Truly Madly Guilty

This is a story that begins with a barbecue,” said Clementine.

I think I don’t have to summarise this story if I’d tell you that this author is the one behind Big Little Lies as well and that she definitely carved out a spot for herself in the ‘What’s Really Happening Behind the Doors of Seemingly Happy Families’-niche. A niche I very much enjoy, so no negative comments there.

The negative comments here are solely plot related. When my thoughts turn to “this is filler, just give me the twist/clue”, the story is going on just a tad too long. If all that build-up leads to not that much, you need a stronger conclusion. Maybe that’s just the burden of reading so much that surprise is hard to find.

Because there’s nothing otherwise wrong with this story: it doesn’t pretend to provide something more than it offers. It’s entertaining, it fits the bill, it’s escapism.

And it might make you want to visit Sydney.

Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty, Flatiron Books 2016

Just One Damned Thing After Another

There have been two moments in my life when everything changed.

Time travel! Dinosaurs! Bad guys and unlikely heroes! First book of a series!

Yes, I know, I will forever be overly bitter by the fact that a standalone fantasy novel is hard to find. Sue me (don’t sue me).

On the other hand – I’m a sucker for time travel and will accept a lot for the sheer fact of time travel being involved. It’s just a convenient genre: you get history, adventure, romance (often), sometimes science fiction – all in one book.

Just as in this case. Just One Damned Thing After Another has the scrappy heroine with the dodgy history, very villain-y villains, dinosaurs and mentions enough historical events to make sure you don’t forget the time traveling part. Jodi Taylor provides the majority of this with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, which (might) make(s) the reader more acceptable of the times when things get a bit too trope-y. Is that me complaining about getting everything I wanted from this kind of story? Yes.

If there wouldn’t be sequels, there wouldn’t have been several set-ups that took (a bit) too long to pay off. Without the scrappy heroine-background, there would have been less time spent on moping and self-pity.

So, yes, this is what to expect from the genre. I was just hoping for more.

Just One Damned Thing After Another, Jodi Taylor, Accent Press 2013

There Will Come a Darkness

In the moonlit room overlooking the city of faith, a priest knelt before Ephyra and begged for his life.

Am I going to say it? I’m going to say it. This is another ‘I thought this would be a stand-alone fantasy YA’ failure on my part. Of COURSE it’s part of a series, rookie mistake!

The nice thing is that you don’t really notice until it’s too late. The question of ‘how is this going to be cleanly rolled up in so little pages left’ doesn’t show up until 3/4 into the book, and even then Katy Rose Pool doesn’t use neon-light warnings to guide you to the open ending. The ending isn’t even that open, which to me – avid hater of open endings – is a relief.

Except for the ages of the protagonists, it’s not very YA either (little romance, little teen-specific issues) and the fantasy part delivers. Scary cult, people with gifts, threatening apocalypse, royals et cetera. The world-building makes you wonder if this is supposed to be our past or our distance future: just look at the map used.

With five protagonists it sometimes feels a bit like some get more time in the spotlight than others; it also makes it easy to quickly get a preference. Maybe in the next book(s) the attention will shifts and you might feel more for other characters.

All in all, a nothing-wrong-with fantasy. If I’d see the sequel in the library, I wouldn’t ignore it.

There Will Come a Darkness, Katy Rose Pool, MacMillan 2019

Ducks, Newburyport

I can’t give you the first sentence of this book, because that sentence takes approximately 35 pages to finish. Does it even ever finish, or is it just paused by another story line that does use other punctuation than commas?

I didn’t finish this book either. I read a lot of the pages, I read the last few but I didn’t read the majority of the almost 1000 pages.

The majority of those 1000 pages are a stream of conscious about an American housewife that bakes pies. After about two-third of the book there are layers added, issues, maybe even traumas that can help you understand the endless circling of her thoughts, but by then I had long checked out. The blurb on the cover ‘Ulysses got nothing on this’ should have warned me; I thought it was just about the size of the book. No, it was about the run-on-sentence.

I appreciate how the author and the publisher (there’s a page in the back explaining things and how they want to support original stories) wanted to offer something different, and maybe I’m just too anxious and too much of a control freak to appreciate this.

So, if someone read it or will read it, I’d love to get a summary about what’s going on, because I gave up the fight.

Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman 2019

Invisible Women

Most of recorded human history is one big data gap.

Good gravy, just when you thought you already knew, things turn out to be so much worse. Next to a sexist gap in pay, safety and health there is a huge one in the thing that drives pretty  much all of society: data.

Why is the default ‘he’? Why is there still a riddle about a doctor whose husband died, and why do too many people involved with design viewing women as ‘men with boobs’? Well, because societies worldwide have made it so, and not enough people in powerful positions protest it. And it turns out to be lethal for women.

Invisible Women isn’t particularly uplifting material: there’s just so many numbers and anecdotes on things that went wrong and are going wrong and men not giving a damn about it. How do we rally for change when the entire history of humanity is against us?

Because in some cases and in some countries things have changed and are changing. And you can never change something you don’t know anything about. And because it might save your life to know.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez, Abrams Press 2019

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Let me begin again.

