Friday, December 30, 2022

Mini-Reviews: People Person and Demon Copperhead

Honestly, both of these books deserve more than just a mini-review but here we are at the end of the year and I want to get the books I read in 2022 reviewed in 2022. Except for the two that I hope to finish before midnight on the 31st! 

People Person
by Candice Carty-Williams
Read by Danielle Vitalis
10 hours, 4 minutes
Published September 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press

Publisher's Summary: 
If you could choose your wouldn’t choose the Penningtons.

Dimple Pennington knows of her half siblings, but she doesn’t really know them. Five people who don’t have anything in common except for faint memories of being driven through Brixton in their dad’s gold jeep, and some pretty complex abandonment issues. Dimple has bigger things to think about.

She’s thirty, and her life isn’t really going anywhere. An aspiring lifestyle influencer with a terrible and wayward boyfriend, Dimple’s life has shrunk to the size of a phone screen. And despite a small but loyal following, she’s never felt more alone in her life. That is, until a dramatic event brings her half siblings Nikisha, Danny, Lizzie, and Prynce crashing back into her life. And when they’re all forced to reconnect with Cyril Pennington, the absent father they never really knew, things get even more complicated.

My Thoughts:
  • I'd previously read Carty-Williams' Queenie and was impressed with her unique voice and was eager to see what she'd do next. 
  • Carty-Williams ups her game, as far a unique goes, with this book. 
  • Those half siblings of Dimple's have three different mothers. Prior to the night Dimple kills her boyfriend, she's only ever met each of them once, when their father picked them all up so they could meet each other. But when she needed help, and had nowhere else to turn, Dimple knew she had to turn to family. These young people have all kinds of issues individually and as a family. 
  • Carty-Williams writes about people I don't normally find in books, broadening my world. If you've been around very long, you know I'm always looking for books that can do that. 
  • Danielle Vitalis does a terrific job and I highly recommend this book in audio.
Demon Copperhead
by Barbara Kingsolver
560 pages
Published October 2022 by HarperCollins Publishers

Publisher's Summary: 
Set in the mountains of southern Appalachia, Demon Copperhead is the story of a boy born to a teenaged single mother in a single-wide trailer, with no assets beyond his dead father’s good looks and copper-colored hair, a caustic wit, and a fierce talent for survival. Relayed in his own unsparing voice, Demon braves the modern perils of foster care, child labor, derelict schools, athletic success, addiction, disastrous loves, and crushing losses. Through all of it, he reckons with his own invisibility in a popular culture where even the superheroes have abandoned rural people in favor of cities.

Many generations ago, Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield from his experience as a survivor of institutional poverty and its damages to children in his society. Those problems have yet to be solved in ours. Dickens is not a prerequisite for readers of this novel, but he provided its inspiration. In transposing a Victorian epic novel to the contemporary American South, Barbara Kingsolver enlists Dickens’ anger and compassion, and above all, his faith in the transformative powers of a good story. Demon Copperhead speaks for a new generation of lost boys, and all those born into beautiful, cursed places they can’t imagine leaving behind.

My Thoughts: 
  • Barbara Kingsolver rewriting Charles Dickens? Yes, please.
  • It's been a long, long time since I read David Copperfield or watched any of the adaptations. Still, I had some recollection of the characters and plot and went in knowing that things were just going to keep getting worse and worse for young Demon. 
  • I appreciated that, while Kingsolver sets the book in an entirely different time and place, she keeps much of what makes Dickens' book so memorable, including many of the characters (although, thank God, she doesn't have nearly so many characters!). 
  • As bad as life was for David Copperfield, life is even worse for Demon, with fewer bright spots. It makes a very long book feel even longer. 
  • Like Dickens, Kingsolver writes about big issues in ways that educate and enlighten. And, here, feel a little bit guilty about the way I've always thought of poor mountain people.
  • Like Dickens, Kingsolver's books are often quite long and they frequently feel to me as though they could well be shorter without losing a thing. Here I got to the point where I start skimming and thinking "I get, he's an addict; the life of an addict is terrible." This coming from someone who believes that we don't paint that life nearly dark enough as general rule. 
  • Except for that last bit, this would have been a five-star read for me (assuming I gave stars out for books). Kingsolver brilliantly writes in voice that sound very believably like that of a bright young man of poor education, who has grown up in the impoverished mountains of southern Virginia. Her descriptions are vivid - I could easily visualize the squalor, the people, and, most vividly, the land that Demon so loved. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

