My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

25893709

I read Olive Kittridge and liked enough that I decided to try another by Elizabeth Strout and picked up My Name is Lucy Barton from the library.

I am really glad the book was as short as it was.  A rambling meandering mess of a book.  Lucy is an older adult looking back at a time when she was sick in the hospital for an extended period.  Then, she  was married with kids but her husband was  a wuss afraid of hospitals and she had been estranged from the rest of her family for years.  Her husband arranged for her mom to fly in and come see her in the big city in the hospital and they had this …totally non-bonding .. time.  They talked about everything, except the important stuff, about random people  you never meet or hear about again in the book.  The visit is so surreal, at one point I wondered if it really happened.  I thought perhaps she had a high fever in the hospital and hallucinated her mother being there.

This episode is spliced between Lucy’s current life as a writer and her childhood, which she remembers as abusive and poverty stricken.  The poverty is the truth.  The abuse seems pretty ordinary coming from a generation in which kids were pretty regularly told to go pick a switch from tree for a whipping.  Not that I am agreeing with it, I am just saying that it is not something extraordinary that the book was exploring.  It was just boring.  There was no big reveal. She never really reached any understanding of her mother or herself.  She didn’t resolve the conflict with her father.  There was no resolution or even understanding reached.  On top of that,  Lucy wasn’t even that likeable.   A disappointing read from an author that I hear great things about.

The Mark of Cain & Stonemouth

I read Long Lankin, the book that preceded The Mark of Cain and really enjoyed it so I  picked this one up when I saw it.  The Mark of Cain serves as both a prequel and a sequel, as it were, to Long Lankin.  It explains the history of Cain Lankin  from the point of view of the woman who loved him, Aphra, and then jumps to the events that take place after Long Lankin.   Cain and Aphra’s back story is so compelling that it makes the reader empathize with them even while realizing they are the villains in the end.

The transitions between points of view and time period is very clear and easy to follow.  I will say that I am glad I read Long Lankin first because the characters were familiar to me and that was helpful.  The writing is just excellent.  This is English folk horror at its finest.  Dripping, damp and earthy atmosphere riddled with references to ash groves, manikins, iron, witch bottles, runes, bone magic, and charms makes for a dark and moody read.  Highly recommended for horror fans.

Stonemouth is my second Iain Banks novel.  I read The Wasp Factory not long after his death and although I found it very well written I was really disturbed by all the animal cruelty in it.  Stonemouth is nothing like The Wasp Factory, in fact is difficult to believe it was written by the same  author.

In Stonemouth, a young man is returning home to a town that is rife with corruption ruled by two crime family clans.  He left home 5 years ago, escaped really, and now must return for the funeral of one of the heads of the clans.   He has made a huge success of his life after leaving this close knit community.  The crime families still seem to have their fingers in all the goings on everywhere.  He has since graduated art school and has been made partner in some type of architectural firm lighting buildings.

His visit home is causing him to reflect back  upon his life.  The woman he left behind.  The life, family, and friends he left behind. His art, which he is not really pursuing except in a very corporate manner, etc.  It is as though he is having this huge mid-life crisis, except he is 25, so I guess it is a quarter-life crisis.  I just didn’t feel that a young man who left home at 20 and has only been gone 5 years, five years that have been spent going to school and traveling the world, beginning his career; he just this minute made partner, would be all full of wistful reminiscing and regretful longing.  He seems pretty attached to the “toys” his success has brought him, his phone, his nice clothes, access to pretty young women,  etc.   He also seems very anxious to avoid the real thugs that prowl the roadways and pubs of his hometown.  I think this would have worked better, if he came back  20 years later or more.  Some of this would have been more believable at 40 or even older than at 25, especially given the ending of the book.

My  other issue really is that nothing really happens.  I don’t really care about the protagonist or his old girl friend and her sister and their thuggish family.  The events in the town are just not that interesting, even ones that should be, like the pool room scene. I have no doubt that Iain Banks is a talented writer, but this didn’t work for me.

The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson

491922  I had read about this book in a magazine and put it on my TBR list.  Unfortunately, this series is impacted by the whole “Translated Out of Order Syndrome” and it really did matter here.  There are references to happenings in the character’s lives that happened prior to the events in The Princess of Burundi, which is somewhat confusing.

