book review: a man called ove

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This book has a weird name. And all the chapters are entitled similarly, “A man called Ove and a brat who draws in color” or “A man called Ove and the bicycle that should have been left where bicycles are left” or “A man called Ove and the lanky one who couldn’t open a window without falling off a ladder.”

I hope this knowledge alone give you enough of the style of the book to make you want to read it. 11/10. Excellent.

Ove is old and wants to die in peace, having been forced abruptly into retirement following the death of his wife. He’s a perfect curmudgeon and accidentally makes friends with his new extremely pregnant Iranian neighbor Parvenah and her husband Patrick (who can’t open the window without falling off a ladder, as above) and their kids.

The book is marvelous. You get Ove’s life story, both the happy and the sad. There’s a wonderful romance unfolding as you learn how he met his beloved wife. You see him grow from a boy into this sad old man. Heartbreaking and heartwarming all at once. You will fall in love.

There’s a great deal of diversity in the book, but it’s natural. The author is Swedish and nothing about this book feels forced. Every sentence makes perfect sense with everything else you just read.

You get to see Ove fighting for the things he loves and see his change as they disappear, but you also watch the birth of a deeply meaningful connection. The neighborhood relationships in this book are a challenge to everyone who hides in their garage and pretends their neighbors are just background images. Everyone here comes alive with at least one story explaining who they are and why they have become this version of themselves.

Ove is simultaneously a hero and the thorn in someone’s side. He’s never a villain, but you may want to bop him good a few times. Shut up, crazy old man! (Don’t worry, Parvenah will take care of that.)

Oh, and funny. This book is HILARIOUS! So many wonderfully crafted sentences that just give you a laugh that starts at your toes. Highlights include a cat Ove refers to only as “the annoyance” and Ove punching a clown.



             

book review: all the missing girls

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Ever see the movie Memento? Well, no one in All the Missing Girls has lost the ability to convert short-term incidents to long-term memory BUT the book still plays backwards, each chapter detailing the day BEFORE the one you just read.

I loved this book. Didn't want to put it down. And while the beginning got my spidey-senses tingling, it was never gross or violent or terrifying. Despite the eeriness of the cover, the book stayed (from my perspective) firmly in the realm of excellent suspense thriller and never got close to horror.

Basically, this book is about how there’s no going back home to your small town once you move to the big city… especially if you left your small town following the disappearance and suspected murder of your best friend without saying goodbye to your first true love.

Highlight: The main character’s father is experiencing dementia, so just like his daughter, as the reader, you’re never sure if he’s just saying random things or if he’s offering relevant information about the disappearance(s). “My daughter is in danger.” “I saw the missing girl.” Oooh… has such an air of importance, but, also, might be nothing…

The story includes some flashbacks (‘memories,’ possibly a better description) of what happened ten years ago, but keeps your attention on trying to piece together what’s happening right now, since, as I said above, the story unfolds backwards. You know where we’re going but you don’t know how we GOT there unless you keep reading. It’s very interesting, and I only had to flip back in confusion once, which I think declares mad skills for the author.

Recommend.



             

book review: the alice network

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Instructions:

Write the locations of German gunnery emplacements on your petticoat. Record the transportation details of a high-ranking official and weave the paper in your hairpins. Get a job as a waitress and hide that you understand all three languages so you can listen in on the high-ranking patrons at your restaurant.

The Alice Network is historical fiction based in truth. This fast read with lots of girl power traces the contributions of a mostly female spy network aiding the Allies in WW1, particularly in Lille, France, during the German occupation.

Disclaimer: The women in the story are clearly expected to do the literal “whatever it takes” to get information, so there is a significant amount of trading sex for information. Not a G-rated read, but I don’t think there’s a war story that is?

