Friday, December 29, 2023

Mini-Reviews: December 2023

I have been reading (some, at least), but I sure haven't been posting reviews! And this week totally got away from me when I got sick with norovirus just before Christmas - it took me out for five days! To make sure I get reviews posted in the year that I read the books, I'm going to bust out mini-reviews for the books I've read and haven't reviewed yet this year. 

Darling Girl: A Novel of Peter Pan
by Liz Michalski
352 pages
Published May 2022 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: discovered when the author commented on one of my Instagram posts

Publisher's Summary: 
Life is looking up for Holly Darling, granddaughter of Wendy—yes, that Wendy. That is, until she gets a call that her daughter, Eden, who has been in a coma for nearly a decade, has gone missing from the estate where she’s been long tucked away. And, worst of all, Holly knows who must be responsible: Peter Pan, who is not only very real, but very dangerous. Holly is desperate to find Eden and protect her son, Jack, from a terrible web of family secrets before she loses both her children. And yet she has no one to turn to—her mother, Jane, is the only other person in the world who knows that Peter is more than a story, but she refuses to accept that he is not the hero'she’s always imagined. 

Darling Girl brings all the magic of the classic Peter Pan story to the present, while also exploring the dark underpinnings of fairy tales, grief, aging, sacrifice, motherhood, and just how far we will go to protect those we love.

My Thoughts: 
It's not uncommon for an author to comment on an Instagram post, likely in search of finding a reader interested in taking a look at their work. I don't usually follow up but this time I did and was intrigued. By a coincidence, I also happened to be reading the next book at the same time. Two books inspired by classics, both where our perceptions from the classic are turned upside down. 

You'll have to accept a big of magic (but then you know that going in, of course), that you might never understand some of the "science," and that Eden was kept a secret from everyone for years. The sense of urgency I would have expected was somewhat missing. But I really enjoyed the way Michalski incorporated the key characters from the classic and picked up from that storyline to craft her own work. It was a good escape from heavy reads while also touching on heavy themes. I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for commenting on my post, Ms. Michalski, and introducing me to your novel!

The Fairytale Life of Dorothy Gale
by Virginia Kantra
384 pages
Published December 2023 by Penguin Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
Dorothy “Dee” Gale is searching for a place to belong. After their globe-trotting mother’s death, Dee and her sister Toni settled with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em in Kansas, where Dee attends graduate school. But when Dee’s relationship with a faculty member, a bestselling novelist, ends in heartbreak and humiliation, she’s caught in a tornado of negative publicity. Unable to face her colleagues—or her former lover—Dee applies to the writing program at Trinity College Dublin. Dee’s journey to Ireland leads her to new companions: seemingly brainless Sam Clery—who dropped out of college and now runs a newsagent’s shop—is charming and hot, in a dissolute, Irish poet kind of way; allegedly heartless Tim Woodman—who stiffly refused to take back his ex-fiancĂ©e—seems stuck in his past; and fiercely loyal Reeti Kaur, who longs for the courage to tell her parents she wants to teach underprivileged girls rather than work in the family business. 

In a year of opportunities and changes, love and loss, Dee is mentored by powerful women in the writing program, challenging her to see herself and her work with new eyes. With her friends, Dee finds the confidence to confront her biggest fears—including her intimidating graduate advisor, who may not be so wicked after all. Faced with a choice with far-reaching consequences, Dee must apply the lessons she’s learned along the way about making a family, finding a home...and recognizing the power that’s been inside her all along.

My Thoughts: 
This one takes the original classic and moves it into the twenty-first century. Dorothy is now "Dee"; sister Toni's nickname is "Toto." After they're orphaned, they move in with their aunt and uncle on a Kansas farm, where they're provided everything they need but never feel the warmth of love Dee craves. So when that tornado of bad publicity, instead of moving home, she travels to Ireland (Oz). There she meets her scarecrow, tin man, lion, Glenda, and a wicked witch. 