I am usually a big fan of Nordic/Scandinavian fiction in general but I struggled with this book and it is not a long novel, under 300 pages.  It felt like a slog to get through and then the ending was just there in a rush and finished with no real denouement at all.  I don’t know whether my problems with this book are due to the translation or the writing.  I couldn’t really connect to the main character, Inspector Ann Lindell.  I did find the victim Little John and his brother’s dynamic interesting and actually his brother’s redemption arc was the best part of the book.  I don’t believe that I will read more in this series.

 

 

This Census-Taker & The F Word

The Census-Taker is my first China Mieville book, it is a novella and a contender for a Hugo award for best novella.  The book concerns a post-now world in which a young boy,  initially lives with his mother and father, on a hill above the town.  His mother is a reticient woman who cares for her garden and teaches him some reading and writing.  His father is a maker of keys, this is shown as the story unravels.  What also becomes clear is the sense of malice and perhaps magic and other-ness that his father exudes.  What is also clear is the willful blindness of the townsfolk  due to their desire for his skills.  The census taker, who also seems to be an “other”, finally arrives and the boy must choose to trust or not, to believe or not, to follow or be left.

The book excels at presenting the story from the point of view of the child.  A child’s understanding and confusion and fascination are all laid out here in a realistically child-like manner.  The voice is compelling, the story seems to be a cross between The Road (but not as dark) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (but not as fantastical).  It meets somewhere inbetween them.  An excellent read with themes about innocence lost, trust, sacrifice,  and loyalty.

The F Word here is not what you think, it is fat.  Apparently, there was a book prior to this one and perhaps if I would have read it I would have more understanding of the background of the characters.  As it was, I read this as a standalone.  This is a basic chick lit novel, attempting to elevate itself by including issues of self-image, the treatment of fat people, particularly women, bullying, infidelity, and women’s struggle to “have it all”.  – Spoiler Alert –

Basically, Olivia was once the fat girl, in high school.  She has grown up to now to be super-perfect girl, perfect husband, perfect home, perfect-car, friends, fitness, routine, and high-profile career as a celebrity publicist.  You get the picture.  When you are up that high, there is only one way to go.

She runs into a former crush from high school, the stereotypical “man who knew her when”, and it begins her downward trajectory.  Basically her entire life is a lie and it implodes.  High school jackass  crush swoops in and they dance off into the sunset together.  Yep.  So. many. problems.   The victim blaming.  The lack of true apology and acceptance of responsibility without any excuses.  The celebrity worship culture.  The “wise crone stereotype” updated to a women’s locker room shower scene.  (no, just no, get the eye bleach now)  The “the protagonist needs a man, God forbid she is alone and happy  at the end of the book…”   High school crush Ben Dunn (been done. get it. hee. hee.  wink wink, nudge, nudge.  I think my eyes rolled so hard they got stuck.)  is just not, well.  I’m just going to stop here.

 

Never Look Back & Death and the Oxford Box

Never Look Back is the first in a police procedural series featuring DI Lockyer and his team.  In this case, a serial killer targeting young women is the focus of DI Lockyer investigation.   DI Lockyer is also very much the focus of the novel in the sense that he is a fully fleshed out character and the reader feels his emotions and the conflicts he experiences.  He is a very “normal” man, not an alcoholic or a hopelessly damaged individual, just someone trying to his best to do his job and be there for his family.

The mystery is well done and intriguing with red herrings to keep you guessing.  The ending connects the cases and the characters up neatly.  The book was fast paced and kept me turning the pages.  I finished it in one sitting.  I will definitely read more in this series.

I came across Death and the Oxford Box by a somewhat circuitous route.  I was at the library book sale and found 3 books with Oxford in the title with references to Morse on the back cover so I threw them in by bag.  When I got home and researched them, I found they were books 5, 7, and 9 in a pretty long running series, which I had not heard of before.  Death and the Oxford Box is book 1 in this series and I checked it out of the library.   This is not a police procedural like Morse. However, it is set in Oxford.  The protagonist, Kate Ivory, is a novelist, who belongs to a running club.  Another member of the club is going through a somewhat nasty divorce in which the ownership of some enamel boxes, including the Oxford box, is in dispute.  Kate, the spurned wife, and the other members of the club develop a plan to steal the boxes and hide them.  At this point, I really began to wonder about the protagonist’s IQ.  The running club’s simple little theft is complicated by a murder and then Kate investigates to clear all their names.