This book flips chronologically between the early years of WW1 with a young female spy recruit named Eve (just joining the Alice Network) and a young woman named Charlie just AFTER WW2 who is trying to find a lost family member with the help of a much-older Eve. There is a lot of contrast drawn between Britain pre- and post-wars as well as France then vs. now — this just points to how much life has changed for Eve. The older version of this decorated spy has severely deformed hands, while the younger version does not. As the reader, much of the story centers around learning what happened to Eve, particularly why she refuses to accept her many commendations/awards from her home country.

A real historical figure, Louise de Bettignies, known as “the queen of spies” makes several appearances in the book. According to the note at the end of the novel, there’s a story of Louise getting through German checkpoints by sharing the same set of official papers with other women. Children were sent on a game of tag and as the various women (on each side of the border crossing) tried to stop their antics, the children passed the papers from one to the other. History tells us that Louise was finally arrested with another woman at one of these game-of-tag crossing attempts. While Louise died in an enemy prison, the other woman was released, deemed to be just a passer-by. Author Kate Quinn has decided to fictionalize this account by crafting a story where the other woman (Eve) is an active participant who continued the work after Louise was arrested. Honestly, with the shady history of espionage, I kind of like imagining that maybe the Germans only caught one of them!

Highlights: Learning that many of the discoveries made by the women in the book were, in fact, really discovered by female spies. The invasion of Verdun, as an example, was reported months before even though the intelligence higher-ups disregarded the warning. Also, “the queen of spies” is credited with saving the lives of more than 1,000 British soldiers. She was posthumously awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the Croix de guerre, the British Military Medal, and made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

#girlpower



             

book review: the dog stars

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When I was writing my first novel, my husband commented that I never took breaks from writing. Now, here I am, in between wrapping (the second draft of) my third novel and…well, whatever’s next—and I’m back to never taking breaks. From reading! I’m flying through books, and it’s entirely refreshing.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller was another recommendation from whatshouldireadnext.com.

Before we get into the review, I need to be clear that this book takes place in a violent, post-apocalyptic world and contains strong language. A lot. Like a lot, a lot. A lot. A lot. Also a significant amount of violence (including sexual violence). So huge disclaimer that this is not a leave-this-book-around-for-your-ten-year-old-to-pick-up kind of read.

That being said, I don’t mind post-apocalyptic reads (see Station Eleven) as long as they aren’t hopeless. I don’t enjoy hopeless books. The world can be almost as dreary, awful, and despicable as you want to make it as long as it offers me a fragment of hope (even if the heroes die). Although, (spoiler) the dog dies.

The Dog Stars opens nine years after a devastating flu wipes out most of the population and leaves most of the survivors with a blood disorder. The story is told first person (and, I might add with distractingly limited punctuation) and often out of order as “Hig” (the storyteller) goes about his daily life. It was difficult for me to get into the story as they are no quotation marks or dialogue tags (he said, I said) — but I’m glad I persevered. It was a really captivating read. A fascinating, well-articulated, creatively built world.

Hig is a widower, but everyone else has also lost everyone in the flu, so his grief feels… universal? Undeserved? He’s a pilot living with the exact friend you need in the post-apocalypse world: the guy who owns every kind of firearm and explosive known to man. No, actually, Hig is the better friend because they hole up at an airport, and he’s a pilot. Together, they form a “safety perimeter” of Hig’s flight plan and Bangley’s sniper rifle (and mortars) and live nine years killing anyone who enters their circle.

Oddly enough, Hig is also an angel of mercy to other survivors, delivering vegetables he grows, fixing solar panels. He has two very different but three-dimensional sides of his character. He relies on Bangley and appreciates how many times the total nut-job has saved his life, but he greatly resents the way killing is a way of life. He just wants to fish and misses his job as a writer for an outdoor magazine. He’s very much the everyman, the way I think Harrison Ford movies can make you believe his character is just the regular desk jockey who is suddenly over his head and has to adopt this entirely other way of existing.

Following the death of Hig’s best friend (his dog Jasper), he decides there’s got to be more than this and flies off, past his point of no return where he knows his avgas can’t get him “home.” He’s off to search for…something more, but he doesn’t know what.