Mercury Pictures Presents by Anthony Marra

Mercury Pictures Presents
by Anthony Marra
Read by Carlotta Brentan
14 hours
Published August 2022 by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
Like many before her, Maria Lagana has come to Hollywood to outrun her past. Born in Rome, where every Sunday her father took her to the cinema instead of church, Maria immigrates with her mother to Los Angeles after a childhood transgression leads to her father’s arrest.

Fifteen years later, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, Maria is an associate producer at Mercury Pictures, trying to keep her personal and professional lives from falling apart. Her mother won’t speak to her. Her boss, a man of many toupees, has been summoned to Washington by congressional investigators. Her boyfriend, a virtuoso Chinese American actor, can’t escape the studio’s narrow typecasting. And the studio itself, Maria’s only home in exile, teeters on the verge of bankruptcy.

Over the coming months, as the bright lights go dark across Los Angeles, Mercury Pictures becomes a nexus of European émigrés: modernist poets trying their luck as B-movie screenwriters, once-celebrated architects becoming scale-model miniaturists, and refugee actors finding work playing the very villains they fled. While the world descends into war, Maria rises through a maze of conflicting politics, divided loyalties, and jockeying ambitions. But when the arrival of a stranger from her father’s past threatens Maria’s carefully constructed facade, she must finally confront her father’s fate—and her own.

My Thoughts: 
Because I did what I so often did, I jumped into this one solely based on the title and author, without regard to the summary. So it wasn't what I expected or even what I thought I was getting in the beginning of the book. 

We begin thinking that this book is the story of the battle between two brothers (the creative force, Artie, and the money man, Ned) who own a studio that puts out B-movies and is in danger of going under. That storyline, as it turns out, is merely the scaffolding that the rest of the book will be built upon. The book, as it turns out, is the story (and backstory) of a group of immigrants whose lives intertwine with the studio. Maria, who came to the U.S. with her mother after her attorney father was sent to confino by Mussolini's government; Eddie Liu, who can't get a leading role until he can because he's allowed to play the bad guy in propaganda movies; Anna Weber, who lost everything when she refused to become the architect of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; and Vincent Cortese, photographer, who spends all of his life in the U.S. being someone other than who he had been in Italy. 

It's an epic work, that, through Marra's way of storytelling, spans both just a few years and decades, blending humor and darkness. The New York Times reviewer did seem to have an issue with this combination. But isn't that the way of life, that even in the darkest of times, there are things that are humorous? Through its cast, Marra is able to tell a number of stories of war, immigration, propaganda, and racism. There's a lot here to digest and I think it would make a great book for book clubs, in that regard. I did, maybe partly because I was listening (although Carlotta Brentan is very good), sometimes find myself lost as to where the story was and how things tied together. I didn't entirely ever find my way back from that. But even taken as individual stories, there was enough here to keep my interest; and, in the end, I really enjoyed this book and the way Marra ended it. 

Life: It Goes On - December 26

Happy day after Christmas! I hope this finds you all recovering happily from a weekend of family and festivities and none the worse for the weather, although I'm certain that impacted the holidays for many of you. We are both feeling very lazy today and happy to have the day to recover, even if the holiday was much less hectic than we've become accustomed to in the past decades. This was our first year of not celebrating Christmas at my mom's and dad's house and neither of my siblings or their families came (nor, of course, did my Alaskans) so we were a small group. But we still had most of the usual goodies and meals, my dad was with us all weekend, there were plenty of presents to open, we were lucky enough to have friends join us for dinner yesterday, and we got a two-hour FaceTime call with Mini-me and Ms. S. So while it wasn't what we've come to think of as normal, it was a good weekend. 

