to synagogue, he studied the Torah, he kept kosher. But, he wanted to create art. Which meant that his parents just didn’t understand him or his desires to do something so frivilous.

And it all comes to a head in his 20s, after he goes to Florence and Paris and has been abroad for many years. He comes back with paintings that use the form of the crucifixion —  he says in the book something along the lines of “what better way to depict anguish?” — and his parents, for whom Jesus is the symbol of suffering and hate, just cannot accept that.

It’s a very introspective book, musing about the meaning of art and the purpose of religion and whether there’s a place in religion for art that doesn’t conform to the rules of religion.  And while it’s often philosophical and sometimes has a tendency to be sluggish, I do think Potok does an excellent job walking the line between religion and art, and showing not only the conflict within Asher, but also between him and his parents (especially his father) and between his parents. And while I wish, now, that there were more female characters (there’s his mother, their housekeeper, and the art gallery director), it’s still an excellent book.

 

A Short Stay in Hell

by Stephen Peck
First sentence: “Although I have loved many, there has been only one genuine love in my near-eternally stretched life — Rachel who fell to the bottom of the library without me.”
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Content: There’s some violence. It would be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, if we carried it.

This was not the Stephen Peck book I set out to read. I was supposed to read Scholar of Moab, but about 1/3 into that, the apostrophes were driving me nuts (they were in the wrong place — do’nt as opposed to don’t — and while I understood why they were that way, it didn’t stop it from pulling me out of the story) and so Russell threw this book at me and said I might like it better.

The idea behind it is that everyone’s idea of the afterlife is wrong (except for the Zoroastrians). And our main character, who was a good Mormon in this life, is in hell. Which happens to be a big library, containing every possible book that could ever be written. Which means, it’s very very very very very large. The idea for him to get out of hell is to find the book containing his story, except that’s an impossible task. (Well not impossible, just very very very hard.) It follows him as he meets people, is part of a university, finds and loses his love, gets captured by a wack job, falls for days, and on and on. It’s an exercise in trying to grasp what infinity means (spoiler: you can’t).

And while I liked it enough to finish it (it was short, which helped), I’m not sure I get what makes Peck such a great writer. Maybe it’s because I’m too literal a reader (plausible), and his works are full of symbolism and metaphor and satire, all of which escape me. Give me a good plot, some great characters, and decent writing and I’m happy.

At least I tried.

Audio book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

by Gail Honeyman
Read by Cathleen McCarron
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Listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some disturbing material, and quite a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Eleanor Oliphant is fine. She has a job — the same job she’s had since she graduated from university — as a finance clerk in a graphic design firm. She goes to work, she comes home, gets drunk on weekends, and talks to her mom (which is not a pleasant experience) on Wednesday nights. She has food, shelter, and work. It’s not a bad life.

Then, one day, she sees a musician that she decides she wants to have a relationship with, so she starts changing herself superficially. And at pretty much the same time, she ends up talking to Raymond, an IT guy in the building, and purely by happenstance, they end up helping an older gentleman who took a bad fall outside a store. And suddenly Eleanor’s life opens up.

This was such a delightful book! It has dark undertones with emotional and physical abuse, but it wasn’t graphic, and it played a role in Eleanor’s growth arc. As a character, she was delightful to spend time with, and the other characters that Honeyman populated the book with were absolutely charming. I appreciated that Raymond and Eleanor developed a close friendship, but not a romance (though that door wasn’t completely shut). That, and the narrator was absolutely delightful! It was one of the those books that I found myself immersed in, and one I didn’t want to get out of the car when I was listening.

An excellent read.

Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories

by Kelly Barnhill
First sentence: “The day she buried her husband — a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unkonwn in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space — Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our lady of the Snows.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are more mature themes and some swearing (though I’m not remembering any f-bombs). It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I have a tortured history with short stories. I want to like them, but I find them much like poetry: I don’t get them. They’re words, and often pretty words, but I just don’t… well… understand them. (Even Neil Gaiman’s stories, which I seem to have a bit more affinity for.) And this collection was more of the same: I liked the stories, but I need someone else to read them and then explain them to me. (Especially the title story. I know it’s a metaphor, and I’m sure I’ll smack my head when someone tells me what it’s a metaphor for, but right now, I’m a bit lost.)

Barnhill is a gorgeous crafter of sentences, and this is no exception. She has a beautiful way with words, and it does pull you into the story. I especially liked the final story, which is more of a novella (which could be why), because the world that Barnhill built — a comet flies by once every 25 years and endows pre-born children with magical powers which a minister then harnesses for his own means — was so fascinating, but also because the writing was just so beautiful.

And maybe, someday, I’ll figure out how to read short stories and actually understand.

That Time I Loved You

by Carrianne Leung
First sentence: “1979: This was the year the parents in my neighbourhood began killing themselves.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some sex (on-screen but not graphic) and swearing, including a few f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Set in a suburb of Toronto, specifically on one street in a particular neighborhood, this collection of connected short stories  follows the inner workings of a dozen people of all ages.  The characters are mostly women, except for one black teenage boy, and many of them are immigrants. Leung explores immigrant expectations and prejudices toward them. She explores female dynamics both with other females and with males. She touches on sexual assault and racism and emotional abuse. It’s a lot. And yet, it works.

I usually have problems with short stories, but I think because these are connected — the characters in the stories appear in their own as well as in the background of other stories — it felt more like a novel. We got to know the characters, we get to know the neighborhood, and because each story focuses on a different person, we get to know them intimately and it means more when they show up in a different story.

I really enjoyed this one!