Golly gosh, how to explain this? It’s a memoir, it’s a fever dream, it’s an obituary – maybe? And did I like all of it, any of it, only the parts that I read at night? It was, in a way, beautiful, though. A kind of experience hard to put into words.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is one of those titles that seem to be singing around in ‘Serious Reader’ circles for a while. It’s not loud enough to feel like it’s been hyped, nor is a celebrity book club attached, but there is the vibe of “Haven’t you read it yet?” around it. To me, anyway.

Ocean Vuong wrote poetry before, and it shows in his descriptions, his look on life, how it feels like he weighed every word before putting it down. It’s in juxtaposition with the subjects he writes down: the suffering of his grandmother and mother, the lack of family, being an immigrant child, being the only different one while growing up. All of it feels absolutely anchor-less.

Can you have an opinion about something that runs through your mind like sand through your hands? I’m sure you can, but I’m just going to stick with ‘an experience’ and a weird feeling of honour that Vuong allowed you in.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong, Penguin Random House 2019

Year of Yes

When it was first suggested to me that I write about this year, my first instinct was to say no.

Hmmmm…

I kind of feel like I have to approve of this book solely because of the achievements of the person that wrote it. And Shonda Rhimes achieved a lot, and well done to her and I hope she keeps on carrying on.

And maybe I should have been less surprised about the tone of the story with such a title. I mean, this is the second time this year I’ve been cuckolded by a book title. This isn’t completely a memoir, but it comes close it. Combine that with the subject (saying yes to more things, daring to live (a little)), and honestly – I could have seen this coming.

Of course, it’s interesting to learn about how much work Rhimes puts into everything, how determined she is and how she recognises what has to be done to get where she wants to go.

It’s kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing: is she ‘American Dream rah-rah’ because of what she accomplished or did she accomplish what she did because she’s ‘American Dream rah-rah’?

In the end, have I decided to be infected by her yes-saying? Maybe. Temporarily. Mostly I’m still stuck on all the ways in which she describes herself, her thoughts and her actions.

Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes, Simon & Schuster 2015

How to Hack a Heartbreak

Never trust anything you read on the internet.

First romantic comedy of the year! Although both genres are just slightly represented; How to Hack a Heartbreak is mostly about being a woman in the tech world, and about dating online. The comedy is a tad sharper than you might expect, but both these subjects deserve some attention that isn’t just tongue-in-cheek.

That doesn’t mean that How to is a severe novel about the endless sexism both these worlds entail and a detailed deconstruction of it – it’s still a romantic novel after all. Still, the more realistic angle on the subject and of the protagonist’s thinking is pretty refreshing.

It makes the story of Melanie learning something about herself, her abilities and her (lack of) self-confidence easier to swallow. There might have been just one or two situations through which I rolled my eyes, and I’m pretty sure that was an expected reaction. All this, and a well-balanced happy ending, makes this a romance for the ’20s.

How to Hack a Heartbreak, Kirstin Rockaway, Harlequin 2019

The Secrets We Kept

We typed a hundred words per minute and never missed a syllable.

While I’m absolutely lukewarm about stories that use the World Wars as their background, the Cold War or anything involving the USSR/Russia has easily my interest (peeked). The Secrets We Kept ads love for literature to that. Ace in the hole, you’d say.

I can’t pinpoint why it isn’t one. It’s an appealing, enticing story; easy to read, pretty easy to follow (several chapters keep you in the dark about who’s the protagonist now — at least for a page and a half) and voices could have differed a bit more from each other. But that’s details I discover looking back, not necessarily crippling me during reading the story.

The secrets kept the title mentioned are from both The Agency (American security) as from Russian individuals that dare do things The State doesn’t agree with. Of course, there’s secrets on other levels as well, and this isn’t  a Cold War story in the way of ‘pick a side and follow through’. These women and typists carry more responsibility than their detailed-described looks entail.

It’s a fun novel to read, easily calling up images and with no frills when not necessary. I’m honestly surprised that I’m not more excited about it.

The Secrets We Kept, Lara Prescott, Bond Street Books 2019

Lincoln in the Bardo

On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.

Don’t judge a book by its title. Or maybe don’t expect to know what is going to happen by a book’s title. I thought Lincoln – like the American president. I thought Bardo – a kind of Buddhist limbo, add those and you get something eerie, cool, spooky about mourning, the afterlife and discussing religion.

Instead I got a collection of (fictional) citations and quotations about Abraham Lincoln, his dead son and a lot of people I’ve never heard of before.

It took some time to adjust.

Both Lincolns are very little part of this story. It is about the Bardo and how people of all walks of life experience it while avoiding the reality of having died. As mentioned before – this doesn’t happen in continuous prose, you seem to be paging through an encyclopedia of Americans that have died in the time before Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because some of them look out for Willie Lincoln, and are impressed that Abraham continues to visit his son and mourn him.

So it’s not a story about the American president, it’s a little bit about mourning, it’s a too little bit about what the Bardo is, how it works and what it looks like, and the rest of it is – I guess – about the skills of one George Saunders in bringing a lot of character sheets together and passing them off as novel.

2020 isn’t a great year for books, just yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Bloomsbury 2017