Last Week I: 
I bake the cookies and make the 
frosting - they create the 
Listened To: All of the Christmas music. 

Watched: Mostly Christmas shows, including White Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Carol (Muppet version and Patrick Stewart version), The Grinch Who Stole Christmas (the OG), ElfIt's A Wonderful Life, and Love Actually. I was disappointed not to have been able to find The Family Stone available and I also missed Rudolph. Of course, there was plenty of football thrown in there, as well. 

Read: I am finally going to finish Demon Copperhead today, after getting in very little reading this past week. 

Made: Bavarian mints, puppy chow, sugar cookies, chocolate peanut butter toffee, hash brown casserole, my great-grandma's beans and ham hocks, creamed peas, homemade ice cream, homemade chocolate sauce, taco soup, potato soup, cheese ball, egg casserole. I've been busy the past week! 

 Watching my family open and enjoy their gifts. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Christmas will come down this week. I'd do it today but there are other things that need to be done before I start that. I'm going to go through everything we have and get rid of the things we didn't use and things I'm just tired of putting out. After I got the house all decorated this year, I immediately began wishing I had not done so much. 

Thinking About: What my first book of 2023 and my word of the year will be for 2023. 

Feeling: Ready to get back on the healthier eating track. We've eaten so much delicious food the past couple of weeks but my stomach is saying that enough it enough. 

Looking forward to: A four-day weekend next weekend. 

Question of the week: Were you holidays impacted by the weather? 

Friday, December 23, 2022

Mini-Reviews: Lost and Found In Paris, The Last White Man, Confidence

Well, the year is quickly coming to a close and I'm so far behind on reviews that I'm going to have to resort to a few mini-reviews to get caught up. This week, three I've finished in the past couple of months, two hits, one near miss. 

Lost and Found In Paris
by Lian Dolan
Published April 2022 by William Morrow Company
320 pages

Publisher's Summary: 
Joan Blakely had an unconventional childhood: the daughter of a globe-trotting supermodel and a world-famous artist. Her artist father died on 9/11, and Joan--an art historian by training--has spent more than a decade maintaining his legacy. Life in the art world is beginning to wear on her--and then one fateful afternoon her husband drops a bombshell: he's fathered twins with another woman.

Furious but secretly pleased to have a reason to blow up her life, Joan impulsively decides to get out of town, booking a last-minute trip to Paris as an art courier: the person museums hire to fly valuable works of art to potential clients, discreetly stowed in their carry-on luggage. Sipping her champagne in business-class, she chats up her seatmate, Nate, a good-looking tech nerd who invites her to dinner in Paris. He doesn't know she's carrying drawings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

But after a romantic dinner and an even more romantic night together, Joan wakes up next to her new lover to discover the drawings gone. Even more shocking is what's been left in their place: a sketch from her father's journals, which she thought had been lost when he died on 9/11, and a poem that reads like a treasure hunt.

With Nate as a sidekick, Joan will follow the clues all over Paris--from its grand cathedrals to the romantic bistros to the twisty side streets of Monmarte--hoping to recover the lost art, and her own sense of adventure. What she finds is even better than she'd expected.

My Thoughts: 
Lian Dolan has never disappointed me yet and this one delivered exactly what I've come to expect from her, with the added twist of it being set outside of California. Dolan's books always give the reader what they want in the end of the book, a happy ending for our heroine without the completely neat and tidy finish that makes some books too saccharine. This book had more unexpected twists that usual, several things that I did not see coming which was nice. Dolan clearly knows her way around Paris and the art scene. Does it look like a romance novel? It does and it is, to an extent. But it's so much more than that, which Dolan's books always are. 

