Siracusa by Delia Ephron

Cover Ephron Siracusa

I’m a long-time fan of both Ephrons, Nora and Delia…and I had heard (read, actually) good things about this book: good summer read, revelatory about marriage, secrets, deceit, etc. So I had pretty high expectations as I dove in o his one.

And it really is a great story, told from alternative POVs by four adults who travel together to Italy (including the place where all hell breaks loose, Siracusa) one summer. You know right from the beginning that something has gone horribly wrong on the trip, but it takes awhile to get there, and I kept wondering what the disaster was, and who was involved. The two couples, both married, are Michael and Lizzie from New York and Finn and Taylor from Portland, Maine. Two other characters who figure in to the events in Siracusa are Finn and Taylor’s 10-year-old daughter Snow, and Michael’s mistress Kath who shows up unexpectedly. Ephron does a great job presenting the alternating chapters following the same events from the varying perspectives, and her wit and insightful observations are great fun.

Michael (the man with the mistress) is a writer whose play won a Pulitzer 15 years ago, and who seems to have been trying to recapture some success ever since (he is now 37). He’s kind of a pig, and truly a liar, and apparently a real charmer because both Lizzie and Taylor think he is amazing…and then Snow falls under his spell as well (OK, a bit creepy for sure). Lizzie is also a writer who has not had much success, but the two of them are firmly entrenched in the Manhattan literary scene (which Ephron delights in skewering here and there). Michael has told Kath that he will be leaving Lizzie to be with her, and Kath believes him, so she breaks into his computer, steals his passwords and uses his miles to fly to Italy to surprise him. She is a hostess at a restaurant Michael and Lizzie frequent and, like very other female in the book, has fallen under his spell, believing every word.

Finn owns a restaurant and has a thing for a lobsterwoman back in Maine, although his real desire is for Lizzie, ever since they had a fling some years back. Taylor is basically an icy bitch whose world revolves around Snow, her beautiful daughter who suffers from “extreme shyness syndrome.” Taylor is a pretentious snob and – well, I just couldn’t find anything to like about her.

The two couples interact during various meals and outings and it gets clearer each day that Taylor and Lizzie can’t stand each other, and Finn isn’t fond of Michael, calling him out on his lies (including, finally, his affair). Tension builds as the seemingly inevitable volcanic eruption that will occur when Lizzie realizes who Kath is and why she is there…but then one afternoon, Kath and Snow disappear. The resolution to what happens after that is one of those things I can’t even hint at without ruining something, so just leave it at this: it’s a breezy read, but has a lot of thought-provoking commentary on marriage, honesty, parenting, and secrecy. I am not sure “like” is the right word to use for how I feel about it, but I do recommend it.

Thanks to NetGalley and Blue Rider Press for offering a free copy in exchange for my honest review. Unfortunately, the digital file was unreadable and, while I got a polite response to an email requesting a new file, I never got it…disappointing, but I don’t mind buying a book that entertains me as much as this one did. Four stars.

 

The Trespasser by Tana French

Cover French Trespasser

(#6, Dublin Murder Squad series)

Antoinette Conway, the (outwardly) tough detective fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books met in The Secret Place (2014) is back, still on the Murder squad, but just barely. And she isn’t too happy: “I want to go home, go for a run stick something in the microwave and fry my brain with shite telly, and then get some sleep before I have to do it all over again.”

She’s now partnered with Stephen Moran, which seems to be working: “At first I didn’t like him—everyone else did, and I don’t trust people who everyone likes, plus he smiled too much.” She not only doesn’t get along with the rest of the squad, there is a (harassment filled) campaign among the other detectives to get rid of her. The story opens as a case that looks like a classic lovers’ quarrel gone wrong is handed to Conway and Moran and (as Tana French does so well) events begin to unfold that reveal there is LOTS more going on than meets the eye. Conway and Moran need to figure out whether this is possibly related to the campaign to oust her.

I love the way French captures the atmosphere: when they investigate a scene, “…somewhere across the river there could be shoeprints waiting for us, or cigarette butts with DNA on them – but it’s freezing and damp, a fine haze haloing the lamps, the kind of damp that soaks in and settles till you feel like your bones are colder than the air around you.”

