We have EIGHT mini reviews for you this month, in a wide range of genres.
January brought some interesting books into our lives. Read our short reviews to see if you want to add one of these to your TBR. You'll find reviews for the award winner The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, the unexpected pleasure of Self Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, 5th Avenue, 5 a.m. by Sam Wassom, a little fantasy with The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, The Guardians by John Grisham, nonfiction The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, Elevator Pitch by Linwood Barclay, and a play by David Henry Hwang M.Butterfly.
The Friend, Sigrid Nunez
Genre: General Fiction
Award: National Book Award
Published 2018, 224 pages
Short, underwhelming, a spark of a twist. Written almost as literary essays about a woman's best friend who commits suicide and the aftermath of feelings as she deals with it. There are lots of literary references and talk of writers and their habits/reputations, etc. So, a book about books, in a way. After the death of her friend, the wife prevails upon her to take in the man's giant great dane and care for him. In her tiny apartment. Though not particularly sad, it is a story of grief and learning to live with a huge loss, as well as a huge new responsibility in caring for an aging dog that she didn't want. Mildly interesting, but not particularly engaging. The mild twist does put a new perspective on the story, but not enough to save it for me.
Self Portrait With Boy, Rachel Lyon
Genre: General Fiction
Published 2018, 376 pages
Recommended to me by a friend, this debut novel was an unexpected pleasure, and isn't that the fun of a new book/author? It appealed to me on several levels - the moral dilemma is intriguing (what would I do if.....?), the lonesome, loner main character was sad but intriguing, and the artistic backdrop and setting was interesting because of my own artistic endeavors.
This is the story of a woman photographer trying to make it in the art world and in frustration, she takes a series of selfies. One catches an unexpected event in the frame and her life is forever changed. The moral decisions about whether, when, how to share the image is a real one and handled well. I hate angst driven characters and Lyon managed to avoid that yet convey the continuing push and pull the character felt.
"You know, I said, since the medium was invented, photography has been undervalued, thought of as a second-rate art form. People tend not to understand the technique involved. We can see the artistry in an excellent painting, can see it in the brushstrokes. In a photograph, the artist's touch is more invisible. Part of it is also that the nature of the photograph is to exist in multiples. The value of a painting or a sculpture is higher because there is just one painting, one sculpture in the world. Dealers can sell it for all this money because it's one-of-a-kind. Because a photograph can be reproduced again and again its value is inherently lower."
Well written, smoothly flowing, well developed main characters, a recommended read - could be a good book club offering.
Fifth Avenue, 5 a.m., Sam Wasson
Published 2010, 231 pages
Since I don't remember seeing Breakfast at Tiffany's and know almost nothing about Audrey Hepburn, I don't remember what caught my eye about this book - it's been on my Kindle for 10 (!) years, so thought it was time to read it or dump it.
A short, quick read of only 230 pages, I finished it in a day - it was more interesting than I expected. I didn't know that the movie is based on a Truman Capote book, was directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini and was the debut of Moon River, written for the movie. The book actually opens with a brief history of Capote and how he viewed women and came to write the book.
Though ostensibly about Audrey Hepburn and the making of the movie, it is just as much about the changing views about women and sex in film. The more puritanical viewpoint of the 50s (Doris Day, Sandra Dee) was gradually evolving to the more realistic and evolved woman of the 60s. 'Breakfast' was one of the first in portraying that change.
Well researched and written, it was a pleasure to read and learn more about the Hollywood of the 50s and early 60s. I liked the behind the scenes scoop on making movies, making movie deals, and how the whole Hollywood machine works. Recommended for film buffs and readers who like memoirs or Hollywood history.
The Golem and the Jinni #1, Helene Wecker
Published 2013, 486 pages
This is a VERY different kind of story peopled with a golem (creature made of clay) and a jinni (creature made of 'fire' - had to look that one up). The first part of the book is about the creation of these two unlikely creatures from very different cultures. Then, they meet, become friends (or more?), try to hide or blend in with humans and adapt their real natures to fit into the immigrant society of early NYC. This is often a problem which makes for some entertaining drama. Adding a bit of danger to the whole story is the fact that there is someone intently searching for them - for nefarious purposes!
I really liked the details about the two creatures and defining their characters. The story moved well, the dialogue is energetic and entertaining, and I was engaged throughout. Recommended if you're looking for something different, like a little magic, or want a peek into the early immigrant story.