The world is violent, and like I mentioned above, there is a lot of swearing. So much swearing. (But I felt it was authentic.) Hig is an interesting protagonist because he’s desperate to help people, and does when he can, but he’s also a killer who lets his dog eat the bodies of trespassers. It’s an interesting balance of shock and compassion and desperation and everything else.

Best scene in the book: Hig and another character see their own reflections in a mirror for the first time in nine years. Reading it, I wondered if I’d recognize myself, even under normal circumstances, let alone in a hostile environment that had stripped away so much of my humanity. Interesting thought as he stares, wondering who the angry, homeless old man is. Channels a little C.S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet when Ransom is confused by the figure of another human after living among the Sorns for so long.



             

book review: little fires everywhere

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This book was so emotional for me. It explores relationships between mothers and children, particularly asking the big question: What makes a mother?  Biology? More?

The writing in this book is riveting. Beautiful, particularly since one of the characters is a mixed media artist, and I feel like I always had a very clear picture of what she was creating.

Race is a huge theme in this book.  The author makes her own opinions vividly clear--there are no redeeming qualities in the older white characters who 'try' but always miss the mark when it comes to understanding. I get the feeling that the author believes she is presenting a hopeful view of the future by allowing the white youth to be more understanding, but it makes me sad to think that she looks at me as a lost cause. 

(I need to confess that I'm a white foster parent, so I know my opinions are going to be shaped by my own personal experience.  I don't know how to say too much about the book without some spoilers, so... fair warning. Limited spoilers ahead.)

There's definitely a huge push in this story to support the birth parent who "just made one bad decision." The book presents an extremely false narrative I've often heard pushed in TV and movies that sensationalize the DHS workers who are desperate to keep kids away from their birth parents. That. Doesn't. Happen. Even most parents who have physically assaulted their children are given supervised visitation. The entire system is set up to reunify families-of-origin, NOT to create new families through adoption. But I read on and allowed her to sensationalize this for the sake of the story, even though it presents a hugely false narrative of how the system functions.

The book's biggest failing is the HUGE HUGE HUGE straw man she writes as the foster/potential adoptive mom in this book. Almost pathetic. The author sets herself up with the most ridiculous softball. I mean, if you're going to write what is supposed to be a compelling 'which mother is better', let's not have the foster mom say things like "I guess I never noticed we had only white baby dolls" or pull out an old racist, 50's-era 'heirloom' children's book as her only reading material that featured faces that match the child's. Frown. Author, you could have at least let her try. Not all foster parents are clueless white people who would say their honest idea of cultural exposure is Chinese take-out. Absurd and you lose points for taking it way too easy on yourself. You could have actually made the battle worth watching.

The saddest scene in this book for me is the conversation between two characters immediately after one of them has elected to have an abortion. The line is, "Would you have been ready to be a good mother? The kind of mother you'd have wanted to be? The kind of mother a child deserves?" The heart-wrenching selfishness of this line chills me to my core, especially because the author clearly intends it to be empowering and cleansing. 

She continues, "You'll always be sad about this. But it doesn't mean you made the wrong choice. It's just something you have to carry." The selection of the word 'carry'... shivers

The best scene in this book is when the foster/would-be-adoptive mother was on the stand in Family Court. The author intersperses the lawyer's questions with flashing memories of caring for the child. You watch the foster mom become more and more unhinged, realizing that four nights of no sleep when baby had a fever isn't enough for the legal system to view her as the mom. With each question, she recalls something else sacrificial she has done for this child (while her birth mother was entirely absent) while she recognizes that it won't be enough to change their perspective. Her mind is filled with thoughts that seemed so clear: I'm the only mother this child has ever known... But it isn't enough, and the author makes it clear that she believes biology trumps anything else and that any mistake can be forgiven for a 'real' family member. 

Bottom Line: Riveting story and truly compelling characters, but sensationalizes the reality of the system and lobs a softball straw-man to make a statement.