The case involves the murder of Aislinn (“Ash-lynn”) Murray, who was until recently a very sheltered young woman. She came out of her shell in a big way, transformed into a woman who made men obsessed – and it ended with her murder. Along the way, Conway’s view of Aislinn evolves: “Anyone who turns herself into Barbie because that’s the only way she feels worthwhile needs a kick up the hole, but someone who does it for a revenge mission deserves a few points for determination.” And Moran calls Conway out on her attitude and relationship with the Squad: “…you’re so set on going down in flames, you’d make it happen even if the entire force loved you to bits. You’ll light your own bloody self on fire if you have to. And then you can pat yourself on the back and tell yourself you knew it all along. Congratulations.”

The interrogation scenes are amazing, and I can’t help liking Conway despite her prickly exterior. I’ve been thinking about this book for a couple of weeks now, trying to figure out why I liked it less than French’s previous books. Another reviewer said, “the magic of previous installments is missing,” and while I have no idea what that means, it sounds right!

I still love Tana French, and will eagerly grab her next book, but this one gets four stars from me, along with thanks to NetGalley and Viking for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Cover Picoult Small Great Things

When I told a friend and former library co-worker that I liked Jodi Picoult’s books, she basically sniffed her disapproval – and our friendship was changed forever. I worked for several years  in public libraries and tried not to be judgmental of people’s reading preferences, or to let the fact that someone thought Danielle Steel wrote great literature to negatively impact my opinion of them. But really, I don’t get it. I know JP is writing for a mass market – and sometimes her resolutions might be just a bit too neat for snooty readers. But I’ll admit right up front, I am a sucker for a well-plotted story that makes me think about a social issue or two along the way.

Having said that, you might guess (correctly) that I was ecstatic to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of JP’s latest work Small Great Things in exchange for my honest review (thanks, NetGalley and Ballantine!). I deliberately didn’t read anything about it before diving in, and it’s hard to describe the impact this had on me. I really want to review it, but don’t want to spoil the story…and it is a GRIPPING story, for sure. What I really should do is just say “TRUST ME! YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!!” but that’s not exactly how this works, so I will provide a synopsis that won’t spoil anything, then remind you again YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK.

The protagonist of this, and the individual around whom the story swirls is Ruth Jefferson, an experienced (20+ years) labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital. The story is told from multiple perspectives, and when it begins, Ruth is just beginning a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The baby’s parents, who acted a bit squirmy when Ruth came on shift and relieved another nurse, are white supremacists and make it clear they refuse to allow Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, and (you can kind of see that something is coming) the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Here is the dilemma: does she assist the baby, going against her supervisor’s direct orders, following her instinctual desire (and training)?

Ruth ends up being charged with a crime, and is represented by a public defender, Kennedy McQuarrie, who insists that even mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. The story is incredibly timely, with the increasingly ugly rhetoric inspired by events and politicians in 2016, and Jodi Picoult uses her storytelling skills to make the reader consider issues surrounding race, prejudice, privilege and justice.

Trust me, YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. You will thank me!  It may be unsettling, but you will enjoy the story, and it will make you think (always a good thing!) Five stars.

 

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

COVER ARROWOOD.jpg

In her mid-20s, Arden Arrowood has inherited the family home on the banks of the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa, where she lived as a child. When she was just eight years old, she was in the front yard of the elegant home, watching her twin sisters, Violet and Tabitha, who were almost two years old. She turned her back for just a moment, and the girls disappeared They were presumed to have been kidnapped based on Arden’s recollection of something she saw.

Described as a “gothic mystery,” the story is captivating from the start, and the characters are vividly drawn. Arden’s mother, who remarried a religious guy, “played the part of a pastor’s wife with the convincing zeal of a prescandal of Tammy Faye Bakker.” The setting is important as well, and I loved McHugh’s description: “…the dismal towns where we’d drifted after Keokuk. I’d look out my window at scrub brush or empty fields or a parking lot and find nothing large enough or strong enough to anchor me. Nothing outside but miles between me and the river and home.” And “It appeared to be a trend in Keokuk, and maybe in all the other small, dying towns across the heartland: churches taking over abandoned retail space. Jobs trickled out and God seeped in to fill the void.”
At the time she inherits the house, Arden’s life has fallen apart: She can’t finish her master’s thesis, and she is miserable after a breakup. She has held on to the hope that her sisters are still alive, and she can’t she can’t seem to move forward until she finds them. When she arrives in town, she is welcomed back by her old neighbor and first love, Ben Ferris, whose family seems to know more about the Arrowoods’ secrets than she realized. With the help of a young amateur investigator, Arden tracks down the man who was the prime suspect in the kidnapping. She eventually finds out the devastating truth in a mysterious story that examines the ways in which memories impact our lives.
Although I wasn’t wild about the resolution or the ending, I enjoyed the experience of reading this, and will look for future work from Ms. McHugh. Recommended for anyone who likes mysteries or psychological thrillers. Four stars, and thanks to Spiegel & Grau and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