The Last White Man
by Mohsin Hamid
Published August 2022 by Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group
Read by Mohsin Hamid
3 Hours

Publisher's Summary: 
One morning, Anders wakes to find that his skin has turned dark, his reflection a stranger to him. At first he tells only Oona, an old friend, newly a lover. Soon, reports of similar occurrences surface across the land. Some see in the transformations the long-dreaded overturning of an established order, to be resisted to a bitter end. In many, like Anders's father and Oona's mother, a sense of profound loss wars with profound love. As the bond between Anders and Oona deepens, change takes on a different shading: a chance to see one another, face to face, anew.

My Thoughts:
I always read Mohsin Hamid's books because they always make me think, always make me think of the world in new ways. This one was no exception except that it didn't take me where I expected it to take me. I was looking for a bigger picture, rather than the relatively narrow scope of this book. My fault. I checked out the book without reading the summary and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read the summary (which, as you know, is the opposite of what I usually say). This was the first time I've listened to Hamid read his own book (and I've listened to him read three (four?) of his own books now) that I felt like a different narrator might have done a better job, given it more of the emotion that I felt was lacking. 

by Denise Mina
Published July 2022 by Mulholland Books
7 hours, 29 minutes
Read by Rona Morison and Jonathan Keeble

Publisher's Summary: 
Anna McDonald has made a terrible mistake. She has forced her blended family to vacation together. The weather is bad, her daughters are bored, and her ex-husband still insufferable. Oh, and Fin Cohen brought his latest girlfriend, too. So when news of a shocking kidnapping breaks, Anna and Fin do the responsible thing. They take off to solve the case.

Lisa Lee, a young YouTube star, has vanished after answering the door to what she thought was a pizza delivery. Police suspect her dad or the delivery guy, but in Lisa’s last known video she ventured into an abandoned chateau in France, where she uncovered a priceless artifact. Anna knows they must find this young woman before it’s too late. To do so, they need to track down that treasure, a casket that could hold answers to the greatest questions ever asked.

But Anna and Fin might have misunderstood the stakes of the game. Soon, they find themselves mixed up with some very dark characters, on another thrilling chase across Europe—and another race to save their own lives.

My Thoughts:
This is the second in the Anna and Fin series and, while I suppose you could read this as a standalone, I don't recommend it. We open with Anna and Fin on a trip with their makeshift family and how they came to be there together goes a long way with understanding why they bolt when the opportunity arises. 

Mina's plots are complex, surprisingly thought provoking (here we're made to think a lot about religion), and she shows readers just enough to make you think you'll see what's coming. You won't. I mean, we all know I won't see what's coming but I really don't think you will, either. 

Because of the front end set up of this one (and the fact that it is now listed as Anna and Fin #2), I'm already looking forward to the next installment in this series. 

Sunday, December 18, 2022

Life: It Goes On - December 18

Happy Sunday! This is your official notice that there is only one week left until Christmas Day. Yikes! Still so much left to do and those couple of days I took off before while likely be spent on getting things ready instead of relaxing and reading, as I had hoped. And here you were probably thinking that the lack of book reviews meant that I was busy doing all of the holiday things! 

Last Week I: 

 Listened To: My dad and three of his new friends put on a Christmas concert for their other friends and family. The best part? The huge smile on my dad's face the entire time!

 Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some!) at the Blue Barn Theater. So, so funny! The past couple of years we haven't done any Christmas events and it was so nice to get back to that and to laugh out loud. 

Read: Yeah, there's not much of that going on this past week. The library is wanting Demon Copperfield back but I still have 200 pages left. Maybe by next week.

Made: The Big Guy has taken over a lot of the cooking lately; he tends to get home earlier than I do this time of the year. But I did make a new chocolate cake recipe that's a definite "make again" and I'm already thinking of ways the recipe might be tweaked to add in some complementary flavors. 