I had a number of issues with this novel.  First, Kate Ivory, is supposedly an educated woman, a novelist, and upon hearing that a friend is having difficult issues with a divorce, doesn’t suggest getting a good lawyer.  No, instead she says:   “Let’s make a copy of his girlfriend’s apartment keys, enter her home when they are not there, take the items you say are yours, hide them, and then lie to the police about all of our whereabouts when it turns out that someone used our little plan to commit a murder.”

I cannot fathom anyone thinking this is a good idea.

I also did not get a good sense of place from the novel.  It was under 200 pages so perhaps there was not time to really develop much, but I would have liked to definitely get more of a sense of being in Oxford.  This could have been in Oxford, Mississippi except for some of the language.

All that being said, this series continues for about 15 books, so either I am completely off-base or it gets better as it goes along.  I will probably try at least one more in the series.

Himself by Jess Kidd

33023729

Himself is a magical realism novel with dark fairy tale and comic elements interwoven.  The book centers around Mahoney, an orphan who returns to Mulderrig, after receiving a letter telling him that it is the town of his birth.  His arrival stirs up the town, terrifying, angering and exciting the various residents depending upon their involvement in his arrival at the orphanage.

The magical elements are  spellbinding and  atmospheric.  The sense of isolation and other worldliness of the village and in its inhabitants comes through the pages clearly.  The murder mystery is cleverly done and the cast of characters provide ample possible suspects and motives to sift through.

An interesting take on a murder mystery with a magical realism twist.  Very enjoyable read!

The Children of Men & Sycamore

The Children of Men is a dystopian by PD James, who usually wrote mystery fiction.  This is definitely not a YA type of post-apocalyptic dystopian.  There is more of a quietness here.  This is a society winding down, at the end of its days.  Not going out with a bang, but more of a whimper.

The premise is that humans have stopped reproducing.  The last generation to be born was about 25 years ago.  Xan is the so-called, Warden of England, in reality an absolute ruler with his council.  The story is often told by Theo, Xan’s cousin, in flashbacks to his youth and diary entries.  Theo is approached by a group that rejects the rule of Xan and wants to reinstitute democracy, although their own agenda is rather muddled even among themselves.

The novel includes many christian references and themes starting with the title itself being lifted directly from the psalm,  “Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.”  Julian represents the Virgin Mary and a miracle birth.  Theo’s name is the Greek word for god.  The symbolism of water and baptism used throughout.  The character of Luke, both his name and the fact he is a priest.  The use of churches as meeting places and the name of the group as the five fishes are all part of openly pointing to the book as a Catholic allegory.

Beyond religion as a theme, there is the conflict between religion and science.  The idea is laid out in the beginning that science has failed to halt the death of man.  That scientists around the world have been unable to find an answer and continue to search to no avail.  PD James clearly wanted the message to be that somethings are beyond man’s control.

The other major theme explored here is the corruption of power or “absolute power corrupts absolutely”.   Xan and his council began at the will of the people and with each new dictate gained more power and became more and more oppressive.  There is also an idea of people being complicit in their own oppression.  Willingly trading freedoms, for comfort and pleasure.

I am not religious at all, but I enjoyed this book greatly.  I find it difficult to explain this dichotomy other than to say that PD James managed to  write  an obviously pro-faith book in a way that was not preachy and did not feel like a sermon at all.

I don’t really remember why I checked Sycamore out of the library.  I must have had a recommendation from somewhere.  This would be considered a mystery.  The novel follows two time lines, past and present.  In the past, Maud and her teen daughter, Jess, moved to Sycamore, a small town, and lived there until Jess inexplicably disappeared after some small town scandal.  In the present Laura, who just moved to town to recover from her divorce and make a new start, literally stumbles upon Jess’s remains.

There are quite a few characters that you meet in the past and in the present chapters both.  The main idea here is to explore how one person’s disappearance impacted multiple people in this small town for years.  It is as though they were in a state of stasis, waiting, even though they weren’t sure for what.  Then, Jess’s body is discovered and everyone wakes up and finally begins to move on.

The major themes explored here are grief, loss and regret.  All these were tied up with the death of Jess and the events immediately prior to it.  Also, I would suppose secrets, since many people didn’t reveal things they knew about the night of her disappearance.

There are some good ideas here and some good parts to this novel.  The characters of Jess, Maud and Roberto in particular are interesting and draw you into their stories.  Others characters just didn’t have enough time devoted to them in order to develop their stories.  I don’t know if the solution was to have fewer characters and develop them more fully or make the book longer.  I did really enjoy Jess’s story and finding out what happened to her.