 

Good Sugar Bad Sugar by Allen Carr

Cover Carr Good Sugar Bad Sugar

OK, to start with, I am a hardcore sugar addict, and have been reading about my drug of choice for years, going back to Sugar Blues in the 80s, then on through Sugar Crush, Sugar Nation, Grain Brain, blah blah blah right up through Pure, White and Deadly. And yes, I admit I wanted someone to tell me how I could be like normal people who enjoy their sweet treats and then live life. Nope, that’s never been me: if I start dancing with sugar, I find myself obsessed, craving sweets, looking for excuses to go to the store for my next fix…in other words, this sounded like something I HAD to read.

Allen Carr is reputed to be a genius at helping people deal with addictions. His Easyway program (oooh, I loved the sound of THAT!) has helped tons of people in the U.K. quit smoking, quit drugs, lose weight, stop gambling, overcome fear of flying, etc. and he claims to have THE answer, a 90% success rate, and requires no willpower.

Sounded way too good to be true, but I felt open to listening to his answers. Seriously, almost every book I have read on the topic has given me SOME valuable insight. Well, no, I take that back…I remember reading Geneen Roth’s books back in the 80s and I loved the idea that my sugar thing was really a problem of me feeling that I would be deprived of sugar, so I did it. I ate everything sweet I wanted, all day long, and made sure my house had plenty of treats so there was no question of scarcity…and I did it for WEEKS. At the end, I had been sick as a dog but the craving never went away. I gained weight (big surprise), felt like crap, and never went to the place where I felt like I was secure in my ability to always find more. But that is how much I wanted to be different in my relationship with sweets. It never happened.

But maybe this Allen Carr guy had a new answer! His website seemed to promise something new: “Our approach focuses on why people continue to smoke, drink, take drugs, struggle with their weight or other addictions and fears, despite the obvious disadvantages. We aim to change how you feel about your issue so that getting free becomes easy, enjoyable and you do not miss anything.” I settled in to read.

I agree with him that “with BAD SUGAR there is no healthy level other than zero,” and that we are brainwashed from a young age to equate sugar and sweet treats with love and “see sugary foods as a treat.” To my dismay, I found that (according to his website) his “method works by unraveling the misconceptions that make people believe that they get some benefit from the very thing that’s harming them.” What, I wondered, did that even MEAN?

His answer to the issue of addiction is to “achieve a frame of mind whereby whenever you think about BAD SUGAR of a BAD SUGAR product you have a sense of freedom and relief that you don’t consume it anymore.” Carr’s own experience was as a smoker who had repeatedly tried to quit. But, as he explains it, “one day, a chance remark opened my eyes to the truth. I had gone to see a hypnotherapist…to find a cure and…a word the hypnotherapist used gave me the key. The word was “addiction.” It was like a lightbulb going off in my brain: I didn’t smoke because I wanted to I smoked because I was hooked. I knew there and then that I was cured.”

And that, my friends, was the point at which I wanted to throw my Kindle through the window. My thought was “Wow, this guy REALLY doesn’t get it!!” My opinion seems reinforced by his claim that the craving is 1 percent physical and 99 percent mental…and that the “actual physical withdrawal pangs from most drugs are actually extremely mild—almost imperceptible.” Seriously???

I dutifully read on, although IMHO, there are people who “get it” and those who don’t, and when it comes to sugar, he doesn’t. I am happy he found a way to quit smoking, and I am happy that so many people have benefitted from his workshops, courses, etc. as they have struggled with their addictions.

So, how many stars to give this book (provided to me by NetGalley and Arcturus in exchange for my honest review)? Good question! It does have wonderful information about the devastating effects of overconsumption of sugar, and it does have a positive tone and upbeat message (sort of “you can do it!!!”) so I figure those alone are worth three stars. But the actual worth of his “answer” to me, as a hardcore sugar addict, was minimal. (BTW, I am fully open to the idea that my own personal experiences are not the same as those of other sugar addicts, and I will be curious to read others’ opinions of the book and program. And I hope it provides five star answers for other people!)