This being not just a retelling of The Wizard of Oz, but also a romance, you know that everything will end well. The fun is all in the getting there, in seeing each of the characters get what they want (or, in at least a couple of cases, what they deserve), in seeing the ways that Kantra works in so many parts of the classic while still telling a story that sounds contemporary. It was just what I needed when I read it - fun, an ending I wanted, and all of the familiarity I seemed to have craved. 

by Nathan Hill
Read by Ari Flakes
18 hours, 56 minutes
Published September 2023 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Publisher's Summary: 
When Jack and Elizabeth meet as college students in the gritty '90s Chicago art scene, the two quickly join forces and hold on tight, each eager to claim a place in the thriving underground scene with an appreciative kindred spirit. Fast-forward twenty years to suburban married life, and alongside the challenges of parenting, they encounter the often-baffling pursuits of health and happiness from polyamorous would-be suitors to home-renovation hysteria. For the first time, Jack and Elizabeth struggle to recognize each other, and the no-longer-youthful dreamers are forced to face their demons, from unfulfilled career ambitions to childhood memories of their own dysfunctional families. In the process, Jack and Elizabeth must undertake separate, personal excavations, or risk losing the best thing in their lives: each other.

My Thoughts: 
I'm seeing this one on lots of "best of 2023" lists and it was an Oprah's Book Club pick. And I get that there's a lot of meat to this one, a lot to think about, a lot to discuss. But it's so, so long and reading a book about a marriage falling apart was just not the thing I wanted to read when I was listening to this one. Maybe if I had read this one at a different time of year, instead of a time of year when I was trying to work so hard to keep in the spirit of the season, I would have enjoyed it more. Publisher's Weekly called this one Dickensian and it certainly did have that feel; things just kept getting worse and worse. It also says that this book never loses sight of its humanity; but, for me, it felt more like Hill was interested in getting his ideas out into the world. Hill asks the questions: do the narratives we craft give our lives meaning, do they harm us or do they help us? I don't know. What I do know was that I felt like both Jack and Elizabeth decided it was easier to give up because things didn't turn out easy and the way they expected. And I found that far too frustrating to enjoy the book.

All The Beauty In The World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me
by Patrick Bringley
240 pages
Published February 2023 by Simon and Schuster

Publisher's Summary:
Millions of people climb the grand marble staircase to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art every year. But only a select few have unrestricted access to every nook and cranny. They’re the guards who roam unobtrusively in dark blue suits, keeping a watchful eye on the two million square foot treasure house. 

Caught up in his glamorous fledgling career at The New Yorker, Patrick Bringley never thought he’d be one of them. Then his older brother was diagnosed with fatal cancer and he found himself needing to escape the mundane clamor of daily life. So he quit The New Yorker and sought solace in the most beautiful place he knew. To his surprise and the reader’s delight, this temporary refuge becomes Bringley’s home away from home for a decade. We follow him as he guards delicate treasures from Egypt to Rome, strolls the labyrinths beneath the galleries, wears out nine pairs of company shoes, and marvels at the beautiful works in his care. 

Bringley enters the museum as a ghost, silent and almost invisible, but soon finds his voice and his tribe: the artworks and their creators and the lively subculture of museum guards—a gorgeous mosaic of artists, musicians, blue-collar stalwarts, immigrants, cutups, and dreamers. As his bonds with his colleagues and the art grow, he comes to understand how fortunate he is to be walled off in this little world, and how much it resembles the best aspects of the larger world to which he gradually, gratefully returns. In the tradition of classic workplace memoirs like Lab Girl and Working Stiff, All The Beauty in the World is a surprising, inspiring portrait of a great museum, its hidden treasures, and the people who make it tick, by one of its most intimate observers.

My Thoughts: 
Now this one, at a relatively slim 240 pages, caught my interest immediately, and held it tight. Bringley does a lovely job of weaving together the circumstances of his life that brought him to the Met and how those circumstances made it the perfect job for him in that moment. 