The Guardians, John Grisham
Genre: General Fiction, Mystery
Published 2019, 375 pages
Cullen Post, a lawyer and minister, forms The Guardians, an organization that works at freeing innocent people from prison.
Quincy, a young black man, was framed for the murder of a lawyer in a small town in Florida and sent to prison for life. Twenty-two years later The Guardians work at proving that he is innocent. It’s always tragic when an innocent person is sent to prison and somehow astonishing to believe that it can happen, so I liked the premise of this story. However, I did get confused at times. Grisham has a lot of characters and a lot of names to keep track of. Plus, at the beginning of the book he includes another case that’s being worked on simultaneously which introduces even more characters. You need to keep track of the convicted person, the lawyers, the police, the actual guilty party, the family members, the snitches, other suspects. It’s a lot. With so many characters to keep track of, the reading became a bit dry for me. Also some points were driven home repeatedly. So, a good book, not great.
If you find this topic interesting, you might want to read Grisham's The Innocent Man which is nonfiction and tells the devastating story of an innocent man convicted of murder and sent to prison and the efforts made to get him released. This is a better book, made even more so because it's actually true.
The Sun Does Shine: How I Found Life & Freedom on Death Row, Anthony Ray Hinton
Published 2018, 288 pages
Heartbreaking and heartfelt and incredibly amazing. Heartbreaking that a man spent 30 years on death row for murders he didn't commit. Heartfelt because this memoir tells of his darkest days and how he managed to pull himself out of depression and find hope.
Amazing because it's proof that, with a little help from friends, a person can accomplish big things. Hinton managed to make the mental adjustment to being in prison but not allowing prison to define him. He figured out how to mentally leave the prison and his grim life and place himself in the middle of his imagination. He found hope in the person of Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative who eventually helped him gain his release from prison.
Adversity doesn't even begin to describe this man's life - poor, black, uneducated, living at home with his mom, trying to make ends meet and have a life, he is accused, tried, and sentenced to death in Alabama even though he had an air tight alibi proving he could not have committed the murders. What is wrong with our justice system??? I found myself alternately appalled (at his continuing mistreatment) and enthralled (at his spirit). A strong read.
Elevator Pitch, Linwood Barclay
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Published 2019, 464 pages
Elevator Pitch is a terrific thriller that kept me guessing until the end when the who and why was revealed. Elevators in N.Y. are being sabotaged, killing innocent people and terrifying the residents of the city. Two detectives and a seasoned, say-it-like-it-is, journalist investigate. The Mayor bungles his way through one disaster after another.
I’m slightly claustrophobic and have never cared for riding in elevators so I found this statement to be reassuring: “Stats show that one in every twelve million elevator trips results in a mishap.”
As the elevator mishaps pile up, the city of New York is terrified and the authorities and Mayor struggle to figure out who is doing this and how to stop them.
“Nearly every TV channel-with the possible exceptions of those devoted to weather updates, cartoons, and repeats of The Big Bang Theory – was featuring nonstop talking heads offering plenty of opinions based on almost no information whatsoever. In that sense, it was pretty much like any other day.”
I’ve read most of Barclays' books and eagerly await new ones. This one didn’t disappoint.
M. Butterfly, David Henry Hwang
Genre: General Fiction, a Play
Published 1988, 93 pages
A perfect example of the value of joining the Read Harder challenge - I would NEVER choose a play on my own....wouldn't know where to start or why to read one. The Read Harder specification is a play by an AOC or queer author. Using the Goodreads forum for help, I found this one. (Cool book cover!)
I've only read one other play and it was also a Read Harder pick from a couple years ago. It wasn't particularly enjoyable. This one is better. As a retelling of Madame Butterfly, this has an interesting twist. The staging instructions for M. Butterfly (Monsieur Butterfly) specify where certain songs from Madame Butterfly should be played, making the connection very evident. It's loosely based on a brief news article the author saw about a man who had a 20 year affair with a Chinese woman that was revealed to be a man. So this version plays with the same idea of love and devotion as the original, but gender roles are explored. It's an interesting exploration of societal stereotypes of Asian women and how that feeds how white men treat them. The presentation of the main two characters is that sometimes they talk to each other and sometimes directly to the audience. That would probably be more effective in person. The Broadway play won awards and the reviews of the actual performance are excellent.