Three reluctant stars.

 

Opening Up by Writing It Down by James Pennebaker and Joshua Smyth

 

Cover Pennebaker Opening Up by Writing down

I was somewhat familiar with Dr. Pennebaker’s work through his 2014 title Expressive Writing: Words That Heal, and as a lifelong journal keeper, his ideas have always resonated with me. So I was pleased to receive an advance copy of Opening Up by Writing It Down, Third Edition: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain from NetGalley and Guilford Publications in exchange for my honest review.

As I read it, I kept thinking I should check with my therapist to be sure she has this book – as it is packed with what might be considered technical/academic data. It actually wan’t until I go to the final chapter that I found what was, for me, the most helpful information. This chapter includes an overall summary and specific instructions for therapeutic writing exercises. Although some of the earlier chapters do include various exercises, my own preference is for writing exercises to be included at the end of corresponding so I can easily go back and find the exercises related to a particular topic. But, that’s just a personal preference.

Writing comes easily to me, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that making it a habit would be easily accomplished. As noted above, this concept isn’t new to me, so I was somewhat predisposed to like this! I plan to recommend it to people I KNOW are not writers, but who I think might benefit from reading this book. Overall, I gave Opening Up by Writing It Down a rating of 4 stars.
 

This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick

Cover Warnick This is Wehre You belong

Melody Warnick’s This Is Where You Belong came to my attention at a great time! It was at the start of another gorgeous summer on the Central California coast, at the beginning of the tourist invasion — and we started thinking about how nice it would be to not get stuck in traffic or feel we needed to plan our errands, appointments, etc. around rush hour (as in, telling my doc I couldn’t take a 4:00 appointment on an August Wednesday because driving the 5 miles from her office to my house would take an HOUR, so please give me the 9 am 2 weeks later). I had been looking at coastal towns for places with access to quality medical care, at least one good bookstore, good water, and at least a semblance of social tolerance…maybe we should move!! (Been here 30+ years)

As I began reading, I loved the author’s style: entertaining, open, filled with relatable thoughts about the feelings of insecurity when plunked down in a new environment (including new town, new job, new school, etc.) and appreciate how she is totally supportive of the reader’s qualms about relocating. I never really GOT why she and her family moved from Austin, TX to Blacksburg, VA, but I loved that after moving frequently she decided that rather than wait to see how it felt to live in a new place yet again, she would actively do things to make herself fall in love with Blacksburg. (Thinking “good luck with that, I have BEEN to Blacksburg”…)

Recent studies have found that PLACE is often more important than money – especially for millenials. In the 20th century, huge population shifts took place in the U.S. as people followed jobs and hope. It sounds like such a first-world problem, considering that most people in the world are struggling just to have a safe place to sleep, food to eat, and clean water, but that is our reality: for the most part, we have the luxury to pick up and go if we aren’t happy where we are. And considering that most people in the US move between 11 and 12 times in their lifetime, we are pretty much guaranteed to go through this change.

This book is filled with ideas on how to make yourself love where you live, focusing on getting out and meeting people and becoming actively involved. I think for someone who is struggling to feel happy in their chosen town or city, these would be useful. I kept imaging that I had just moved to a place I wasn’t crazy about, and trying some of her ideas. My fundamental conclusion for years has been that some people just are not that affected by their physical environment, but for those of us who are, no amount of involvement would make us truly happy in certain circumstances. OK, I admit, I am highly affected by the WHERE that I live, but I just don’t think I could ever be happy in a place that has weather extremes, giant bugs, or no bookstores (or lots of Republicans, but that’s another story).

After reading this book, I haven’t changed my mind, but I realize lots of people are way more adaptable than I, and could really benefit by her upbeat suggestions. I appreciate NetGalley’s exchange of a review copy of this book, for my honest review. I’d recommend this for someone who is about to move or has just moved and is less than 100% ecstatic about it (for example, my friend is about to relocate from a small town in Vermont to a coastal community in Oregon and she cannot wait to escape summer heat and humidity along with “real winter”). For those of us lucky enough to truly love where we live (even with all the tourists in summer—just be grateful for the money they spend that helps our town year-round), it’s a fun read and does include ideas that would be helpful to anyone who wants to feel a bit more connected to their community.Four stars.