THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy is about a large African-American family in Detroit. Viola and Francis Turner lived on Yarrow Street in Detroit for fifty years, where they raised 13 children and saw the neighborhood turn from vibrant to dilapidated. Francis is now dead, and Viola, in ailing health, lives with her oldest son, Cha Cha, in the suburbs. The house is still standing, though, and Viola owes more money on the mortgage than the house is worth. The question of what to do with the house sets the plot of The Turner House in motion, as the Turner siblings deal with their own feelings about the house, their parents, their siblings, and the state of their lives.

I had heard good things about The Turner House before I picked it up, and in theory, I should have liked it. It’s about a large sprawling family, told from shifting points of view, with complex relationships between siblings. But honestly, I found it pretty boring. There’s a large subplot about the haints, or ghosts, which have plagued Cha Cha since he was a teenager. I couldn’t really get into it. I enjoyed following Lela’s story, the youngest sister who has a gambling problem. But that wasn’t enough to save this book for me. I slogged through it and was happy when it was done. Too many siblings, many of whom never got any airtime or distinguished themselves from the others. Too little resolution – we don’t even find out what ultimately happens to the house in the end. And frankly, not enough conflict. The family is big and messy but they basically all get along and no one really does anything too terrible.

I would have enjoyed hearing more about growing up with 12 siblings and how it impacted each of the kids. I would have enjoyed hearing about what meals were like, what doing homework was like in a small house with 15 people in it.  Instead, I had only a shadowy sense of this family, and way too much information about Cha Cha and the haints.

I listened to The Turner House on audio. It was narrated competently Adenrele Ojo. She did a good job differentiating the featured siblings and I liked her voice and narration. But she couldn’t save a boring, meandering plot.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Turner House. Based on the reviews I read, a lot of people enjoyed it. It just wasn’t for me.

 

 

THE PRIVATE LIFE OF MRS. SHARMA by Ratika Kapur

Life is a bit crazy right now, as evidenced by my ONE post in February. (One!) My reading has slowed down considerably, but I did manage to finish two books after The Girls, and I want to post about them before too much time goes by.

The first was The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma, by Ratika Kapur. It’s about Renu, an Indian woman in her late 30s who lives with her son and in-laws in an apartment in Delhi. Her husband is working remotely in Dubai in order to make more money, while Renu works in a doctor’s office in Delhi to help support the family. She’s a modern woman by Indian standards – she works outside the home and has a fair amount of freedom – yet she is traditional in that she dotes on her son, lives with her husband’s parents, does most of the housekeeping, cleaning and nurturing, and has rather old-fashioned views about how marriage works.

One day, Renu meets a young man named Vineet on the train, and instead of telling him that she is married, she strikes up a friendship with him. They spend time together on a regular basis when her son is in school. It starts as a platonic friendship, an escape for Renu to fill her lonely hours. The book is written as Renu’s private inner dialogue, and she comes across as chaste and naive as she spends time with Vineet – but justifies it as something she deserves because her husband is away and her son needs her less. Of course, Renu is not as innocent as she portrays herself, and before long things have progressed into a dangerous zone, with their relationship turning physical and her ability to keep her two lives separate in jeopardy.

The Private Life Of Mrs. Sharma is about the collision of old and modern, as well as freedom and responsibility. Kapur’s language is strikingly simple – almost childlike – yet also formal and sort of indignant. (More contradictions!) I can’t settle on how I felt about it, or about Renu – despite her selflessness and devotion to her family, she was also immature and selfish, caring little about the desires of others.

And there’s a surprise ending which seemed really out of place.

So this was a mixed bag for me. I liked that it was set in India, and it was an easy, engrossing read that effectively explored some of the tensions in modern middle class Indian society. But the protagonist was frustrating, the language almost claustrophobia-inducing at times, and the ending was jarring.

How’s that for non-committal?

More posts coming, I promise.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

I just finished The Girls by Emma Cline, which was one of the hot books of 2016 that got big advances and lots of attention. The Girls is about a summer in the late 60s when a teenager named Evie got involved with a group of other young women living on a ranch under the thrall of a charismatic musician named Russell. The reader learns early on that, at Russell’s direction, members of the group committed a quadruple murder in California (an act based on the Manson murders). The Girls explores how Evie got involved with the group and how that involvement reverberates through her life for decades to come.