Enjoyed: Book club with our annual book exchange Tuesday. Seeing my dad sing again, for the first time in decades. Dinner with old friends Friday night - so much good food (including that cake!), laughter, and fun playing a new-to-us card game. Going to the theater and dinner with friends last night. It was a good week! 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Wrapping, getting cards done and sent, getting food ready, and then enjoying time with our family. 

Thinking About: Every year about this time I try to think of what I could have done to make life less hectic this time of year. The decorating takes forever and I agonize over it; but, when it's done, I love it. The cards take time but I love keeping in touch with friends and family that way. I could cut back on gifts; but, like my mom and her mom, I love giving people gifts and watching them get opened. So, yeah, there's probably nothing that I'm giving up. 

Feeling: Remarkably chill. All of that fun and laughter this week has helped raise my spirits. 

Looking forward to: The food, the gift giving, and time with family. 

Question of the week: How do you celebrate the holidays?

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Life: It Goes On - December 11

Happy Sunday evening! I didn't even realize, until I got on to write this, that I hadn't written a review all last week...again. And there are reviews to be writing. Ugh! I wish I could say it's because I've been busily getting the house decorated...or Christmas cards sent...or holiday treats made. But I don't have any of those done. Although I am well on my way to finished with the decorating, at least. 

There are a few more vintage 
ornaments to be hung but this 
tree (thanks, Kim!) inspired my
living room decorating. 
Last Week I: 

 Listened To: Mercury Pictures Present by Anthony Marra, which was not at all what I was expecting. And, it what is now becoming typical, I won't get it finished before it has to go back. So it's got a hold on it again and I will wait. Meanwhile, this week I have no book to listen to so will listen to podcasts and Christmas music. 

Watched: A whole lot of episodes of The Crown. Struggling with getting used to the season 5 cast. 

Read:  Honestly, not much reading has been done this week, either. What HAVE I been doing this week????

Made: We've been making life easy for ourselves in the kitchen this week - BG picked up a rotisserie chicken, some croissants, and spring mix at Costco the beginning of the week and we've been eating some combination of those foods all week. 

Enjoyed: Despite not really looking forward to it all that much, I really enjoyed my work party Friday night. We did happy hour and dinner then went axe throwing. I was terrible at it and I still had fun and would do it again. Also a visit from my brother, who came up to spend time with my dad. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: See above - this week is all about getting the decorating and the shopping finished, cards and packages mailed, and presents wrapped. 

Thinking About: Again, see above. 

Feeling: Strangely calm, considering all I need to get finished in the next couple of weeks. I'm just really trying to focus on what truly needs to be done and not what I want to get done. So I'll finish the shopping for my Alaskan kids and get those packages in the mail by the end of the week. The rest of the things will just get done when they get done. Or they won't. 

Looking forward to: My book club's holiday party and book exchange. Oh darn, that reminds me that I need to get the prizes picked up!

Question of the week: How are your holiday preparations coming? Do you still send cards? 

Monday, December 5, 2022

Life: It Goes On - December 5

Happy Sunday-Monday (well, let's be honest, it's actually almost Tuesday)! Spent several days last week under the weather and this is most definitely not the time of year to fall behind on the to-do list. Have most of the bins up to decorate and, finally, figured out where to put the two new trees I have this year and how I want to decorate the top of the piano. I'm sure you're thinking to yourself that I spend entirely too much time thinking about how I'm going to decorate and should just do the same thing every year. And I would, if I had the same things every year. No. No I wouldn't. I like pondering what I'm going to do. I just don't want to put the lights and the bed garland on the trees. I would pay you to come to my house and do that for me!

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Mohsin Hamid's The Last White Man. Interesting premise, but not at all the way I thought it was going to play out. 

Watched: Lots of college football, basketball, and volleyball. 

Read: I'm finally back to Demon Copperhead, which is due back to the library soon. But which they are not getting back until they threaten to take my first born. And maybe not even then. 

Made: Not much cooking has been going on around here this week, with leftovers still on the menu. The Big Guy did make a really good turkey and rice soup that we ate for a couple of evenings. 