Bringley has a tremendous appreciation of the works housed in the met and had me looking up works of art constantly. I have always regretted that the hubby and I had devoted so little time to the Met when we went there while in NYC on our honeymoon (seriously, I saw the Brooklyn Bridge, I could have skipped walking on it) and now I'm feeling like a trip to NYC just to spend a couple of days there might need to be scheduled. 

This is a lovely book filled with appreciation for the working people of the Met and the wonders displayed there. It's also a lovely book about how one man dealt with grief. I highly recommend this one. 

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Dead On Target: An Agatha Raisin Mystery by M. C. Beaton

Dead On Target: An Agatha Raisin Mystery
by M. C. Beaton and R. W. Green
256 pages
Published September 2023 by St. Martin's Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
A visit to the local village fete for a spot of fun and relaxation turns into a nightmare for Agatha Raisin when she discovers the body of the local landowner in the woods―with an arrow in his chest and trousers round his ankles. 

Agatha’s old adversary, Detective Chief Inspector Wilkes, declares the death a tragic accident, believing the victim has been hit by a stray arrow from an archery demonstration. Agatha is convinced of foul play, however, and is shocked when Wilkes eventually agrees...with her as his prime murder suspect. 

Determined to clear her name and find the real killer, Agatha launches her own investigation, quickly becoming involved with a family at war, an unscrupulous gangster―and a killer who is determined to make her the next victim...

My Thoughts: 
This is Beaton's 34th Agatha Raisin book - thirty fourth. I haven't paid any attention to how long she's been utilizing the services of another author (or if, in fact Green is the person who actually wrote this book, a la the way Agatha Christie novels continue to be written*). It's got to be getting hard to come up with new story ideas, new ways to kill people off and bury the mystery of who-done-it into a book. I've noticed in the past few books that more and more characters are being introduced into Agatha's circle, giving the author(s) more to play with. And, over time, there has started to be more of a softness to Agatha. Yes, she's still incredibly self-centered and absorbed in her appearance. But we're seeing more affection for those around her. 

As with any series (book or t.v.) that lasts any length of time at all, particularly those set in small town areas, it begins to stretch credulity that so many murders would occur in so small a place. Perhaps it's because the police, at some level, see so inept - maybe would-be murders have no fear of being caught? Perhaps it's because these particular areas seem to draw in people who can be murdered without much being missed. 

The beauty of the Agatha Raisin books is that you never have to have read the previous books to enjoy the book; but for those who have, it's always a pleasure to get to know the characters that much better. Will it win any awards? Not likely. Do these books always make for lively entertainment, the kind of thing that it's complete froth but also clears the mind after meatier reads. I enjoyed it, as I usually do, and I'm almost certain to pick up book #35 when it appears. 

*Yes, in fact, Beaton has selected Green to carry on writing Agatha's stories. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Day by Michael Cunningham

 by Michael Cunningham
288 pages
Published November 2023 by Random House Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary: 
April 5, 2019: In a cozy brownstone in Brooklyn, the veneer of domestic bliss is beginning to crack. Dan and Isabel, husband and wife, are slowly drifting apart—and both, it seems, are a little bit in love with Isabel’s younger brother, Robbie. Robbie, wayward soul of the family, who still lives in the attic loft; Robbie, who, trying to get over his most recent boyfriend, is living vicariously through a glamorous avatar online; Robbie, who now has to move out of the house—and whose departure threatens to break the family apart. And then there is Nathan, age ten, taking his first uncertain steps toward independence, while his sister, Violet, five, does her best not to notice the growing rift between her parents. 

April 5, 2020: As the world goes into lockdown, the cozy brownstone is starting to feel more like a prison. Violet is terrified of leaving the windows open, obsessed with keeping her family safe. Isabel and Dan communicate mostly in veiled sleights and frustrated sighs. And dear Robbie is stranded in Iceland, alone in a mountain cabin with nothing but his thoughts—and his secret Instagram life—for company. 

