I find myself ambivalent both about summer swim team and the hodge podge of novels I read poolside as I waited for my big kids to hurl themselves headlong into a the chlorinated fields of glory.
Once I figured out that a babysitter was non-negotiable for the epic, seven-hour-long meets, I had leisure to read here and there between events. I usually only had one book along, so wound up finishing a few books I would otherwise have jettisoned, but also finished several I enjoyed. And then, hodge-podgily, I threw in a couple of other fiction books I’ve been meaning to review.
The Shadow Land – I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Kostova’s writing. Her style is lovely without being obtrusive, and she always makes me desperate to travel to Eastern Europe. This novel is no exception, and now I want to go to Bulgaria. Aside from her noteworthy grasp of culture and ability to weave historical context into a story without sacrificing pacing, Kostova always structures her stories along the lines of a folk tale from the region she’s chosen for the setting. It’s not heavy-handed or YA-ish at all, just a faint but fascinating echo, as when you’re reading something written by someone who is very well-read. I love it.
Dark Matter – The published descriptions of this book make it sound fantastic, but, in reality, I found it only so-so. The writing was a little off, the pacing and plotting struggled, and the ending was only OK. Because I was so distracted by the writing problems, I didn’t enjoy the premise as much as I expected to. At times like these, I wish another writer could take over a premise and do right by it.
Uprooted – Uprooted won a lot of awards, so it surprised me that it was written in such a no-man’s land of genre and audience. That is to say, I found it too adult to be YA, yet too Princess Academy-ish to be an adult book, and not very satisfying overall. I had thought to pre-read this for Hannah, who likes fairy tale retellings, but there were too many adult themes. Oh well. It passed the time between relays.
A Wild Sheep Chase – Having loved Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I tried one of his novels. To sum it up, it’s super, super weird. I can’t even really add to that, because of the weirdness. I did keep reading in hopes that it would have a breakthrough moment, but, no, just weird. If not for swimming, I’d have bailed.
***Midnight Riot – Starred for excellence and high recommendation! Midnight Riot is like a combination of Harry Potter grown up plus a Connie Willis novel plus a detective story plus scifi plus set in London. So many wins in one tidy package. It was immensely entertaining, funny, and happily turns out to be part of a series, which I plan to continue. Thank you, Sheila, for your recommendation!
Where the Light Falls – I got a review copy for this book, thinking I would love it because it’s historical fiction set in the time of the French Revolution. Sadly, the writing was poor, the plot was derivative, and it suffered mightily in comparison to basically everything else I have read about that time period, both fiction and non-fiction. It was a struggle to continue past the first few pages, and it never got better. If you have not read ANYTHING else about the time period, and if you aren’t picky about anachronism and writing style, this book might be ok, but even so I think you could do better.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest – Friends raved about this book, and I think I might have liked it more had I read it all in one sitting. However, unlike many other novels this summer, I had this one by the rocking chair so only read it in snips and snaps while feeding Margaret. Perhaps because of that, I found it a bit tiresome. There was a gigantic cast of characters, most of whom flitted in for a chapter and then were cursorily drawn back into the pat ending. Without much chance to grow to like them or care, I was left thinking, “blah blah blah foodies, blah blah blah artisanal this and that, blah blah blah hipsters…” etc. I like foodies, artisanal people, and hipsters (ok, sometimes I make fun of the hipsters, especially if they have man-buns or if I catch them stomp dancing, but I still like them as people), but I didn’t wind up liking them much in this book. It was ok. Just not my thing.
The Mothers – I’m sorry that I missed the book club discussion of this book, because it was full of things to talk about. While the writing was excellent and the author was, for the most part, highly respectful of her characters, I didn’t wind up buying the way the novel ended.
First, though, the strengths. The book provides an exceptionally nuanced view of an African-American church community dealing with crises with, through, and in spite of each other. I think maybe troubled communities can deal with issues differently than congregations that are able to hide behind privilege, and so the choice of the church was a good window into the author’s main ideas. The theme of motherhood–how characters related to their mothers, were mothers or mother-like figures themselves, and how communities are shaped generationally through those relationships–was handled with depth and care, especially considering the fact that in America, black communities have to grapple with so many cultural and generational issues.
Depicting this through the lens of a faith community was an interesting choice and probably the best frame for the story, but ultimately the church was where the book broke down for me. I felt like the members of the congregation lacked authenticity. I thought about this a lot–because people of faith can and do commit terrible sins, make dreadful choices, and turn on each other, but I think the way they do that is a little bit different than how the author wrote it. I thought about whether that was because I’m from a different background, but concluded that what was missing was not some way of thinking particular to my race or class, but rather something characteristic of Christians I have known from all sorts of backgrounds all over the world. Ultimately, I think what was missing was a sense of hope and redemption even amidst horrible mistakes and terrible circumstances. It’s not that Christians do life neat and easy and wrapped up with a bow, but I think hope and redemption are the things that keep even troubled communities afloat–and perhaps are even more in evidence in those churches. That’s what I expected to see emerging at the end of the book, but instead there was only coldness, hypocrisy, hate, and viciousness. It was more like a caricature of what an unbeliever says about Christians than representative of actual people. It took otherwise well drawn characters and smashed them flat into two-dimensions. I was sorry the book ended that way, since as I mentioned the writing is otherwise so great. I will certainly look for other books by this author and will be interested to see how her style develops.
I would have loved to get book club feedback on my take. If you’ve read the book, let me know your thoughts. (And to caveat, please be aware that The Mothers deals with many difficult issues. Although they are written tastefully, if you’re coming from a background that makes you sensitive to violence and abuse, this may not be the book for you.)
What have been your favorite fiction reads of the summer so far?
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