Enjoyed: Is it wrong to say I enjoyed TBG being under the weather, too? When he's down, he's content to stay at home and you know how much I love to do that. 

Lots of cat snuggles this 
week helped me feel 
This Week I’m:

Planning: I need to get Christmas decorating done before the weekend, I have to get Christmas cards put together and ordered, and I need to do some cleaning around here before company arrives this weekend. 

Thinking About: I found a button stash at my parents' house and, because there is so much extra time this time of the year, I'm thinking about doing a couple of craft projects using those buttons. We'll see what time allows. 

Feeling: Yesterday we went to Lincoln to work on my parents' home. It was a tough day, emotionally, and I was drained by the time I went to bed. As I lay there thinking about how hard it is to slowly say goodbye to the house, it occurred to me that I am so lucky that there are so many wonderful, wonderful memories in that house that make the saying goodbye so difficult. I am blessed to have 54 years worth of memories. 

Looking forward to: Seeing family this weekend.

Question of the week: Do you still send Christmas cards? 

Friday, December 2, 2022

Lucy By The Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy By The Sea
by Elizabeth Strout
304 Pages
Published September 2022 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley

Publisher's Summary: 
As a panicked world goes into lockdown, Lucy Barton is uprooted from her life in Manhattan and bundled away to a small town in Maine by her ex-husband and on-again, off-again friend, William. For the next several months, it’s just Lucy, William, and their complex past together in a little house nestled against the moody, swirling sea. 

Rich with empathy and emotion, Lucy by the Sea vividly captures the fear and struggles that come with isolation, as well as the hope, peace, and possibilities that those long, quiet days can inspire. At the heart of this story are the deep human connections that unite us even when we’re apart—the pain of a beloved daughter’s suffering, the emptiness that comes from the death of a loved one, the promise of a new friendship, and the comfort of an old, enduring love.

My Thoughts: 
“One proof of Elizabeth Strout’s greatness is the sleight of hand with which she injects sneaky subterranean power into seemingly transparent prose. Strout works in the realm of everyday speech, conjuring repetitions, gaps and awkwardness with plain language and forthright diction, yet at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight.”—The New York Times Book Review

If you've been around any time at all here, you already know that I'm a huge fan of Elizabeth Strout's work. I was introduced to her with Olive Kitteridge, thirteen years ago; and I've since read five more of her books between that one and this one. You wouldn't' have to have read those same six books before reading this one; but it does make reading it that much more fun, as Strout routinely references characters from previous books in her current books. Here the Burgess brothers(The Burgess Boys), Olive Kitteridge (also from Olive Again) and several other characters from those books reappear, as well as the characters from the three Lucy Barton books that proceeded this one. It's one of the things I so enjoy about Strout's books. It's like catching up with old friends when you come upon them in other books, old friends it is clear that Strout isn't ready to say goodbye to just yet. Rightly so - they are marvelous, nuanced, relatable characters. 

But what I most love about Strout's books is her completely unique writing style, a style that, as the quote above says, incorporates everyday speech, repetitions, gaps, awkwardness. There is nothing flowery about Strout's writing and yet it manages to paint every bit as vivid a picture of her characters and settings as books twice as long. 

Just when I thought that I was beginning to agree with Kirkus Reviews on the regular, I, once again, find myself completely disagreeing with them about this one. They called this book a "disappointment" and said Strout's voice was "positively worn out." To be fair, at this point we know these characters - that initial spark that readers feel when they find new characters they grow fond of is gone. Which feels a little bit like the point to me. 

William and Lucy have known each other for decades, they've been married and divorced and they're girls are grown adults. The spark of new love is gone. But there is a comfort, when they find themselves isolated together, with being with someone you know so well. Especially when there are, in fact, some new things to learn about that person. I learned new things about these characters in Lucy By The Sea, while being comforted by meeting these old friends again. There was nothing disappointing about this book for me.