April 5, 2021: Emerging from the worst of the crisis, the family reckons with a new, very different reality—and with what they’ve learned, what they’ve lost, and how they might go on.

My Thoughts:
I've waited too long to do this book the justice it deserves, I'm sorry to say. I'm so very far behind on writing reviews so I'm afraid this is going to be short, as well as late in coming. 

Day is not the kind of book that's going to rock the world - it's meditative, intimate, focuses on issues many would rather not think about, often sad and frequently melancholy. It's a slow read, the kind where, even though we are moving forward in time, even though there is action and the pandemic to deal with, it feels much more character than action driven. Which, of course, makes it a novel for a smaller audience. 

It's that intimacy that allows us to really get to know each of the characters in this book, to explore their inner thoughts and emotions. To see them in ways they wouldn't necessarily be able to express for themselves, in ways most of us aren't able to articulate for ourselves. It's that intimacy that pulls us so far in that we have to remind ourselves that Day is touching on universal subjects - love, marriage, parenthood, family, obligations, dreams. 

I'm but one reader, a reader who often feels she's not up to the author's level of story telling, so my opinion won't matter all that much. But for what it's worth, here it is: I liked the writing, I grew attached to the characters, I was a little heartbroken in that last "chapter." But it wasn't a book I couldn't wait to get back to and it's a book that, in sitting down to write this review, I had to remind myself what the story was about; it hasn't stuck with me that way I expected it to stick. I think it has as much to do with the Dan's brother Garth's story taking up more space than I would have liked; Garth and the mother of his son were the two characters in the book that I struggled to care about. That's me, of course. Look at other reviews - anyone who writes them for a living seems to be more impressed overall. 

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Life: It Goes On - December 17

Happy Sunday and happy last day before Christmas weekend! Do you all still have as much to get done as I do? Every year I think I'll be more prepared and every year I'm wrong. Still need to get cards mailed, still need to wrap all of the presents, still need to make the Christmas goodies. But I'm trying to focus on the positive. The cards are in my house, ready to for envelopes to be addressed; the gifts are nearly all purchased and set out ready to wrap; the ingredients for the goodies and the Christmas meals are all in the house and ready to get made. AND I only have to work two days this week so I might even have some time to relax over the upcoming long weekend! 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I convinced a co-worker to read Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow and realized I'd never read the sequel so this week I started Children of God. Not to far into it yet but have listened to enough to remember why The Sparrow gutted me. 

Watched: The Voice, Miracle on 34th Street, football and our Husker women win their way to the national championship.

Read: Same as last week. I just can't seem to make myself sit down and actually pick up a book for more than a few minutes at a time. 

Made: The Big Guy has, once again, done all of the cooking. Sometimes that means he's actually cooked, sometimes it means he's popped some fish sticks into the oven and made a salad. Either way we've eaten and I didn't have to lift a finger except to clean up. 

Enjoyed: Last night we went out with two of BG's siblings and their spouses, partly for Christmas and partly to celebrate his sister's and her husband's 50th wedding anniversary. We drank Prosecco, shopped, went to an old favorite bar for drinks, and had dinner. I hit the jackpot when I married into BG's family.

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Today is all about wrapping gifts and getting cards ready to mail. Then I'm on to the Christmas goodies. Miss H texted me this morning to see what treats I was making this year, as though I don't make the same things every year. But now I'm thinking I might just throw in a couple of different things this year, if I have time. And then sending the leftovers home with the kids so BG and I aren't grazing on them for a week after Christmas! 

Thinking About: My dad is in a rehabilitation facility and won't get to leave for Christmas so I'm thinking about how we're going to do a Christmas dinner with him and make it feel as festive as possible. 

Feeling: Old. My hair stylist is on maternity leave and my grey is really showing. Mini-me turned 32 yesterday and Miss H reminded me the other day that she's almost 29. And can I possibly be this old and my brain doesn't register it?