First, I will say that Emma Cline is a beautiful writer.  She has a way of describing rooms, scenes, people, actions that make you feel as if you’re seeing it unfold right before you in vivid, sensual detail. I’ve seen some people criticize this book as too flowery, but I thought the writing was its greatest strength.

Clines’s storytelling is not quite as strong. I suspect she looked up “why do people join cults?” and then created a story to satisfy each of the criteria that can lead to susceptibility to cult leaders like Russell. Evie’s parents were separated; her best friend turned on her; she was rejected by the boy she liked; she was bored. Cline sets up Evie’s involvement with the cult perfectly on paper, but I was never really convinced of it in action. Evie’s devotion to Russell and his clan is also premised on her love for Suzanne, one of the girls in the group. Her infatuation with Suzanne is what brings her back to the ranch, over and over, and what landed her in the car with the others when they headed out on the night of the murders. But I didn’t really believe in the ardor, the passion that Evie had for Suzanne, who was basically a hippie from a rich family who stole from strangers and passed her hours stoned and disconnected.

Without a really convincing reason at its core for Evie to lose herself in Russell and his hippie ranch dwellers, The Girls loses its import. Why tell this story, after all? I wanted more – more of Suzanne, more of Evie’s loss of objectivity and judgment. As written, it’s a beautifully told story without a lot of substance.

I listened to The Girls on audio, mostly, and it was one of the rare times where I thought the audiobook detracted from the experience of the book. The narration by Cady McClain was fine; it’s just that Cline’s writing – almost poetic at times – was easy to miss on audio. I found myself re-reading passages in print to make sure that I fully appreciated her imagery and descriptions. I’d recommend the print over the audio for this one.

Was The Girls worth a $2 million advance? I don’t think so. It’s good, but not that good.

 

THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Our January mother-daughter book club read was The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley. It’s an old-fashioned type of book about England during WWII that was published in 2015 and written by an American author who lives in Tennessee and .

The War That Saved My Life is about Ada, a girl born with a clubfoot to a monster of a mother in London. Because she cannot walk due to her deformed foot, her mother has kept her inside a small flat for her whole life, never providing her with crutches or even a pair of shoes. Ada spends her life watching kids out her window and waiting for her little brother Jamie to arrive home from school. Her mother is unspeakably cruel, depriving her of affection, food and stimulation, and occasionally locking her in a roach-infested cabinet under the sink for small transgressions.

When Jamie is given the opportunity to go to Kent in the English countryside to wait out the war, his mother decides to send him but keep Ada behind. Ada instead accompanies Jamie to the train and goes with him to Kent. They are passed over by all of the families who have agreed to take in evacuees, and end up at the home of Susan Smith, a single woman who keeps to herself. Under Susan’s care, Ada learns to live.

After cleaning up the kids and feeding them proper amounts of food, Susan slowly starts building up Ada’s confidence and teaching her about how to interact with the world. As the book progresses, their relationship deepens. Susan has her own demons – she has been ostracized by the town and disowned by her father, presumably because of her sexual preference – but she sees Ada for who she is: a bright girl who has been severely deprived through her life and who deserves respect and opportunity.

The tension ratchets up as the German bombs get closer to Kent and evacuated children begin returning to London. Will Ada and Jamie stay in Kent with Susan, or will their mom show up and lay claim to them?

I liked The War That Saved My Life a lot, as did the girls and moms in our book club. There was a lot to discuss about Ada and Jamie and how they responded to life with Susan. Were they likable? Sympathetic? Was there anything redeeming abut the mother? Would we have taken in evacuated children? How would we have responded to such a dramatic change in our lives?

I listened to half of The War That Saved My Life on audio and read the other half. I liked the narrator, who had a plucky British accent that made Ada seem perhaps a little happier than she really was. But it was a good production and I enjoyed the audio a lot. I needed to finish the book quickly so I chose to read the second half rather than listen to it.

Overall The War That Saved My Life was a good pick for book club and seemed to have been enjoyed by everyone. It’s a good piece of historical fiction for the middle grade set.

KITCHENS OF THE GREAT MIDWEST by J. Ryan Stradal

If you think you share my taste in books, based on reading this blog or knowing me in real life, then I highly recommend you check out J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest. I suspect that it will be one of the top two or three books I read in 2017. It’s that good.