Looking forward to: Miss H arrives Saturday, a day earlier than she was expecting to be able to make it and I'm so excited to be able to have a day with her to just hang out before we start the celebrating. 

Question of the week: What are some of your traditional holiday foods? 

Monday, December 11, 2023

Life: It Goes On - December 11

Happy Monday! The weekend got away from and today almost did as well. It's been an unusual week at Casa Shep. My brother was here all week to be the person spending time with my dad and watching out to make sure he was getting good care. He was super easy to have around and he and The Big Guy spent a lot of evenings away from the house so I had a lot of time to myself. Plus, he even made supper on Friday night. We were happy to have his pick up here because...

Mini-him is moving in with his girlfriend's apartment and has spent the past two weekends moving things there. And into our basement. They only plan to be at her place for a couple of months; and then will start looking for a bigger place so needed to keep much of what wouldn't fit now. Just when we had our house all to ourselves! I hope. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: Wellness by Nathan Hill and a lot of Christmas music. 

 Holiday Inn (how did I not remember that incredibly racist scene?!), Scrooged, and Hannah Waddingham: Home For Christmas all to help keep up my holiday spirits. Oh yeah, and the Nebraska volleyball team win their way to the NCAA Final Four! So impressed with this team!

Read: Helene Hanff's The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and Christy Lefteri's The Book of Fire. Next up is Patrick Bringley's All The Beauty In The World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me. 

Made: Once again this week BG did most of the cooking, with the except of the meal my brother made. I am, however, making a cheesecake for tomorrow night's book club holiday party. 

Enjoyed: Time with my brother, dessert and drinks with friends on Saturday (we've hung out together so long our tickets were identical!), and dinner with friends last night. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: Shopping will be finished this week, Christmas cards will get mailed, and packages will be shipped. 

Thinking About: Next up - Christmas goodies! 

Feeling: More relaxed than I did a week and a half ago. My dad is doing great, I had that break from caregiving, and things are in good shape around here. 

Looking forward to: My book club's holiday party tomorrow night and dinner with BG's sibs and their spouses this weekend. 

Question of the week: Do you still do Christmas cards? We have only received one so far this year. I still enjoy sending them and getting them. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Life: It Goes On - December 3

Happy Sunday! What a week it's been. I mentioned last week that my dad was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and leg last weekend. He was in the hospital until Wednesday, when he was transferred to a rehab facility, where he will be for a least the next month. I cannot say enough about the marvelous care he received while in the hospital, nor how relieved I was to have my siblings with me through last weekend. The three of us, and our spouses, are as one when it comes to getting through the tough times. 

Last Week I: 

Listened To: I started listening to The Measure by Nikki Erlick but it had to go back to the library long before I was able to finish it. So I've started Nathan Hill's Wellness. 

Watched: Football and volleyball, of course. Christmas viewing has commenced. Last weekend my sister and I watched White Christmas, the other night The Big Guy and I watched The Grinch (animated version - it's the best), and today I watched Love Actually while I decorated. 

Read: Still working on The Fairytale Life of Dorothy Gale. It's pretty much just the kind of read my mind needs right now. 

Made: Not a gosh darn thing. BG has been the best this week and made all of the meals; two nights, while my dad was still in the hospital, he even packaged up dinners and brought them to the hospital. 

Enjoyed: Decorating for Christmas. I pulled bins up one or two at a time this year, sorting them and getting rid of more than a bin's worth of stuff so far. You all know how much I love to declutter and reduce! I still have far too much and will likely get rid of more when I take things back down. Tonight, I'm enjoying the sparkle of lights all over my house. 

This Week I’m:  

Planning: On finishing up the decorating. 

Thinking About: What we can do to make my dad's stay in the rehab facility a little more homey and festive during his stay there. 

Feeling: Grateful - my brother has come up to help keep my dad company this week. 

Looking forward to: Working on my book club's reading list for 2024. 

Question of the week: Have you finished your decorating?