Kitchens Of the Great Midwest follows the life and career of Eva Thorvald, a girl born in Minnesota to a chef with a very refined taste for ingredients and the preparation of food. The story is told through chapters that jump forward in time, and Eva is often just a bit player in those chapters. Stradal changes the focal character each chapter, though characters recur throughout the whole book. Each chapter also features a different ingredient – sweet pepper jelly or venison, for example – which is central to the plot of that chapter. And those ingredients also become a part of Eva’s life and her history. Eva evolves into becoming a world-renowned chef with a sought-after pop-up dinner party that ultimately costs $5,000 per person, and the book culminates in a dinner that incorporates each of the ingredients from the preceding chapters.

I didn’t expect to like Kitchens Of The Great Midwest as much as I did. I don’t generally like books with “quirky” characters or books that focus on food. I’m not much of a foodie. But I absolutely loved this book. Stradal is a beautiful writer with excellent pacing and an unexpected edginess that I adored. (“Since then, he seldom came to mind; she’d thought of him only when she’d made certain mistakes with men in her unmarried years, and the Napa Cabs and Central Coast Pinots he introduced her to had their sentimental associations smudged away after years of repeated exposure.”) Each character was beautifully fleshed out, even the ones who only showed up for one chapter. And if you’re from the Midwest, I think you’ll love this even more than I did.

The structure of the book may be unusual, but it worked beautifully here. I couldn’t wait to see who would show up next.

I listened to the first half of Kitchens of the Great Midwest on audio, and then I couldn’t resist and had to finish the rest in print (though I read it slowly and in limited bursts so as to draw it out). The audio was fantastic, with some chapters narrated by Michael Struhlbarg and some by Amy Ryan (you may remember her as Michael Scott’s girlfriend on “The Office”). I especially liked the narration in “Venison” – authentic accents and a lot of sympathy for the characters. I loved the audiobook and I loved the print.

What a treasure this book is.

WATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way

The first book I finished this year was Camilla Way’s Watching Edie, a suspense novel about two friends who reconnect twenty years after a tumultuous summer that destroyed their friendship and forever changed their lives.

9780735207363Edie, a thirty-three year-old woman living in London, is facing a pregnancy as a single mother with few friends or connections. When she’s at a vulnerable spot before the baby arrives, Heather, a friend from high school, appears at her door. Edie is shaken and upset: what is Heather doing there? Why, after all these years, has she reappeared in Edie’s life after the demise of their friendship? After Edie’s baby daughter is born, when she is at her most vulnerable and alone, Heather appears again, taking care of Edie and the baby as Edie slips into a deep post-partum depression. Edie eventually emerges from the depression and is shocked by the control Heather now has on her life. She ejects her from her apartment and manages to pull herself together.

Meanwhile, Way threads the women’s history through the narrative, flashing back to their high school years and teasing out what happened to cause their estrangement.

I find that reading thrillers like Watching Edie is like inhaling a bag of movie popcorn. It’s addictive and tastes good as you’re doing it, but in the end you feel empty and a little ill. I think Way is a good writer, and I got drawn into this story quickly and was quite sympathetic toward Edie. (Way’s depiction of PPD alone is chilling.) The last chapter, however, when you find out what happened between the two women, was disappointing. The big reveal, while quite upsetting, wasn’t the shock I was expecting. Everything ended very suddenly with the novel taking a sharp turn away from what came before.

There were also some details early in the book that didn’t make sense in retrospect, but I won’t address them here because I don’t want to spoil the story.

I listened to Watching Edie mostly on audio, and I thought the two narrators, Fiona Hardingham and Heather Wilds, did an excellent job. Their accents and voices were easy to distinguish and they really established the two women’s personalities well. I was so engrossed in the audiobook that I eventually picked up the print version and just finished it off so that I could get to the ending more quickly. (Popcorn.)

Not a bad start to the year of reading, but I think I am swearing off thrillers for a while.

 

 

First Book 2017

My first read of 2017 is one that I didn’t get to last year, despite being written by one of my favorite authors: Heat & Light by Jennifer Haigh. Check out Book Journey to see what other people are reading on this first day of 2017.

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